A 'church trainspotter' and proud of it!

HAVING published two books on East Anglian churches - his trips to the region sometimes involving camping in his vehicle for the odd night or two - David Stanford concedes he probably qualifies as a church “trainspotter”.

HAVING published two books on East Anglian churches - his trips to the region sometimes involving camping in his vehicle for the odd night or two - David Stanford concedes he probably qualifies as a church “trainspotter”.

But he's not going to let that bother him. In fact, he reckons it can only be good news.

His mission has involved looking at hundreds of places of worship in Suffolk and Essex. “I am amazed that I still find it hard to pass a lovely old church without wanting to take a peek,” he confesses.

“Maybe my fascination makes me a church trainspotter. So be it, because there are lots of us out there and, if each one of us can encourage others to become aware of the importance of these buildings to our heritage before many more disappear, then they will have a future as well as a past.”


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Essex might not immediately spring to mind as a destination for church-crawling in, he admits, but looking at them allows visitors to reflect on the important role these buildings have played in the history of England, and enjoy the wealth of art and anecdote connected to them.

“To bypass this county is to miss some of the uniquely moving experiences these often ancient places of worship have to offer,” David argues.

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Indeed, making Essex the second in his series of books was something of a labour of love. It had a “very special significance for me because after arriving in the United Kingdom from Australia I spent a part of my early life and teenage years living in that county, eventually studying painting at that Mecca of 1960s art schools, Walthamstow.

“During an all-too-short but glorious period it turned out the likes of (rock singer) Ian Dury . . . and (film director) Peter Greenaway. At that time Walthamstow was very definitely in Essex, and indeed has a very fine church of its own, but since it now lies in Greater London it was precluded from a place in this book.”

When David eventually went to the Royal College of Art, which meant moving into London, he often made weekend trips to the countryside to explore churches.

“On leaving the RCA, however, I switched from painting and became absorbed in my career as a fashion photographer and director of commercials, and for many years was too busy travelling the world on assignments to be able to indulge my other interests.”

He did a lot of work with the band Cream in the 1960s, for instance, and shot an early Elton John album cover - 1970's simply-titled Elton John, which featured Your Song and Border Song.

Most of his career over the next 25 years was devoted to fashion and beauty, his work appearing in virtually every fashion magazine in Europe, including Vogue.

TV commercial work included “everything from cars to sardines”, and he photographed the war in Israel.

“After 25 years of this I decided to give up my studio in central London and the frenetic life I led to seek a slower pace in Sussex, doing only those assignments I chose to, and it was then I rediscovered old churches.

“The first thing that grabbed me when I began this book was that the churches could hardly have been more different from those of Suffolk. I was amazed that, although the counties adjoin, there was little similarity to the approach to church building, the materials used, interior decoration or surviving contents.

“The next realisation was the sad fact that due to the expansion of urban living and the theft and vandalism that often follows in its wake, a large number of Essex churches were understandably locked. What is less understandable is that many of them did not even nominate a keyholder, which is a great pity and led to some very interesting buildings not being considered for inclusion in this book because access was not possible.

“Nowadays not even the most outlying parts of Essex are very far from busy city life, so when visiting any of the churches in this book it should be remembered that barely a hundred years ago some of these buildings were very remote. One should narrow one's eyes to imagine them as they were not so very long ago.”

Essex Churches is published by Frances Lincoln Limited at £14.99. ISBN 978-0-7112-2643-2

DAVID Stanford says his selection of nearly 60 churches is very much a personal choice: not a learned critique but one person's view. Here's a quick look at six he likes.

The Chapel of St Peter on the Wall, Bradwell on Sea:

The most ancient church in Essex, standing in a lonely spot on the marshes - well, excluding the presence of the nuclear power station further along the coast.

Built by St Cedd in 653, says David, it straddled the walls of the Roman fort of Othona, from which much of the masonry was taken. “King Sigebert, the Christianised king of the East Saxons, invited St Cedd to establish a mission on this spot and the church soon became a base for the spread of Christianity much further afield.”

At one time there was also a monastery, but this was destroyed by the Danes in the 9th Century. The chapel was the parish church until the middle of the 13th Century, despite being quite a long way from the village, and by Elizabethan times had become a chapel of rest.

“Eventually, by the seventeenth century, it had become a barn and remained one until 1920, when it was handed back to the diocese by a local farmer. Since then it has grown famous as a place of pilgrimage and Christian festival, and one would have to look far for a more peaceful setting and a structure that so willingly invited contemplation.”

St Michael and All Angels, Copford:

“One of the most remarkable Norman parish churches in the county, if not the country,” says David Stanford. Originally a 12th Century building “with a distinctly Romanesque flavour: a simple nave, chancel and apse. This core structure survives today, encased in the later additions that were systematically punched through the original walls”.

Copford Hall was the site of the ancient manor of the Bishops of London and it is probable the church was not built as a parish church but as the highly idiosyncratic private chapel of the bishop, he says. “The paintings, by far the most important church paintings in the county, cover most of the walls, giving a magnificent Byzantine visual effect. Whitewashed over in 1547 during the short puritanical reign of Edward VI, they were rediscovered in the nineteenth century and, although heavily restored in 1872 and again on several subsequent occasions, they are a glory.”

St John and St Giles, Great Easton, near Stansted;

Much of the original interior was lost in a restoration at the end of the 19th Century, says David, “but to be fair it was probably past being saved. Nevertheless, it was a great loss. Out went the original box pews, the choir stalls and a minstrel gallery and in came Victoriana.

“When it came to restoration the Victorians were often caught in a tricky position and faced with difficult decisions . . . They sometimes took a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“Externally the church is still lovely, but very little remains to be seen of the original interior . . . In the late nineteenth century the Countess of Warwick donated the east window, according to local gossip to end 'a slight misunderstanding' between the rector and herself, and in 1912 the fine carved reredos, colourfully painted with the twelve apostles, was installed.”

St John the Baptist, Little Maplestead, near Halstead:

The youngest of the five medieval round churches in England and the only one in Essex, it was given to the Knights Hospitallers (a religious order) in 1185, says David Stanford. “It is believed that these round churches were modelled on that of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with which the Knights Hospitallers would have been familiar.” A new church was built in 1335, to replace the earlier building.

“After the Dissolution in 1540 the building was surrendered to the Crown and changed hands numerous times, eventually becoming a parish church again. Almost immediately, the majority of the knights left England to join their fellows in the legendary fight with the Ottomans at the siege of Malta.

“In 1910 the property was bought by the Knights of St John, the direct descendants of the original Order . . .”

St Mary and All Saints, Rivenhall, near Witham;

The stucco rendering, applied because of “the nineteenth century taste for order at any price”, hides an Anglo-Saxon structure featuring thick walls constructed of flint, rubble and Roman tiles.

David Stanford points to the painstaking excavations in the 1970s by the archaeologist Warwick Rodwell that showed the first building on the site was a substantial villa from the Roman period, followed in about 980 by a simple Saxon church that was altered and added to over many years - including the addition of the “misleading cosmetic stucco” in about 1838.

At the end of the chancel is a large 12th Century stained-glass window “of extraordinary beauty . . . Coming originally from the church of St Martin le Chenu, north of Tours, it was purchased in 1840, with considerable foresight, at France's loss and Rivenhall's eternal gain, by the curate D.B. Hawkins.

“The beautifully coloured imagery includes a Christ in Majesty, an Annunciation and an Entombment flanked by two bishops and, bottom right, a caparisoned [armoured] horseman inscribed Robert Lemaire. Taken down and buried during World War II it was reconstructed and put back in 1948.”

St Clement, West Thurrock:

Not far from the Dartford Crossing, and therefore well outside the EADT circulation area, this church nevertheless deserves a mention because of its bizarre location next to a smoking factory - and for its role as the location for the funeral scene in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Apparently it's celebrity status brings a stream of visitors, many of whom apparently ask why the church was built so close to a massive factory . . .

In very poor condition, and made redundant in 1977, St Clement's was saved from the vandals in 1987 when factory owners Procter & Gamble adopted it and gave it some tender loving care.

The original circular tower dates from the 12th Century and the striped black and white tower from the 15th.

The church features a memorial to a large group of sea cadets, aged from 15 and 18, who were drowned in the Thames in 1915 and who are buried in the churchyard.

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