Place of worship
PUBLISHED: 15:12 14 April 2014
On the fringes of Ongar is not where you might expect to find the world’s oldest wooden church, but Greensted Church has just such a claim to fame. Lilly Floyd went on a pilgrimage
Ongar is most famous perhaps for being a leafy suburb within easy reach of the bright lights of the capital. But fewer people realise that on its fringes is the oldest wooden church in the world. St Andrew’s Greensted Church is located in the hamlet of Greensted-juxta-Ongar and represents around 1,300 years of English history and Christian worship.
Otherwise known as Greensted Church, it is made from 51 planks that create the wooden structure which has been dated back to 1060. However, excavations undertaken in the chancel in 1960 revealed the existence of two earlier timber structures which can be traced back to the 6th and 7th centuries − around the time St Cedd began his work converting the Saxons to Christianity.
Over many centuries Greensted Church has been a place of worship and has even seen martyrs and kings come through its doors to be laid in its grounds. Reverend Andrei Petrine, the current rector, has been with St Andrew’s Greensted Church for more than five years and believes it’s an enormous privilege, as well as a responsibility, to serve at the oldest wooden church in the world. Andrei says: ‘It is an incredibly beautiful building with lovely surroundings and all those years of tradition mean a lot to me.’
Andrei adds: ‘We have at least 13 centuries of worship and history in this church, but we look after the congregation. This is not just a museum. Nevertheless, we get a lot of visitors from all over the world, who are keen to see the attraction themselves and are very interested to learn the history.’
In 1837, as a result of a public outcry against their harsh sentence of transportation to Australia, the famous Dorset farmers known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs were returned to England where they were given tenancies in Greensted and High Laver. Also, in 1839, one of the Dorset farmers, James Brine, married Elizabeth Standfield, the daughter of a martyr, at Greensted Church.
The church also boasts the oldest ‘stave built’ timber building in Europe and includes many features from different architectural periods. In the 15th century the first significant addition was made to the split oak-plank structure with the construction of the brick-built chancel and in the 17th century the most distinctive addition was created with the completion of the tower that accommodates the church bells.
The church shows the work of Saxon, Norman, Tudor and Victorian builders who variously extended, repaired and restored the building over the centuries. In 1848-49 the church underwent severe restoration works and in 1990, work was undertaken to stabilise the church as it stands today. However, the church remains as strong as ever and in 2005 the spire was completely re-shingled in oak.
Peter Coffey, has been the treasurer for the church for many years and explains that even though it is known as the oldest wooden church in the world, in practice his desire would be that there was more ancient wood in its structure.
He explains: ‘While this oak is as hard as iron, we share the modern preoccupation of all church committees in trying to raise funds as the more modern fabric falls apart. At the other end of the church, the walls of the chancel have steel bands inserted to bind the whole structure together. Under the floor all the electrics have just been checked and renewed for the first time in as long as anyone cares to remember.’
Despite being of historical importance, the church still suffers from the same financial issues like many other ancient buildings in the UK. It openly relies on the generosity of visitors to make donations and to buy the goods on sale, which include anything from postcards to homemade jam. Any money made accounts for the majority of the church’s annual income.
Peter adds: ‘We had a wonderfully successful flower festival which was held back in 2012, but sadly it is impossible to use the church as a regular venue for public events, due to the complete lack of facilities. I blame the Saxons myself!’
The church is also a place of pilgrimage due to its connection with Saint Edmund, the King of East Anglia and England’s first patron saint who was martyred in 869AD and rested in the church in 1013 on his way to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. Sadly, a couple of years ago, the church’s medieval painting of the saint was stolen.
‘It was such a rare piece, and it was such a beautiful feature for the church, explains local resident, Brenda Hadsley, who has been attending Greensted Church with her husband Bert for more than 30 years. She continues: ‘When you came through the door it was immediately facing you, and one day we walked in and saw an empty space. It was a pricey feature, which was securely fastened to the wall, so it had to be planned and not stolen in a flash. It was such a shame, as it was part of the church’s heritage.’
Nevertheless, Brenda believes St Andrew’s is the most welcoming church she has ever visited and highly recommends anyone to come along. She adds: ‘As soon as you walk through the doors you feel the warmth, and that’s what we like.’
For more details about Greensted Church, visit www.greenstedchurch.org.uk