Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …
Greensted lies in rural Essex, a brisk hour-and-a-half’s walk east of Epping, itself at the eastern extremity of the Central Line. The name derives from the Old English for a clearing in a wild-wood (of which Epping and Hainault Forests are the tattered remnants).
Interestingly, in 1837, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, on their return from their unjust deportation to Australia, were granted farm tenancies in and around Greensted; and in 1839, one of them, James Brine, married the daughter of another, Thomas Standfield, in Greensted Church (see below). While in Greensted, the Martyrs founded a Chartist association. This did not go down well with the locals! The vicar denounced them from the pulpit, and reported them to the Home Office; and the “Essex Standard” derided them in the press, and wrote of them as “dabbling in the dirty waters of radicalism and publishing pamphlets to keep up the old game”. Eventually the squirearchy evicted them from their land, and forced them to seek out new livelihoods and lives elsewhere (five out of the six of them in London in Ontario in Canada).
“At the wild-wood’s heart
These thrice-three hundred winters
This scant sanctuary”.
Greensted Church, the Church of St Andrew, purports to be the oldest wooden building still standing in Europe, and the oldest wooden church anywhere in the world.
The original church on the site was probably built at least as long ago as the middle of the seventh century, at which time St Cedd set about converting the East Saxons to Christianity from his base at Bradwell. Sadly, though, the only remaining physical evidence as to the existence of this church is in the form of post-holes discovered during an archaeological excavation in 1960.
Work began on the present structure in the middle of the eleventh century, in the Late Saxon period, in wood (*); and continued into the Medieval and post-Medieval, in stone and brick (with minor additions and restorations also in the nineteenth century, between 1837-48, and further restorations in the twentieth, between 1987-90). Remarkably, much of the Saxon nave still stands, incorporated into later extensions. The wooden Saxon nave was evidently originally windowless, aside from some small “eag-thyrels” or eye-holes, and a single larger “niche”, known by many as a lepers’ “squint”. Scorch-marks can still be seen on some of the wall timbers, suggesting lighting by wall-mounted lamps. Adze-marks can also still be seen on some timbers.
(*) Dendrochronological evidence acquired in 1995 indicates that the trees used in the construction of the church were felled between 1060-63. This would have been during the reign of the last-but-one Saxon King, Edward the Confessor (the last was the ill-fated Harold, who acceded to the throne on Edward’s death early in 1066, before being killed fighting the invading Normans at the Battle of Hastings later the same year).