Guest blog by Terry Ward
Many of us think we know what buildings there are of interest in our area and we’ve probably visited all the best-known ones. Then, when we encounter a new part of the country, we follow the hordes of tourists to the likes of Stonehenge or the Tower of London or the Roman baths or wherever screams loudest at us from the racks of gaudy tourist leaflets.
But, if we take the trouble to read up on some more detailed information or, better still, to talk to the locals or the experts, we can often be rewarded with finding somewhere really special which not everyone knows about.
One of my favourite lesser known gems is Greensted church in Essex – a building I was first taken to decades ago on a hike with the Boy Scouts, and even then it had an impact on me. This little church lies in a fairly remote and picturesque spot, just two miles outside the pleasant small town of Ongar. Who would imagine that here you would find the oldest wooden church in the world and one of the oldest wooden buildings of any kind in Europe? The simple split tree trunks which form the walls of one end of the church can be positively dated to about 1060 and the ruins beneath the present church suggest that an earlier church had been here from as far back as the 6th century.
There is nothing grand and imposing about this building, yet its simple dignity is unpretentious and awe-inspiring. There are a number of details which bear witness to key moments in its thousand year history:
- In 1013 the body of the Christian martyr, St Edmund, was rested here en route to its final burying place at Bury St Edmunds; a beautiful stained-glass window illustrates this.
- There is a lepers’ “squint-hole” where lepers (who were not allowed inside the church) would come to receive a blessing.
- Near the entrance to the church can be seen the final resting place of a twelfth-century crusader who is said to have arrived here badly wounded.
- The church has a bell inscribed “William Land made me in 1618” in its wooden tower, which was probably erected about this time.
- Alterations were made to the church in Tudor and Victorian times, as each generation tried to improve on the work of the previous one.
- In the nineteenth century, some of the Tolpuddle martyrs ( as a result of public outcry) returned to England from Australia, to where they had been transported as punishment for daring to form an early trade union. On their return they came to live in this parish and one of them, James Brine, was married in the church.
- In the churchyard there are war graves of soldiers from the First and Second World Wars.
- Everything you see in the church today testifies to the fact that this ancient building is still a place of worship and a focal point for a twenty-first century living, breathing community.
What you find in this small, quiet building is a thousand years of history bearing simple testimony to the continuity of a community. This is quite a special place for a number of reasons, as I’ve outlined above. But in one way it is not entirely unique: other special (maybe not quite so old) places can be found all over the United Kingdom, if you just take the trouble to seek them out.
Opening times for Greensted church can be found here: http://www.greenstedchurch.org.uk/visits.html
While you’re in the area, you might also be interested in visiting the Epping to Ongar steam railway: http://eorailway.co.uk