Treasured tales of Essex

PUBLISHED: 10:21 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 16:40 20 February 2013

Outside All Saints’ Church in Brightlingsea the Maritime Memorial celebrates the fishermen who would row locals across the Colne for an outing to St Osyth Stone on rare days off

Outside All Saints’ Church in Brightlingsea the Maritime Memorial celebrates the fishermen who would row locals across the Colne for an outing to St Osyth Stone on rare days off

When Carol Twinch set about trying to define a county, she found herself fascinated by the treasured tales of its villages. Here she shares her findings

Essentially Essex

TO THOSE of us who enjoy life in our county, it is well known that Essex is highly underrated. Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the county is its contrasts, from the industrial south-east border with London and the River Thames, to the intensive agriculture of the north, and the mysterious coastline along its jigsaw encounter with the North Sea.
But what helps to give Essex its distinct character is the overwhelming depth of national history it plays host to and the way that every village has a story to tell. Invariably, much of this antiquity is to be found in the chapels and churches of Essex, which are not by some standards grandiose, but they are diverse and beautiful almost without exception. Some are gloriously eccentric configurations and others almost quirky, with a fine array of timbered towers and shingled spires.

The county has, within its embrace, one of the oldest and most important ecclesiastical structures in English Christendom, St Andrews at Greensted juxta Ongar, probably the oldest surviving timber-built church in the world. There are also all kinds of idiosyncrasies to be found, not least the fake Norman wheel window in the east end of St Nicholas church in Castle Hedingham, which is one of only five such windows in England. During 19th century restoration it was discovered that one of the eight radiating shafts was wooden, not stone.

Gruesome tales
At Hadstock there is an 11th century door (thought to be one of the oldest in England). The story goes that a Danish invader committed sacrilege in the church and, as a warning to others, was flayed alive and his skin nailed to the door. During repairs to the door a piece of human skin was found which is now in Saffron Walden Museum.

Because of its diverse character, Essex is a popular venue for film companies. Many episodes of the television antiques series Lovejoy were filmed at Halstead and the BBC set an adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations at Cricksea Place Manor.
West Thurrock church was also used to film the funeral of Gareth (Simon Callow) in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). The church was declared redundant in 1977 and the nearby Procter and Gamble factory took responsibility for it and set about repairing years of damage caused by vandalism and neglect.
Along with myriad tales associated with the countys parishes are a number of epitaphs and inscriptions that commemorate historic people and events. Sometimes benefactors are mentioned by name but at High Laver there is a board which celebrates a man, whose name by some misfortune or neglect is now unknown.

A family affair
At Marks Hall, Mary Honeywood died in 1620, at 93 years of age, having lived under five different monarchs. The Honeywood Tablet, now at Coggeshall, records that Mary left 16 children, 144 grandchildren, 228 great-grandchildren and nine great-great-grandchildren 367 in all.

Someone else who is similarly commemorated is Anthony Childs at Ramsden Bellhouse, who died in 1725 aged 81. He had lived under eight rulers five kings, two queens and the Commonwealth Government just missing George II by two years.

The fact that the Essex seaboard is more than 350 miles long (and comprises eight percent of Englands coastline) inevitably means that monuments to those lost at sea are much in evidence. Among the most famous is a unique memorial to Brightlingsea parishioners who lost their lives at sea. At All Saints Church are found 213 Tiles of Tragedy set into the nave walls, a tradition started by a late 19th century vicar, the Revd Arthur Pertwee, who in stormy weather stood on the 94ft high church tower with a lantern to guide local fishermen to safety.

Among the sad memorials is often found a vein of humour, such as the tablet in Birdbrook church which records the tale of Martha Blewit who had nine husbands consecutively, and Robert Hogland of the same parish who was the husband of seven wives successively. Then there is the tale of Judith Eyre in St Mary the Virgin, Dedham. Judith died in 1747, aged only 35, in consequence of having accidentally swallowed a pin and was much lamented. It is said that the pin had been accidentally dropped into a Christmas pudding.

Get the book

Carol Twinchs book, Essential Essex, is a mix of historic and contemporary tales, together with a plethora of fascinating customs and curiosities, facts and figures from one of the most colourful and diverse counties in England. It is published by Breedon Books, priced 12.99.

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