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I’m always a little wary of claims to be “the oldest” this or that. There are probably at least a dozen pubs that are the oldest in Britain and, clearly, only one of them is. But the good folk at St Andrews, Greensted, Essex, claim theirs is the oldest wooden church in the world, as well as the oldest ‘stave built’ building in Europe. And, given their background, I reckon we can take their word for it, don’t you?
Firstly, irrespective of its age or unique value, let us say that this is a lovely little church. It is unassuming, exudes tranquillity and is totally unlike the traditional stone churches in various medieval styles you may be more used to seeing. Inside, under the wooden beams of its roof, it’s cool and a little dark. Amongst the burials in the closed churchyard is one believed to be of a 12th century crusader, possibly a bowman; he must have been a rather special man, or perhaps he had a bob or two, because he was given a fine, stone, tomb. Another grave, marked by the remains of a wooden cross, is that of a local 19th century innkeeper who allegedly died after arguing, it would appear unsuccessfully, with a scythe whilst drunk.
The nave of Greensted Church dates from around 1060 and is constructed from 51 oak logs, split lengthways and fitted vertically with the flat edge on the inside. At one time, the inner wall would have been plastered, but this was removed during Victorian renovation work. Astonishingly, the marks made by the tools used by the Saxon builders can be seen in the timber. The present chancel is Tudor, which was also when tiles replaced the earlier thatched roof and dormer windows were added to the nave, allowing a little more light in. It is reckoned that the tower, with its traditional local weatherboards, is 17th century – relatively youthful at a mere 400 or so years old. The Victorian renovation was considerable and the building was further strengthened in the 1990s.
So, people have been worshipping Christ here for a thousand years. It is mind-boggling to think about the guys that first built this simple church, chatting to one another in a Germanic language few of us would understand, working out how to put the structure together, breaking off for something to eat; a construction site ten centuries ago, before the Norman Conquest changed their world forever. I wonder if any of them fought at Hastings, or Stamford Bridge, the battle that preceded it? I wonder what they were like, what they talked about? Sport? Their wives? What they had in their lunch boxes?
The timber is of course older than the building, maybe a couple of hundred years. So the trees you are looking at were perhaps planted when the Danes were raiding Britain, when Alfred was King of Wessex, before England existed.
But why build a church on this spot? There is evidence of wooden buildings under the present chancel that date from the late 6th or early 7th century – 1400 years’ ago – and it is thought that these were an early Christian sanctuary. The East Saxons at that time would have worshipped their old gods – Thor, Woden and so on – often in sacred forest groves. Christianity was reintroduced into Kent after St Augustine arrived in Thanet on a mission from Rome in 597AD, but the word would not have spread that quickly – and probably not to Essex. Old ways die hard – and it is thought that the conversion of the East Saxons was begun by St Cedd, a Northumbrian priest in the Celtic tradition who arrived in this part of the world around 654AD. The church is dedicated to St Andrew – which, as the guide book points out, suggests a Celtic influence. Churches were often constructed on established pagan religious sites, on the basis that it was easier to persuade people to go to a place they were used to going to; maybe this was one of those – but that is mere speculation. ‘Greensted’ simply means ‘green place’ – perhaps a pasture in a forest clearing.
The church is also famous as a resting place for the body of St Edmund, on its way from London to be finally interred in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, in 1013. Edmund was King of East Anglia and was put to death by the Danes in 869AD for refusing to deny his Christian faith. He was flogged (scourged), shot full of arrows and beheaded. A 16th century painting showing his martyrdom was stolen from the church in January 2012. It was screwed to the wall and the thieves obviously knew what they were looking for; some avaricious, slimy, self-centred collector might be gazing at it greedily as you read this. Perhaps, when he dies, he’ll have the decency to give the church its property back.
A final snippet: some of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, farm labourers from Dorset sentenced to transportation to Australia in 1834 for the crime of forming a trade union and swearing a secret oath to help each other, ended up at Greensted when they returned from their trip overseas. One of them, James Brine, married Elizabeth Standfield, daughter of another, at Greensted Log Church in 1839. The entry in the marriage register can be seen in the church.
Anyroadup, make a trip to St Andrews Greensted if you can. You’ll find it not far from London, about 1 mile to the west of Chipping Ongar, signposted ‘Log Church’ off the A414. Junction 7 of the M11 is a good starting point.
It’s not a museum, of course; services are held every Sunday.
Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory listing for St Andrews, Greensted, and find other special churches while you’re there.