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Notes on Essex Churches - Saffron Walden to Twinstead

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Towers, Steeples and Spires

One of the most interesting features of churches in Essex is the extraordinary variety of towers, steeples and spires, and this section of church photos contains many remarkable examples.

South Ockendon Round Tower
South Ockendon Round Tower

The oldest is the massive, plain and squat Norman tower of Stambourne church. This was clearly made to last; and at 17 feet square it looks like it was intended for defensive purposes as much as religious. In complete contrast the elegant round flint tower of St Nicholas' Church, South Ockendon was built in the 13th century; the church it was originally attached to has gone now, the current church was added to the tower in the 15th century. The round tower is unusual and is one of only 6 churches with round towers in Essex, the other being Bardfield Saling - St Peter and St Paul, Broomfield - St Mary, Great Leighs - St Mary the Virgin, Lamarsh -The Holy Innocents, and Pentlow - St Gregory. Round towers are found predominantly in Suffolk, which like Essex has a shortage of quarried stone building material. It is likely that the alternative use of flint and rubble by the Anglo-Saxons was better employed in thick-walled circular structures to provide structural (and defensive) solidity.

In Tudor times the robust battlemented tower of Sandon Church was constructed. The tower is of brick, with blue diaperwork, and there is a stair case inside the tower going right to the top; you can see a much higher polygonal stair turret in the north east corner of the tower. The brickwork is of a very high quality for a village church; Cardinal Wolsey was given the manor of Sandon by Henry VIII and he may be responsible for the tower and the equally fine Tudor church porch.

The 15th century church of All Saints in Terling had a lovely red brick tower added in 1732. The tower has two tiers of blanked windows and above these, arched openings with rusticated surrounds for the bell chamber, the whole topped off by a very stylish wooden spire.

But as a statement of pride and confidence, the tower of St John's, Stansted Mountfitchet, is hard to beat. It was built in 1895 from local, light red brick with dressings of Bath and Ketton stone, by the architect W. D. Caroe. Caroe was a leading member of the Arts and Crafts movement and was architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners from 1895 until his death. His boldness and originality is strikingly illustrated in the tower of St Johns which stands clear of the nave and is festooned by gargoyles, statues, pinnacles, a stepped parapet and a lantern-shaped ending on the stair turret.

Stanford Rivers - 1609 bell by Joseph Carter
Stanford Rivers - 1609 Bell

Traditional Essex church spires tend to consist of a square weather-boarded belfry with a pyramidal or octagonal spire on top. Some of these are small, like the belfry and spire of that Sutton All Saints church. Here the timber belfry is on two portal-frames and has bracing in the first stage if its turret, which suggests that it was built during the 14th century. At Stanford Rivers the belfry is much taller. The west bay of the nave is filled with the supporting timbers, with two portal frames aligned North to South, and elaborate intersecting arch-bracing in the side panels. This belfry and spire are also believed to date from the 14th century, and the whole structure, including the octagonal leaded broached spire, is of original medieval timber.

The belfry and spire at All Saints, Stock is perhaps the most eye-catching example of this style, being built in two stages at the west end of the church. The lower stage contains an aisle covered with a pent roof surrounding the oak timbers which support the belfry. The west door of the church opens into this aisle. Above the door are three original, decoratively carved, and beautiful windows. The belfry soars up out of the aisle, and is topped with an elegant octagonal spire which can be seen for miles around.

The spire on the Victorian Clifftown Congregational Church in Southend is completely different. Designed by W Allen Dixon, and built around 1865, the lower stages of the Kentish Ragstone tower are square. The third stage, the belfry, is octagonal and the whole is topped by an octagonal slate spire.

The most glorious steeple in Essex is that of St Mary's in Saffron Walden. Built on top of a hill, the whole edifice is 193 feet tall and can be seen for miles around in all directions. The tower, built towards the end of the 15th century, is lavishly decorated in a style more commonly associated with the sophistications of Cambridge than of a small town in Essex. There are setback buttresses, decorated battlements, and at the corners, big polygonal pinnacles like turrets. The tall octagonal stone spire was added in 1832 and is decorated with crockets and two tiers of dormers, and is topped by a weathercock.