A Wonderful Saxon Church at Strethall, Essex
I’ve always been fascinated by the simplicity and emotional power of early mediaeval architecture; in particular Romanesque and Saxon work. Yesterday I took Le Gringalet, my 1958 Francis-Barnett, on an 80 mile round trip to visit the ancient church at Strethall on the edge of Essex on the Icknield Way.
The church is isolated, now situated some distance from the nearest hamlet (although situated next to a farm); yet it is powerful in the landscape notwithstanding.
It appears to have a Saxon banded tower but appearances are deceptive; at close up it can be seen that the tower is held up by enormous metal straps which surround it – the reasons for which I will reveal later.
There’s something strange about the immediate landscape here. The church lies in a small plot, the shape and lie of which appear of great antiquity in their irregularity of form.
The churchyard is raised above the surrounding land to the south and, as you sit on a handy bench, your eye is drawn to a path which drops away down a vestigial hollow way towards the village in the distance. It is quite mystical.
But let us now study the church. It has some curious – and deceptive – features which are worthy of note and reflection.
It is, in the main, simple: a tower, a nave and a chancel (to which is accreted a smaller building to the north). Externally, it has been restored – most notably around the windows – but there is something about the nave which intrigues. Although it looks mediaeval, with “gothic” style windows, closer examination reveals Saxon long-and-short work at both sides of the western end, where it meets the tower. This is significant.
As we walk clockwise around the church, we observe that the tower – probably of 14th century build - is of plain construction, with later openings inserted. The north side of the nave gives a slight indication of herringbone work in some of the lower courses (you have to look hard to see this!) but is otherwise fairly plain. It is known from other sites (for example the hall at Corfe Castle in the county of Dorset) that herringbone work is associated with late Saxon/early Norman work.
Returning via the chancel to the south side, we observe a curious circular block high up in the wall (the reasons for which are unclear) before entering the porch. As we turn the handle, it is immediately apparent that the doorway is narrow, commonly associated with early churches, yet the shape is pointed (indicating later mediaeval).
But if we look closely we can observe more long-and-short work on either side of the door which has, at some point, been chamfered in the style of later architecture. This is most intriguing, indicating a renovation at some point in the middle ages rather than a demolition of an earlier building. We will encounter more of this inside.
The interior of the church is plain but possesses a number of significant features, some of which are not immediately obvious (such as some of the seating).
Chancel and Chancel Arch
The crowning glory of Strethall is the chancel arch, which dates back to the very beginnings of the church, thought to be at the dawn of the 11th Century around 1010.
It is quite likely, given the features shown in our exterior tour, that the nave at least (culminating in the chancel arch) is defined by its original Saxon foundations and may be substantially Saxon, at least up to shoulder height (if we use the church door as an indicator) but possibly higher (judging by the long-and-short quoins at the western end and of course by the chancel arch itself.
The arch is simple. It is round headed, like a Norman/Romanesque arch, but is plain, relieved only by a moulded label and some incised cross work on the imposts. We might imagine this arch once decorated with wall paintings and religious scenes, although nothing of that now remains.
Yet despite its simplicity, it is strangely beautiful and, possessing great antiquity, of significant religious power: how many priests have passed through that arch over the last 1000 years? What did they see? What did they know?
The chancel itself also contains other features of note, including a piscina to the south, a collection of plain mediaeval floor tiles and, in its northern wall, a recessed tomb to John Gardyner, Lord of the the Manor, who died in 1508.
There are also two interesting palimpsest brasses, including one of a priest. The roof is of 16th century work or possibly earlier, with sensitive modern oak tie beams inserted for stability.
The main interest in the nave is that we know from the chancel arch and from the exterior that its dimensions are of the original Saxon church and that much of the fabric (excluding the windows and roof) dates from this period. So here, you can stand as Saxon worshippers once stood a thousand years ago.
The roof itself dates from the fifteenth century (approximately) and there are some wonderfully-moulded tie beams in addition to corbel figures to enjoy.
Perhaps of intimate interest are two of the pews (against the northern wall nearest the tower). These are fifteenth century and look purpose built for where they currently stand.
Their diminutive size is immediately engaging; one can imagine farmers of the late middle ages huddled in these seats listening to the priest as the wind blew outside all those centuries ago.
The tower is late mediaeval; the listing places it as fifteenth century. However, there are three points worthy of note.
The bell loft (inaccessible to visitors) contains two bells dating back to the 14th century. It is thought that these may have been installed by Sir John Tiptoft in celebration of his survival of the Black Death. If these bells are original to the church, they imply that the tower may therefore be of 14th century origin. The survival of these bells is in itself remarkable; this may account for the iron straps which currently hold the tower together!
There is a small decorated recess in the west wall of the tower. This too looks of 14th century workmanship although its purpose is somewhat obscure.
Finally, of particular note is the font. This curious structure, of octagonal shape, was in fact originally square and had its corners and entire structure chamfered in the later middle ages. Beneath the bowl we can see four columnar legs which indicate that the font was most likely originally of 12th century date, being typical of fonts of that period. What is most interesting about this chamfering is that this method was also applied to the long-and-short work of the south doorway; possibly as a way of updating the aesthetics of the church when the newer roof was added along with the tower. Both the font and the doorway alterations are somewhat crude in execution.
The simplicity of early mediaeval architecture lends it a religious power perhaps far greater than the exquisite methodology of those exponents of the High Gothic period.
As an artist, I gain my greatest inspiration from the simplest of forms as strangely they can exhibit the strongest emotions of their original creators.
The very early nature of Strethall church, combined with its remote location and striking appearance in the landscape, for me makes it of great aesthetic value as a source of inspiration.
But right now I can’t decide whether to create a linocut of the entire church or simply use some of its reference cues in my other work. Looks like I may need another trip out on Le Gringalet to help me!
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