I didn’t even know we had wooden churches in England. And I didn’t know that the oldest wooden church in the world is 40 minutes drive from Ten-Inch Villas, down meandering verdant Essex lanes at Greensted. To give its proper moniker, The Church of St Andrew, Greensted-juxta-Ongar has been there since at least the sixth century, though the thriving yew tree in the church yard and the nearby pond are perhaps evidence of a pre-Christian holy site. The dark, split-oak log nave is the oldest part, probably replacing a Saxon construction in the years after the Norman conquest. No point in using stone if you’ve got Epping Forest outside your door. It was thatched originally and It’s tiny – I’ve been in bigger sheds.
It’s very easy to imagine the locals cowering in there, giving thanks for surviving local power skirmishes, civil war, plagues or famine. The white, weatherboarded tower might have been added in the 1600s – nobody really knows. The light-flooded chancel was added in Tudor period, replacing a Norman original and could reflect an increase in the local population and prosperity. Pragmatic as ever, the Victorians contributed a hands-off restoration, a brick damp-proof course and those dormer windows. In the North wall is what has long been thought of as being a leper’s squint – a spyhole where a sufferer could take a blessing if they couldn’t mingle with the congregation. They’d have to be a very short leper (or lying down). In fact, contemporary opinion is that the squint is more likely a holy water stoup – it’s next to the former position of a door.
On the way home we got lost and ended up sampling the er, charms of urban Essex. This is what they do to Vespas in Romford, a town which seems to be nothing but shopping malls, kebab shops and stone cladding.