Notes on Old St Mary's Church, West Bergholt

One thousand years of history

One thousand years ago, Saxon craftsmen built a small church on a slight rise, half a mile away from the river Colne and just an hours walk from Colchester. Parts of that church still stand. Over the centuries since, the church has been added to and improved, tended and (occasionally) neglected, but it is still there, still a place for worship and reverence. The changes and adaptations can be clearly seen in the church fabric and it is quite moving to review the care and attention lavished on this one tiny church over the course of a millennium. By contrast the new St Mary's Church was built in 1904 half a mile nearer to the village centre but a century on, remains unfinished: the back wall is still covered in corrugated iron cladding.

The first church on the site was built in around 1000 A.D. It was a single celled structure with a rounded apse to the east. The north wall of this building is still standing and forms the north wall of the nave - a blocked Saxon doorway topped with Roman tiles can still be seen. However despite extensive research, no evidence of a west wall for this church has been found, suggesting that it was a timber structure, which when removed left no archaeological trace.

Iron-bound Oak Parish Chest, 1400 AD
Iron-bound Oak Parish Chest, 1400 AD

During an examination of the existing medieval timber belfry, several ancient timbers were noticed, doing duty as the floor of the tower. These timbers are oak, short grained, have a large cross section in relation to their length, and are clearly much older than the 14th century belfry. They also show matrices for squinted notched lap joints on adjacent faces. This suggests they were the corner posts of a wooden church tower similar to that at Navestock. It appears that initially there was a Saxon tower standing against the west end of the church, and some of the timbers from this were salvaged and re-used when the tower was demolished centuries later. These timbers are important in that they are a rare example of notched lap joints which pre-date the Norman invasion.

The first addition to the small Saxon church was a Norman south doorway. Later, the chancel was extended eastwards and given a square end. Next came the blocking up of the original north doorway and the creation of a new, wider north entrance. At the same time windows were placed in the north wall of the nave.

View of South Aisle
View of South Aisle

In the early 14th century, major changes were made to the church. The south wall of the church, including its Norman doorway, was demolished and the south aisle and porch were built. You can see broken pieces of carved Norman stonework which have been incorporated into the walls of the south aisle. Around 1400, the nave and south aisle were extended westwards to enclose the wooden tower. The old Saxon tower was demolished but the corner posts were re-used to form the floor. A new tower and belfry was built at this time but it seems to have been a long job; some of the woodwork dates from the 14th century but the tower was not completed until the 15th century. At this point, the exterior building was largely complete.

By the beginning of the 17th century the church was in a parlous state, and was described as 'ruinous, wanting tiling, paving and glazing'. Tiling was needed again by 1633, and later in the century the north wall and the belfry needed repairs. But despite the poor state of the building, it was clearly still in use since the royal arms of King James I were painted on the tympanum between the nave and the chancel at some time between 1603 and 1625. Subsequently these arms were covered over with limewash (they were discovered and restored in 1986). The panelling behind the altar was also installed round about the same time, and the communion rail was added towards the end of the 17th century.

In the 18th century the fragile looking gallery was built, resting on cast iron Doric columns encased in wood. This necessitated blocking up the newer north doorway, and creating dormer windows in the nave roof to provide additional light for the choir and musicians who would have occupied the gallery. The ceilings of the nave, chancel and aisle were plastered at around this time, to conserve heat within the church. This plastering reduced the height of the roof meaning that parts of the royal arms were now hidden from view, although they may have been painted out by then. The church acquired a new set of Hanoverian arms in 1816, made of cast iron and proudly affixed to the front of the gallery.

In 1865 the decision was made to build a new church nearer to the village and two acres of land were set aside for the purpose. Despite this local people continued to add to and improve the old church. The rather charming Bevington organ was installed in 1877, and at roughly the same time the church was re-seated, the bell tower repaired, the old bell recast and a new bell added. Improvements continued into the 20th century with a new altar in 1913 and the lovely east window created in 14th century style in 1928.

Gradually however, use of the old church was declining. By 1946 it was only used for weddings, and Sunday morning services during the summer. In 1975 it was declared redundant, and in 1976 was vested in what is now the Churches Conservation Trust. Repairs are carried out and the church is kept in a safe condition, and is still occasionally used for weddings. It is also still very much loved - when we were there, fresh daffodils had been placed in a vase behind the 13th century font.