Notes on Lamarsh

A quiet place, with echoes of violence

The tiny, ancient village of Lamarsh sits quietly in the fertile Stour valley surrounded by farmland. It is protected from the prevailing winds by a ridge of hills to the west and south, but the land to the east and north is flat, all the way to the river. A stream cuts through the middle carrying waters from the hills to the Stour. The old village was divided into two halves, the northern half being centered around the church and the southern, around the junction of the roads to Bures and to Alphamstone. In recent times a row of modern houses has been built which connects the two halves, although this central area is prone to flooding.

Lamarsh has been here since at least Saxon times, and probably much longer. Beside a farm track, once a main route into the local town of Bures, lies a pair of sarsen stones. Essex is a land of flint, gravel and clay and there are very few large stones around. The effort required to lift and move these ones to that particular place means that whoever placed them there had gone to a great deal of trouble.

Sarsen stones usually mark ancient sacred places. These stones echo those in neighbouring Alphamstone, where a considerable collection lie in and about the churchyard. Since the coming of the railway in 1849 the farm track no longer continues to Bures and has become a footpath.

Although it seem peaceful now, Lamarsh has seen its share of danger. After the Romans left Britain in 410, waves of Saxon invaders arrived from Germany. According to contemporary literary sources, their arrival caused a huge amount of violence, destruction and the flight of the Romano-British population. It is likely that Saxon invaders came up the Stour looking for good land, then dispersed any existing residents and took the land for themselves.

Later, in the 9th century, Viking invaders sailed their longboats up the Stour, and the pattern repeated itself. One Viking leader in particular is linked to the Stour Valley. Guthrum, King of the Danish Vikings and ally of the Swedish warrior Halfdan Ragnarsson, fought King Alfred in Wessex in 874. The next year the Viking army split, with Halfdan taking his forces north to Northumbria. Guthrum headed to East Anglia. There were many subsequent battles between Guthrum and Alfred, until in 878 Alfred was finally victorious. Under the terms of surrender Guthrum became a Christian and changed his name to Aethelstan. He is believed to have lived for the rest of his life as a farmer in the Stour Valley.

Lamarsh Church - Stour Valley
Lamarsh Church in the Stour Valley

The Viking raids more or less ceased when the Norsemen lost to the English in their final battle at Stamford Bridge in 1066. Nineteen days later, the English army lost to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings. Although England was now unified under Norman rule, the threat of invasion was still alive in the hearts of the both British and Normans and occasionally, Viking raids occurred along the east coast.

When Lamarsh Church was constructed in 1140, the fear of attack was still present. The church included an elegant, tall round tower with slit windows, which could double as a watch tower in times of trouble. The tower had great visibility and the narrow slit windows would allow an archer to loose arrows whilst staying protected. The tower appears to be a statement of piety, which doubles as a mini-fort. The church itself would have served as a rallying ground for the villagers. Unusually, above the church porch there is a trap door leading to a small sleeping area where visiting priests could climb inside and rest.

A mere 800 years later and Lamarsh is being prepared for invasion once again. Following the Dunkirk evacuation at the start of WWII, the threat of invasion by German forces was very real. A series of successive lines of defence were constructed, starting on the coastline (concentrating on the eastern and southern coasts) with subsequent lines inland, culminating in multiple rings around London. They were intended to slow or even stop the German advance. One of these defensive lines extended from Colchester to Sudbury and ran along the Stour Valley. This was known as the Eastern Command Line. This line consisted of a range of natural and artificial tank obstacles, covered by pill boxes. In Lamarsh, the tank obstacle was the River Stour itself.

Lamarsh Pillbox
Lamarsh Pillbox

The pillboxes were of different kinds: infantry, artillery and anti-aircraft, together providing an integrated defence against both ground and air attack. The work was undertaken by the Royal Engineers, starting in July 1940, and was completed by October of that year. Together it was the largest engineering project even undertaken by the Home Forces.

Plans were also developed to use the line as a demolition belt. Explosives were planted in pillboxes. Plans were in place to destroy farm bridges and more significant crossings if capture was imminent. Firing parties were ready to be mobilised. Railway bridges were to be blocked not destroyed, so that they were still available for the mobilisation of British troops and equipment. Canal locks were to be held as bridge heads and not demolished: if the canal itself was to form part of the tank obstacle, then destroying the lock gates would reduce its value.

In the event, there was no invasion and these protective measures were not required. Several of the pillboxes have since become bat habitats, as they provide perfect conditions for bats to hibernate.