If I told you that the world’s oldest wooden church is not in a dusty part of Palestine or Ethiopia, but in the green fields of the UK, you might be surprised. Even more so if I pointed out that it is just outside London.
In the middle of the countryside, a short few miles outside the M25 sits this gem of British history.
Widely acknowledged as the oldest surviving wooden church in the world, and one of the oldest wooden structures of any sort in Europe, this is The Church of St Andrew, Greensted-juxta-Ongar and possibly one of the cutest little churches I have ever visited.
Despite being in the middle of nowhere, it is no Heritage relic, but a fully functioning church with weekly services, and when I visited, the grounds were being looked after by a husband and wife team planting new flowers by the doorway, and dealing with an inquisitive blogger asking questions about some carved oak leaves.
There are no buses that go past or near this church, so it was a matter of a brisk walk from Chipping Ongar along winding country roads dodging the occasional car and admiring the equally occasional mansion house along the route.
Unsurprisingly, the church is much altered from its mid-9th century origins, but enough of the early structures remain for the building to hold onto its title.
A young white tower dominates, and by this church’s standards is comparatively young at a mere 400 years old. The roof is a Tudor replacement and the brickwork around the Chancel is about 600 years old.
By the entrance, which on the opposite side from the original Saxon one, is the remains of a Crusader Knight. It is presumed that as a stone memorial at that time would have been very expensive, the knight was either very rich, or a local hero. More modern graves are of the conventional stone sort – although there is the lingering stump of a wooden grave marker by the entrance to the graveyard.
Quite a lot of reconstruction took place during the Victorian era, and while purists deplore the changes, they are not too onerous to my mind. Six windows instead of three for example. Gosh.
It is however the upright wooden planks that make this such a notable building – each being logs that have been split lengthwise and have been dated to around 1060. Probably originally covered in plaster, they were saved by the above mentioned Victorian restoration as the bases had rotted so they were cut short then raised up on brick.
Inside the gloom, once your eyes adjust, the ceiling is dominated by the oak roof beams that are from about the 1800s and are decorated with oak leave finials and there is decorative carving that is barely visible in the gloomy interior.
Six very small stained glass windows in the roof add to the effect by dropping multi-coloured delights into the gloom while the larger window at the altar end draws you closer down the aisle.
I was tempted to pick up some chutneys they sell there, but a small bag, a hot day and a long walk ahead suggested it wouldn’t have been a wise idea.
Although a small church, and of some considerable antiquity, that it not is sole claim to fame. In 1013, the body of St Edmund rested here for a night while being transported from London back to his shrine in Bury St Edmunds. Maybe that’s something that they’ll be commemorating next year?
It was however the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs that first alerted me to the church. They were early “trade unionists” at a time when such things were illegal and were transported to Australia. Later released, four of them returned to England, but unable to return to their Dorset homes, they were were granted farm tenancies in the area, and one was later married here.
The church was half way between two locations I was visiting so made an ideal spot to stop for a packed lunch on the graveyard benches.
Sitting there in the shade under the trees on a hot sunny day, birds twittering above and in the distance you could hear the chug-chug sound of a steam train on the reopened Epping-Ongar Railway.
I could have sat there all afternoon, but I had a steam train to catch. About that tomorrow.