WENDY’S WEEK A Church, Almshouses and a Windmill
After visiting the Guildhall in Thaxsted last week, I enjoyed some lunch before attempting to make my way up cobbled stoned lane to the church, which stands on a hill dominating the town, and from whichever direction you approach the magnificent spire can be seen for miles. For most this walk would take 5-6 minutes at the most, but it took me around 20 minutes with lots of stops; no easy feat when you rely on a walking stick for balance, but it was worth the effort, and I am glad I made it.
Thaxsted parish church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist, St. Mary & St. Laurence and sits in the Deanery of Saffron Walden, the Archdeaconry of Colchester, the Diocese of Chelmsford, and the Province of Canterbury and is certainly one of the grandest churches in the county of Essex, and can easily be mistaken for a cathedral at first sight because of its beauty and grandeur. There is an excellent ‘walk around’ guide in the church available to visitors.
The building began in 1340, and its growth continued until the Reformation, and was completed in 1510. The inside is perfectly balanced with the aisles and transepts, chapels and the two porches, the King’s and Duke’s. Edward V gave the north porch his arms, and Lionel, Duke of Clarence gave the south porch his coronet.. Both porches are vaulted, and both have a spiral stair case leading to a room above ending in a turret. The Church was built in the form of a cathedral, with a fine crossing between the main body and the chancel. The hexagonal pulpit, with canopy and ogee-shaped base, dates from c.1680, and the roof is early 16th century and comprises of six bays.
The chancel is flanked by two side chapels. The left or North side is dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, and is generally called ‘the Becket chapel’. The right or South side is dedicated to Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his maternal grandmother, Ann. Formally known as the chapel of ‘Our Lady and Our Lady Anne and is now called ‘the Lady chapel’. The chapel in the south transept is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, who was condemned to death in 800AD nailed to a cart wheel. The south transept also houses a new vestry. The chapel in the north transept is dedicated to St Laurence, deacon of Rome, but has also been known as Trinity Aisle, and the Singers’ Chapel.
There are two organs in the church, the larger was built by Henry Lincoln in 1820 and came here in 1858from St John’s Chapel, Bedford Row, London and was actively in use until the 1960s. Over its years in Thaxted, the instrument has been little repaired and altered – meaning that it offers a tremendous opportunity for restoration and use as a late-Georgian organ. The smaller ‘Conrad Noel Memorial Organ’ beneath the tower arch was built in 1952 by Cedric Arnold with money raised on the death of the late Fr Conrad Noel, vicar of Thaxted 1910-42.
The Stellar, the great star-shaped candelabra which hangs in the cross-aisle, was designed by the architect, Randall Wells. It was originally designed for St Mary’s Church, Primrose Hill, London NW3, but was never erected there. It has been in Thaxted Church since 1910 and tells the Christmas story. It has 42 lights made up of 3 x14 depicting the 14 generations from Abraham to King David, 14 generations from King David to the Flight into Egypt, and 14 generations from the Flight into Egypt to the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. The ball below the 42 lights symbolises the world; therefore, Jesus, the Light of the World.
Eight bells hang in the 15th Century West Tower: the treble bell weighs 3.75 cwt, and the tenor weighs 15 cwt. They are housed in the upper part of the tower which is 80 feet high. If the wind is in a certain direction, the bells can be heard as far as Great Dunmow, 7 miles away. The stone spire, said to be the only mediaeval stone spire in Essex, originally rose to a height of 183 feet, but now rises to a height of 181 feet, the loss of two feet occurred due to an error when it was rebuilt in 1822.
There is a great deal of ancient stained glass in the church and the oldest dated 1341 is a picture of a knight in the South Transept. It is reputed to be Edmund, Earl of March, who owned a part of the Manor at that time.
Visitors approaching the church from the west cannot help but notice the two single-storey buildings situated in the churchyard that were once almshouses.
The long low thatched building, still known as the Chantry, was built as a Priest’s House and later became an almshouse providing four dwellings under one roof. At some time during the 17th and 18th century, the administration of this building passed to the Manor of Horham, but by the 1920s its condition had deteriorated so much that it was unsuitable for its original purpose. The Rev. Conrad Noel, the Vicar at that time, purchased it and turned it into a single dwelling which now belongs to the church.
The adjacent tiled almshouse building, built around 1714 probably on the site of an earlier Chantry house, used to comprise eight tenements under one roof, and in 1830 was occupied by sixteen aged persons; 13 widows, a man, a wife and a maid, and the building was maintained partly by the parish and partly from church funds.
Under the administration of Hunt’s Charity, these almshouses were in good use for 160 years, and in 1975, European Architectural Heritage Year, they were renovated to provide accommodation for three elderly couples. The Trustees, the Architect and the Builder were each awarded a Heritage Year Certificate of Merit for this undertaking.
Framing this picturesque scene is John Webb’s windmill built in 1804 and is a tower mill, the only remaining windmill in Thaxted. This windmill is the largest and most advanced of all the Thaxted mills at the time, and was built to satisfy a growing demand for flour at a time of agricultural expansion, it was constructed from local materials, with the bricks being made and fired half a mile away in the Chelmer valley. John Webb owned the farmland on which the mill was built.
A gallery at first floor level surrounded the mill and was used for easy loading and unloading from carts and wagons, but when the mill was first built it was from this gallery that the sweeps, (the sails), were individually adjusted to suit the wind, then spring sails were fitted and were later replaced with patent sails and the all four sails could be adjusted at one time by the use of an invention called a ‘spider’, which is a centrally controlled system of levers.
By 1907 the mill was too expensive to work and when offered for auction it failed to sell, and became a playground for local children until in the 1930s when some repairs were carried out so that it could be used as a scout and youth centre. By the late 1950s it was again derelict, and remained so until 1970 when a Trust was formed to restore the building and open it to the public as a rural museum. Restoration work has been carried out in stages, and in 1991 the sails were re-erected and turned for the first time in almost 85 years. In 1996 one set of stones were restored and once again it can claim to be a working mill capable of grinding grain into flour. Since the work started, well over £100,000.00 has been spend on the restoration, of which some 70% has been raised by open days and fund raising with the balance coming from various grants. The museum has developed greatly and covers a wide range of exhibits and is an added attraction for visitors to the mill. For me I found the picnic area surrounding the windmill, along with benches to sit and take in the lovely views a very welcome addition, and if I had known the benches existed I would have gladly enjoyed my lunch in the sunshine.