Traditionally a rural farming community, but now largely suburban (and a favourite location of footballer's wives), Chigwell was lauded by Charles Dickens in a
letter to his friend and biographer John Foster. He wrote Chigwell is: "the greatest place in the world... Such a delicious old inn opposite the church... such beautiful forest scenery... such an out
of the way rural place!". The delicious old inn he referred to is the 16th century King's Head whose name he changed to The Maypole when he made it as the central focus of his 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge.
Of all the inns with which Dickens's books abound there are none that plays so important a part in any of his stories as the Mayplole at Chigwell does in Barnaby Rudge. Other inns are just the scene of an incident or two, or are associated with certain characters or groups of characters; the Maypole is the actual pivot upon which the whole story revolves. It is associated in some way with every character that figures prominently in the narrative, and scene after scene is enacted either in it or nearby.
The story begins with a picturesque description of the old inn: "With its overhanging stories, drowsy little panes of glass, and front bulging out and projecting over the pathway, the old house looked as if it were nodding in its sleep..." And ends with a delightful pen-picture of young Joe Willet comfortably settled there with Dolly as his wife, and a happy family growing up around them.
Barnaby Rudge is one of Dickens' two historical novels (the other being A Tale of Two Cities) This powerful story is set against the anti-popery Gordon Riots of 1780 and features Lord George Gordon himself who appears in the course of the story and stays at the inn. The riots form the focal point for the novel and are its main concern, although as ever in Dickens there is a large cast of interesting characters: notably the hangman Dennis and the coquettish Dolly Varden.
Today the old King's Head is a Chef & Brewer dining pub. Despite the interior being opened up it still retains a Dickensian quality with low beams and open fires. There is also a surprisingly large garden (not visible from the road) where you can enjoy a drink or dine al fresco in the warmer weather.