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St Michael, Copford


south porch Copford Copford
Copford north nave door north chancel door apse

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Copford never disappoints. Here we are, not far from Colchester suburbia and busy Marks Tey railway station on the A12, but you turn down a narrow lane and the 21st Century disappears behind you. Soon you are cycling between fields and woodlands, and then Copford Hall, now a public school, appears above the hedgerows. Beside it is the cricket field, and on a summer day the smack of willow on leather with the birdsong above completes a picture of Englishness which, though often illusory, is frequently yearned for. And then, beyond the cricket field, the Norman church with its typical Essex dressing of a wooden bell turret is our goal.

I suppose that few people come here without knowing what to expect. For those that do, stepping inside must be a mighty surprise for a number of reasons, most strikingly at first the extensive range of wall paintings, by far the best in Essex. They date from the first half of the 12th Century when the church was new, although they have been carefully restored and were added to in the 1890s by Clayton & Bell. Their subject matter is a little unusual, and probably most memorable are the signs of the zodiac around the chancel arch. A clue to the subject matter may be that this church was not built as a parish church but as a chapel for the Bishops of London.

Copford Angel Christ in Majesty Copford Angel
scorpio the scorpion cancer the crab leo the lion
angel with an open book zodiac: Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn zodiac: Taurus, Aries, Pisces, Aquarius angel with a closed book

A further remarkable feature of Copford church is that when the nave was built in the 1120s it was originally vaulted - you can still see the massive springings. As Pevsner observes, Vaulted Norman churches are exceedingly rare and seems to have been a local enthusiasm, perhaps inspired by the undercroft chapel at nearby Colchester Castle, for there is another example not far off at Great Clacton.

There is much else to see at Copford, and on my frequent visits I have often spotted something I hadn't noticed before. Some will go away with a memory of the choir stalls with their little animals on the bench ends, including a koala bear mother and baby. They were carved by Mabbitts of Danbury, and you can see more of their work across north Essex at Birdbrook.

Most of all though, there is the wow factor of one of Essex's very best churches, and that alone is enough to keep you coming back.

Simon Knott, May 2020

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looking east Christ in Majesty with the signs of the zodiac screen
looking west Copford St Michael and St Gabriel (Clayton & Bell, 1886) font south aisle looking east
bench end: koala bear and cub (1950s) bench end: owl in flight (1950s) bench end: otter and fish (1950s) bench end: sad rabbit (1950s)
pulpit finial: St George ironwork on the south door (formerly the north door) St Michael Ascension, Resurrection, Entombment (William Wailes, 1860s) Just, Generous, Compassionate
royal arms of George I Christ roundel 14th Century chest



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