01 September 2016

A summer walk along a country
lane in Essex to an old church

A stroll through the Essex countryside in late summer … or was it early autumn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

It is another month before I preach at Harvest Thanksgiving Services. However, the harvest is already gathered in throughout East Anglia, and the fields and the farms are green and gold, where the harvest is complete, and brown where the autumn soil is already being turned over.

I travelled by bus through East Anglia yesterday [31 August 2016]. It was the end of the Church Year in the Orthodox Church calendar, and today marks the beginning of the New Year [1 September] marks the beginning of a new Church Year.

It seemed appropriate that the Cambridge summer conference organised in Sidney Sussex College by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies should come to an end with the end of the Orthodox Church year, and with a visit to the Monastery of Saint John the Evangelist in Tolleshunt Knights, bringing us through the East Anglian countryside as we move from summer into autumn, and into one cycle of life in the countryside into another.

The journey took us past Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford, through the countryside of Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, and then through pretty Essex towns and villages with names such as Braintree, Coggeshall and Tiptree, where many buildings have typical Essex weatherboarding and pargetting, and many pubs have Tudor-style black-and-white cladding.

The monastery at Tolleshunt Knights was built around the old rectory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford,2016)

Tolleshunt Knights is within the area of Maldon District Council, and borders villages with names such as Tiptree, Layer Marney, Salcott cum Virley, and Tolleshunt D’Arcy.

After the Romans were in this area, Boadicea sacked nearby Colchester in AD 61, but there is no evidence of any Roman presence here, apart from some traces of Roman tiles found when the railway was being built, and stories about some Roman paving being found in the 17th century near Barn Hall.

When the East Saxons established their kingdom in 527AD, some Saxon settlers under the leadership of Toll moved into the area, and he gave his name to places here, including Tollesbury and Tolleshunt.

After the arrival of the Normans, three neighbouring villages emerged with the name Tolleshunt. Tthe land around Tolleshunt D’Arcy was acquired by the D’Arcy family, Tolleshunt Major came to the Le Majeur family, and Tolleshunt Knights belonged to the Le Chevallier family – Chevalier being the Norman French for a knight. However, the name of Tolleshunt Knights may also indicate that the land once given belonged to the Knights Templar, who had considerable holdings in Essex.

Tiptree is known today because of the jam factory established in 1885 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The parish of Tolleshunt Knights originally extended from Salcott Creek to the Tiptree Cross Roads, where the Tiptree jam factory shop stands today. Tiptree is really a modern creation, growing up as an industrial village with the establishment of Wilkins Jam Factory in 1885.

The monastery is built around the former rectory in Tolleshunt Knights, and after lunch I went for a walk along Rectory Road, through the Essex countryside, and at the end of the road found myself at All Saints’ Church, the former parish church of Tolleshunt Knights.

All Saints’ Church, the former parish church of Tolleshunt Knights, is a mile or two from the present village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The church stands a good mile or two from the heart of the present village, which suggests the heart of the village shifted with changing farming practices over the centuries, or to escape the shifting coastal marshes to the south.

All Saints’ Church dates back to at least the 1140s and the reign of King Stephen, and there is no evidence of an earlier Saxon church. The earliest known parish priest was John of Foxley, who was presented to the lord of the manor, William le Chevallier, in 1244 by the Abbot of Saint Osyth.

The church had close links with the Augustinian Friars at Tiptree Priory from its foundation ca 1218 until its dissolution in 1525.

One of the tombs in the church is reputedly that of Sir John atte Lee, dated from 1380, and has connections with the legends of Robin Hood. The church was enlarged in the late 14th or early 15th century, enriched by the increasing affluence of the area from the wool trade.

However, by the 1920s, All Saints’ Church had fallen into disrepair. By the 1930s it was no longer in use as parishioners attended the newly-built Saint Luke’s Church in Tiptree. This was followed by the closure of Tolleshunt Knights Village School in 1935. Tolleshunt Knights gradually lost its other services, including the railway station, the post office, the village shop and its own local garage. Even the number of pubs in the village has been reduced from five or four to one.

Although funds were raised to repair the church in the late 1930s, with the outbreak of World War II this money was e donated to the Spitfire Fund in 1940.

All Saints’ Church was almost derelict by the early 1950s. The coup de grace was delivered by the great gale in 1953, which brought down a section of the roof. It was clear the restoration of the church was beyond the means of the local community.

In 1958, the Church of England agreed to sell All Saints’ to the Greek Orthodox Church. Since then it has been carefully restored as a chapel that is now attached to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist.

The church, which dates from the 12th century, has 15th and 19th century details, has walls of stone rubble, including indurated gravel conglomerate. These are mainly plastered, repaired with red brick, and with limestone dressings.

The nave walls date from the 12th century, the chancel was rebuilt in the 13th century, has a 19th century east window. The south porch, which dates from ca 1500, is timber-framed on red brick plinth in English bond. The roofs are of handmade red clay tiles.

The east wall is much repaired and buttressed with brick. There are no visible apertures in the north wall, although there was a north vestry in the 19th century.

The south wall has a 19th century doorway and part of a 19th century window, which is blocked on the inside.

The church was locked yesterday afternoon, and I could not get inside to see the 13th century piscine, the 15th century chancel arch.

The 15th century doorway has moulded jambs and a two-centred arch and label. The 15th century south doorway, with partly restored moulded jambs and a two-centred arch, has a moulded label with head-stops of two bishops, one of which is defaced.

The south porch dates from the 15th or early 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The south porch dates from the 15th or early 16th century, and was much restored in the 19th century. It retains base walls of early red brick in English bond, with l9th century stone copings. The roof is of crown-post construction, of which five of the six rafter couples, the cranked inner tie-beam and the short plain crown-post with two cranked braces, are original.

In 1768, the church had a timber belfry with two bells and a shingled spire. However, the bell dated 1575 has been stolen, and the other bell has been removed to safe-keeping in the monastery, which also keeps the now-broken font.

The graves in the old churchyard include local soldiers who died in both world wars.

The church and the churchyard are no longer living, but in the early afternoon three local people were enjoying the late August sunshine yesterday and were stretched out on the grass in the churchyard sun-bathing.

The blackberries are already ripening in the East Anglian sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Autumn is approaching though, and as I walked back to the monastery along Rectory Road, the blackberries were already ripening in the brambles along the side of the road. It was a taste of summer, and it was a taste of autumn, a memory or summer and a promise of autumn.

Memories of summer and promises of autumn in the Essex countryside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)