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Greensted

Dedication : St Andrew    Simon Jenkins: **                                                         Principal Features :  Europe’s Oldest Wooden Walls; Beautiful Church

Those that know it will tell you that Essex is a county of strong contrasts. Here you will find sprawling suburbia, industrial blight and the most delightful rural beauty. Essex (and expecially its girls...!) are lampooned mercilessly and yet the village of Finchingfield is a claimant to England’s most beautiful village.

St Andrew’s Church in the village of Greensted-juxta-Ongar could make similar claims to be the prettiest church in England. It’s a strange mix of white clapper-board tower, timber walled nave (complete with dormer windows!) and mellow brick chancel. It should look a mess but instead it is simply beautiful. The different materials and textures create a beauty that is quintessentially English: it simply couldn’t exist in any other country.

Greensted, however, is not just a chocolate box building. Its walls are the oldest timber nave walls in Europe and date from AD1060.

It is believed that the first church was built here under the existing chancel floor sometime in the mid-c7. The nave we see today was added to this chancel in around 1060. The timbers are rounded on the outside but were flattened on the inside by use of an adze. There are marks on the inner walls that may well be scorch marks from oil lamps. Let’s be quite clear here: most of the timbers are original - they are over 1000 years old.

We know that the Normans made changes here but a pillar piscina is the onlyevidence. Greensted is believed to be on one of the shrines at which the martyred body of St Edmund was rested on its way to its final interment at  Bury (St Edmunds)  in 1013. Edmund, King of East Anglia, was killed by the Danes in 869 or 870. Whether he simply died in battle or, as the Church prefers to believe, he was martyred in the aftermath after refusing to renounce his faith we will never know. Strangely, however, the church is dedicated to St Andrew rather to St Edmund. 

The Tudor period, however, gave us most of the church that we see today. The chancel was rebuilt in brick and thatch. Dormer windows were placed both sides of the nave roof. How different this is from the clerestory that enhances the light of most of our churches, and how utterly charming! The porch was added at this time. There is debate about the age of the tower. One of the bells is inscribed with the date 1618 but there are claims that it is older.

Our friends the Victorians left their mark, of course. By the time of its restoration in 1837, however, Greensted was in a state of neglect. The most obvious change was the replacement of the Tudor dormer windows. The roof trusses were made more elaborate. It would be easy to criticise the restoration, but the timber nave walls were spared apart from when repairs were needed and we are left with a church of great beauty.

Left: The nave timbers can be more clearly seen in this photograph. The dormer windows are unusual and perhaps a little bizarre on a church, but the effect is undeniably visually pleasing. A more conventional solution to the lack of light might have involved loss of the nave walls! Right: There is a harmonious mixture of wood and white plasterwork that produces a pleasant interior.

Left:These are Victorian carvings. The severed head is of St Edmund whose corpse is guarded by a dog. Right: More royal motifs from the Victorian era.

Left: On the north side of the church, is the top of what was widely believed to be a leper’s squint, but which is much more likely to have been a holy water stoup, standing as it does adjacent to where a now-disappeared door was known to be. You can just see it on the left hand side of this picture on the line of the pews. Right: The stoup from the outside.

Left: The corner post (centre) at the north west of the nave is the only one that survives. It is a quarter- rather than half-section. Centre: The Norman (and very plain) pillar piscina. Right: Spot the Judas...! Simon Jenkins describes the chancel’s stained glass as “dreadful”. What constitutes “good” and “bad” stained glass is a mystery to me, but I am sure Mr Jenkins is right. To be honest, most Victorian glass looks pretty awful to me.

Left: The northern nave wall, with adze marks very obvious. Right: The martyrdom of St Edmund as shown in the “dreadful” Victorian glass! Actually, I don’t think this one is too bad.

Left: An unusual surviving wooden grave memorial. Poor Edward Edwards whose grave this is died in 1842 from an accident with a scythe when trying to win a drunken bet. Right: This gravestone is believed to be off a bowman who had been on a c12 crusade. It is easy to forget that amongst all the Templars, Hospitallers and other chivalrous figures woiuld have been many more poor forgotten  footsloggers such as this one.

Footnote

Diana and I love notices: they are so frequently full of bizarre spellings and egregious punctuation errors. So we really loved this one. We are not sure whether it is smouldering dogs that this applies to, or to ones with a bad nicotine habit, but in any event they’d better not be seen on leads....or else!