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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Greensted Church, Essex

The church is one of the oldest stave churches in Europe, and before I go into the detail, the atmosphere of the place is a must.

A quiet country lane just outside Ongar, leads you to the church, it lies just in front of a large house and is surrounded by about three other oldish houses, one a pretty little church lodge.
The church has dormer windows which is unusual for a start, it is quaint and very pretty, the white wooden tower gives a modern look to the little brick and wooden church behind it.

Peace pervades the small churchyard, crocuses in front of the doorway, and those marvellous timber staves are extraordinary. Dark black, and so finely fissured vertically that it is almost like a comb, but there the similarity stops, for there are elegant waving shapes as the lines move round old knots, or branches that were sawn off all those centuries ago. This is where the marvel comes in, you are touching wood grown in the Saxon age; the wood is hard, almost like stone, it has weathered the centuries and now stands rock hard against the elements.

But I said it was a pretty little church, and so it is, open the door and go inside, the first thing to strike is the darkness of the place, your eyes must grow accustomed to the wealth of detail inside.

The staves inner faces are inside, and everywhere there is wood, the high timbered and cross roof beams are ornamented with carved pictures in the triangulated intersections. The pews are closed and you must unlatch a small gate to sit on a seat; the stained glass is mediocre, but there are certain windows that have a lightness of touch in their execution.

For sale, and here the parishioners have been very generous in their bounty, there are pots of jam, marmalade, lemon curds and that new fangled delight red onion marmalade. Priced at about £2 a jar, they are quite reasonable and all have the name of the church on them.
Outside wandering round the bank and you will see the little triangle opening that appears in the stave, apparently this was the door, but I have'nt quite worked out its relationship to the rest of the church.

Outside towards the east, and the land slopes away from the church, and looking over the wall that bounds this side, are open fields with a public footpath going through. There is a pond to the right, which would probably have been the water source in Saxon times. Walk along the footpath, and the land to the left is landscaped for the large house with another pond for ducks, and there is a great cluster of snowdrops scattered under the trees with artless natural ease.

you have muddy shoes, a great bag of plastic carrier bags, is at the church entrance for putting over your shoes, rather spoiling the inital impression. But the day was beautiful, sunny and the Essex countryside a quiet mix of brown ploughed fields, and the green of pasture land. Woods there were aplenty, marching right up to the fields they curved in graceful lines, there soft browns and silvers etched in the sun, with a rich mush of golden brown litter underneath.

Information from the Church handbook; - The church is one of the oldest wooden churches in the world, and the oldest wooden building standing in Europe. The two earlier wooden buildings dating from the late 6th or 7th century, people have worshipped continuously here for 1300 years.
First church at Greensted; It was St.Cedd who probably inspired this little church, he began his work in 654 A.D. and probably the first church at Greensted (probably a clearing or space in the vast forest of which Hainault and Epping are the only remains). An archaeological dig in 1960 revealed the impression of two simple wooden buildings under the present chancel floor, these would have been the 6th or 7th century buildings. The logs had been held upright by simply dropping them into a trench, and it goes on to say that people would have gathered outside to listen to the celtic missionaries and priest. The dedication to St.Andrew suggests a Celtic Foundation.

The nave was added in about 1060 A.D. but the timbers seem to go back to 845 A.D. and since then there have been many more additions, stretching from the Norman piscina, to a Tudor window, the church tower could probably have been built in the 17th century and then of course the Victorian restoration which includes the dormer windows and porch.
St.Cedd's Church of 654;

Notes; It is interesting to see from the handbook that there is a great deal of interest in this 'stave' church from archaelogists and historians, and English Heritage is to fund some work on the church. The mind always falls back to the Norwegian staved churches and to one in particular with the beautiful carved doorway, but the Greensted church predates these, and is truly a Saxon building that has survived.
It is an 'original' very much like Stonehenge in its class, that wood and the shape of the old building with its building techniques is still there after a thousand years is a bit of a miracle.
To imagine this small wooden building, very cosy, for it is a great deal warmer inside a wooden church than our old stone churches, filled with people maybe, or originally perhaps a visiting monk or priest evangelising to the Saxons, who have only just recently settled in the area, the solitary monk living within the confines of the earliest building.

The thatched roof rustling with mice, the great forest stretched for miles around and the people working quietly in the clearing to build a life in this wilderness. So these heathen Saxon people would have heard the sound of the bell (or bangu) of the wandering monk, he would come through the trees, food would be offered, and then the great discussion about whose god would prevail, we know the inevitable truth about which god did win out in the end but this first 'church' would have been very unlike the churches we see today.

Photos courtesey of Littlestone.

More photographs here 

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