Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Second Oldest Building in England

Travelling around Britain, it's sometimes hard to avoid the feeling that you're in a heritage theme park, full of brown tourist attraction signs, pointing the way to dubious sites like the Honiton Lace Musuem, or disappointing ruins like Tintagel Castle.

Once, I naïvely assumed that these signs were an official endorsement, awarded by nameless, incorruptible officials -a guarantee of quality. But that's not how it works. A run-of-the-mill farm shop (with the obligatory soft-play area for children) can become a major tourist attraction, whilst a Neolithic burial chamber is unknown to all but a few.

But perhaps that's a good thing. Today, I was able to have the second oldest building in mainland Britain all to myself.

Built in the year 654, using bricks and stones from the ruined Roman fort of Othona, the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall was established for the East Saxons. Its founder, St Cedd, had travelled down from Lindisfarne at the request of the local king, Sigebehrt the Good. Like the oldest building in Britain - the Roman "Pharos" lighthouse at Dover - it is largely unknown.

It seems inexplicable that Britain's oldest church only receives a trickle of visitors. Where are the coach parks and gift shops selling Anglo-Saxon shortbread and St Cedd tea towels? But perhaps the reason why St Peter's is so neglected is also the key to why it has survived for 1,356 years.

I can almost see St Peter's from my mother-in-law's bedroom window. Bradwell-on-Sea is only two miles away, on the other side of the Blackwater estuary. But getting there involves a tortuous hour-long journey along minor roads that pass through flat, empty fields and peopleless villages. My journey was only 30 miles, but by the time I arrived I had listened to a whole Vaughan Williams symphony (the 9th) and was halfway through another CD.

I didn't like Bradwell-on-Sea. On the surface, it wasn't that different from other villages: a Norman church and a single street of charming, traditional cottages, augmented by a mixture of cheap, badly designed modern houses. But I didn't like the way the people stopped and stared, pointing at me as I drove past. I had visions of some Wicker Man-style ceremony awaiting me.

Fortunately, St Peter's Chapel isn't actually in Bradwell, but can be found at the end of a long track. I don't know why the car park is so far from the church, but the ten minute walk between the two is like a decompression chamber between the 21st century and the 7th. With each step I became more attuned to my surroundings.

I thought of all the people across fourteen centuries who had walked along this path, listening to the distant roar of sea and shingle, longing for some respite from the biting cold wind.

Architecturally, St Peter's seems primitive and crude, but in an age in which homes were built out of wood and thatch, this church must have seemed miraculous:

When I entered the church, I was immediately struck by the smell of the damp stones and the eerie silence - so quiet that I could hear the ringing in my ears. But as I sat still and listened, I became aware of the sound of the wind, buffeting against the outside walls.

The desolate landscape, the cold wind and the roaring sea reminded me of the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Seafarer . For much of the year, life must have been cold and hard for the people here. St Peter's church offered meaning in a world that, for many, must have been a relentless struggle against nature and ill fortune.

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, Si þin nama gehalgod, to becume þin rice, gewurþe ðin willa...

The church appears to have changed very little since the 7th century and although the crucifix, pews, alter and pulpit are all 20th century, they seem to complement rather than detract from the atmosphere of the place.

Outside, nettles sway in the wind and the grass gradually turns into marshland:

In East Sussex, there is a dramatic demarcation between land and sea, with towering chalk cliffs and steep shingle ridges. But in this part of Essex, the land just seems to fizzle out, as if someone has lost interest.

I don't know how long I was in the church, but when I left I felt different. It wasn't a religious experience, but I think that being alone in an ancient building can have a profound effect, briefly freeing us from the tyranny of the present. It was either that, or I was feeling weak from having nothing but Special K that morning.

Why is St Peter's chapel generally ignored by the guide books? It may not be the most architecturally stunning building, even by Dark Ages standards, but this is the second oldest complete building in England. Surely it's more exciting than the Honiton Lace Museum?

Part of the answer lies in St Peter's remoteness. Situated at the end of the Dengie peninsula - a landscape of bleak, empty fields, with a coastline of marshland and mudflats - Bradwell feels like a long way from anywhere (this is probably why a nuclear power station was built there in the 1950s). The nearest large town is only 15 miles away, but it might as well be 50.

As I drove out of the car park, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a large wooden structure. It looked familiar, but I didn't know why. Then I remembered:


PAL said...

Most affecting and evocative piece.

If you find a place for yourself, it becomes yours. The more accidental the discovery, the more it's likely to lodge in the memory. Who you're with is important too. On your own is best, but a few simpatico companions is almost as good.

Anonymous said...

Moved by your piece to ask you more. You mentioned that it must look inside much like it did in the 7th century ... but was/is there any proof of this fact? I'm reminded that many of the beautifully plain interior churches in Germany were only made plain during the Reformation and before the Reformation had been ornate and overdone. Or that the beautiful white marbles of Greece were once gaudily colorful. We sometimes think that older times were simple and spare (maybe from looking at too many black and white photos) when the reverse is more often the case.

Gardener in the Distance said...

Emily Dickinson wrote:

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
'Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, - you're straightway
And handled with a chain.

Steerforth said...

Well Anon, if you subject my sweeping generalisations to any degree of scrutiny, the whole thing falls apart ;) I really don't know. But there's no evidence that the stone wall was ever covered in plaster. I think that the decorated interiors came a little later.

Gardener - I shall remember these words!

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Stunning in its desolate beauty.

Actually I would be more scared of bumping into Magwitch on the marshes than The Wicker Man!

robyn Elliott said...

loved this story

Brett said...

That was excellent, thanks! I love bleak marshlands, and that there are still places where outsiders are rare enough to draw stares from the locals.

Yes, they wouldn't have had pews. They would have stood, or knelt on the stony floor.

Martin H. said...

"..the ten minute walk between the two is like a decompression chamber between the 21st century and the 7th.." This, alone, makes me want to investigate the place for myself. An excellent post, Steerforth.

Lucille said...

Was that The Lord's Prayer?

David said...

What a strange coincidence. I work for HMRC, and was only reading the other day in our union journal an account by a tax inspector of an atmospheric visit, during her training period in the 1980s, to a remote farmhouse on the Dengie. I'd never previously heard of the place.

(And to cap it all, the verification string I have to type below is "dongies" !)

theliminalstate said...

Living in New England, we take for granted sometimes, the antiquity of the buildings around us. I am forever explaining the importance of history and "ancient" spaces to disinterested people. This post reminds me that American is indeed a country still in it's youth...see, now I feel a little silly. :)

Really enjoyed this post and the pictures of this lovely place. If I ever get to visit Enlgand I will be sure to dodge the Wicker Man and pay this site a visit.

Steerforth said...

Thank you all for your kind comments.

Yes, it was the Lord's Prayer in Old English. I also tried to find an appropriate passage from "The Seafarer", but time was against me.

The Dengie/Dongie coincidence is a bit spooky. I'd never heard of the place either. It's odd how somewhere that's less than 60 miles from London can be so remote.

The Marshes did make me think of Magwitch originally, but when I saw the spooky locals and the wooden structure (which I think was built for bird-watching purposes), I couldn't help recalling one of my favourite films.

Liminal State - if you ever make it to St Peter's, you make feel like Samuel Johnson, when he said that Fingal's Cave was worth seeing, but not worth going to ;)

Anonymous said...

How desolately beautiful. Wonderful post.


Shelley said...

Ah. Vaughan Williams was a major influence on the man whose support changed my life, Horton Foote, screenplay writer of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Funny how music and lit support each other.

Steerforth said...

I'm intrigued. Please tell me more.

christinelaennec said...

Thank you for such an interesting and affecting post. I read it yesterday, couldn't think of an adequate response, and found myself still thinking about it all yesterday evening. So thank you for enlarging our way of looking at things.

Gerry Snape said...

so glad that I found you today care of The Times. I love the saxon church at Blytheburgh in Suffolk for the same reasons as this one. Quiet.

Steerforth said...

Thank you Christine - it's really gratifying to know that this post struck a chord.

Gerry - Thanks for visiting. I shall visit this church the next time I'm in Suffolk.

How did you find this blog via The Times?

Blazing Modesty said...

Woefully late to the party, I have visited this place often, reading your post makes me realise how much I have taken it for granted. Should you go again, be sure to find St Mary's, Mundon (which you probably drive through or very near), not as old, I think it's Norman, but eerie and beautiful with 'Behold the Lamb of God' written above the altar. Look out for my teenage scribblings in the guest book, if its still there.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the lovely description and these beautiful photographs. I visit England as often as I can, having both English and French ancestry. English history and architecture is my hobby, albeit one that sometimes generates income. I will definitely have to mark this on my map as a place to visit in the near future. Being American, I am always amazed by the organizations here that rant and rave about the need to preserve a building that’s about 100 years old, giving them some reverential treatment based solely upon age. I can definitely appreciate the need to do so because if we don’t, the structures won’t make it to the 200 - 300 or so on stage, but one thing I love about the ancient buildings of the UK is that they are mostly still being used. One of my favorite is the “House that Moved“ in Exeter that on my last visit was a Bridal Shop. On my travels (usually alone) I have often stumbled through a remote village or down a seldom used track to encounter the stares of the locals. More often than not, when I struck up a conversation, the stares would change to curiosity and sometimes even a tentative smile. I know to most I was thought of as ‘that crazy yank’, but I’ve had some fantastic conversations in small local pubs as a result. Also sorry, I haven't set up an account yet.

vintage mum said...

So strange to read about somewhere I know well.Please visit in the summer, your ten minute hike will be blessed with a bounty of wild flowers,and a rest on the beach will be a delight.