By Oliver Smith, digital travel editor
The oldest wooden church on the planet? It’s not in the Middle East, nor is it tucked away in one of the perfectly preserved medieval towns of central Europe. It’s in Essex – and little more than a stone’s throw from London.
The 51 timber planks that form the nave of tiny St Andrew’s Church, in the village of Greensted-juxta-Ongar, were cut from English oaks in around 1060 – six years before the arrival of William the Conqueror. The building has been touched up since, of course. The brick chancel was added in the 16th century, its distinctive white tower dates back to the 17th century, while the stained glass windows are Victorian. But almost 1,000 years later those vertical planks remain in situ, making St Andrew’s the oldest timber church on Earth, and almost certainly the oldest wooden building anywhere in Europe.
Indeed, its history stretches back even further. Archaeologists in the 1960s found evidence of an older church from the seventh century, a time when St Cedd was converting the Saxons in the region to Christianity.
How did the church survive?
During the medieval period most of England’s timber churches were rebuilt in stone. The first two churches on the site of St Paul’s Cathedral, for example, were wooden. Both burned down and the third, erected in 962, was made from stone. Greensted Church may well have been simply overlooked because the local authorities were short of cash.
A Victorian restoration also did much to protect the building. The nave’s timbers were shortened, and raised up on brick, because their bases had rotted.
Can I visit?
Of course. Far from being wrapped in cotton wool, St Andrew’s is open to visitors every day and still holds weekly services. On my visit last Sunday morning I was surprised to find dozens of revellers inside the building enjoying Champagne and cake. A husband and wife were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
Despite my unsightly appearance (I had cycled out from London in full lycra) she insisted I join them to for a glass while he gave me a potted history of the church. I learned of its associations with St Edmund, an East Anglian king killed by marauding Vikings in the ninth century for refusing to renounce his faith (in typically brutal fashion, they tied him to a tree, filled his body with arrows and then removed his head). Poor Edmund’s head was supposedly found by his followers thanks to the cries of a magical wolf. A shrine was built in his honour in Beadoriceworth (now Bury St Edmunds) but in 1010, his remains were moved to London to protect them from another Viking raid. In 1013, when it was being returned to Bury St Edmunds, his body supposedly spent the night in Greensted. Stained glass windows depict the martyr, and carved on a wooden beam near the entrance is a wolf guarding his severed head.
Other notable features include a memorial to an unknown crusader and – on the north side of the nave – a “Leper’s Squint”, that was long thought to be where lepers, not allowed inside, could watch services and receive blessings.
Epping, around seven miles away, is the nearest rail station, so most come by car. But a more rewarding way to reach it is by bike. From Epping, the best option is a winding route taking in the villages of Fiddler’s Hamlet, Tawney Common, Stapleford Tawney, Toot Hill and Greensted Green.
So which is the world’s oldest wooden building?
Not impressed by a 958-year-old timber church? You’ll need to head to Japan. The world’s oldest wooden building is Hōryū-ji, a Buddhist temple near the city of Nara which was completed in 607.
Greensted’s European rivals include the stave churches of Scandinavia. Urnes Stave Church in Norway is probably the oldest and dates back to around 1132.
The Swiss town of Schwyz, meanwhile, contains wooden homes up to 730 years old.
Fans of wooden churches would do well to check out the website of the National Churches Trust. It lists many fine examples on UK soil, including St James & St Paul in the Cheshire village of Marton (pictured below).
What other secrets does Essex hold?
As a Walthamstow resident, I’ve spent hours trying to convince more southerly London cyclists to embrace the wonders of Essex over Surrey and Kent. The roads are quieter and better maintained, and every few miles there’s a bucolic little village, often with a good pub and a view of a cricket ground. Matchin I tileseen, home to the excellent Chequers pub, and the Blue Egg cafe in Great Bardfield, are good places to refuel.
A few miles from Greensted Church there’s another quirky attraction, too: Kelvedon Hatch, the deepest Cold War bunker in Britain that’s open to the public. Fronted by an innocuous bungalow, it would have provided shelter for the great and the good when the ICBMs started flying. An amusing sign labelled “Secret Nuclear Bunker” now makes its location known. That is worth a photo at the very least.
Fans of venerable churches will also be interested to learn that Essex also has an even older one. St Peter-on-the-Wall, a wonderfully simple structure in Bradwell-on-Sea, was built in 654 and also owes its origins to St Cedd. He and his assistants built it using what lay around at the time, mainly odds and ends from a Roman shore fortification known as Othona. It was utilised as a barn for centuries before being restored as a chapel in 1920 and is still in regular use. Admire it, and then head west to the Green Man, Bradwell’s old smuggling pub above the waterfront.
Other highlights in this underrated county include Tilbury Fort, built by Henry VIII to protect England from the French and used as a filming location in the recent BBC drama Taboo, Mersea Island, with its bleakly beautiful mudflats and where oysters have been cultivated since Roman times, and Maldon, where you’ll find history, charm and home-grown wine