Monday, 6 July 2009

St Andrew, Greensted

This unassuming church, tucked away in the Essex countryside, is not just rustic and charming - although it is both of those - but is also historically very important. A closer look reveals that the nave walls are built of upright, halved wooden logs, making St Andrew's Europe’s oldest extant wooden building, and the oldest wooden church in the world - as well as Britain's only log church.

The history of the site dates back around 1300 years: the land of the East Saxons - now Essex - was evangelised By Saint Cedd in 654AD, who was based at nearby Bradwell on the Essex coast. Remains have been found under the present church of a wooden building dating from the late sixth or seventh century, which may have been a sanctuary used by those early missionaries. The dedication to St Andrew also suggests a Celtic foundation.

The present nave is rather later, and has recently been dated by dendrochronology to around 1060. It was originally dated to some 200 years earlier, but, even with this later date, its status as Europe’s oldest standing wooden building and the world’s oldest wooden church remains.

The original church was probably thatched, and without windows. The Normans built a chancel, although all that remains now are the footings and a pillar piscina. The present brick chancel was erected around 1500, and at the same time the handsome chancel arch inserted, and roofs rebuilt and tiled. The date of the tower is uncertain, but it may have been added in the 17th century - one of the bells is dated 1618. The east wall of the chancel was rebuilt in the Victorian period and the roof and walls also repaired.

An interesting piece of local history is that some of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, after they were pardoned, were settled in Greensted on their return, and one of them, James Brine, was married here in 1839.

The church now is set in a pretty country churchyard, full of yews and lichen-covered gravestones. The porch was built next 12th century Crusader tomb, and leads directly into the Saxon nave. This is incredibly dark inside, despite the insertion of dormer windows, and retains its box pews. The chancel is somewhat brighter, and whitewashed.

The church has some interesting fittings: the pulpit was donated in 1698 by London pewterer Alexander Cleeve, and in the chancel are the Norman piscina and a memorial to one Jone Wood, dated 1585. The eagle lectern is an impressive bit of Victoriana: most of the glass is also Victorian, save a small but well preserved piece of 15th century glass set in the quatrefoil window in the west wall.

The rear of the church has all sorts of items for sale to help fundraising, from the usual postcards and guides to a wide selection of country jams and other sweet treats.

Church Lane, Greensted, Essex, CM5 9LD

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