The Essex Churches Site

 

THE ESSEX CHURCHES SITE

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St Michael, Great Sampford

Great Sampford

Great Sampford Great Sampford Great Sampford
Great Sampford Great Sampford Great Sampford

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  As you head south out of Suffolk into Essex you move from the chalk country into the clay country, and the landscape changes. The fields roll above high hedgerows, the copses are lusher, the lanes more secretive. We are a long way from County Hall in Chelmsford and perhaps the bureaucrats have forgotten this lovely landscape, because even the old road signs still survive. And the villages are lovely, sometimes remarkably so. North Essex is what outsiders think Suffolk looks like.

Even the larger villages seem to retain this sense of wonder, and Great Sampford is one of them. The old cottages still line the village street, some pargeted, some flint-fronted, some thatched. Does the sun always shine in Great Sampford, or is it that it is always sunny whenever I visit? The attractive pub is the last survivor of several that lined what was in its day the busy road from Haverhill to Thaxted. A back road that bypasses the main street through the village is called Spare Penny Lane. Isn't that lovely? I like to think it is a memory of the days when drovers and cartmen could take it to avoid the temptations of the village inns.

St Michael's church sits in the heart of the village, a large, proud and somewhat battered survivor. Most striking is the huge bricked up window of the south transept, and unusual Essex feature (both window and transept). It seems to have been built on a much larger church than the present one in the later years of the 13th Century. Perhaps half a century later the rest of the church was demolished and rebuilt in the elegant Decorated style popular in the 1320s and 1330s. There was a major restoration by local architect Frederick Chancellor in the late 19th Century but this seems to have affected the interior of the chancel more than any of the exterior. The tower was restored in the 1930s. The wide graveyard to the south accentuates the imposing aspect of the church.

The little south porch conceals a large door which is original to the 14th Century rebuilding. You step through it into a wide aisled nave which is full of light thanks to the lack of coloured glass. The arcades are splendid, and that on the south aisle leads to the arch into the south transept which, most unusually for East Anglia, has elaborately carved capitals as if we were in Northamptonshire. They feature a variety of creatures peering through foliage. One is an ape or a bear, another has two eager lions, but the best shows a man in a cowl between an owl and what looks like a mad little dog, but is probably intended as a devil. This depicts the medieval allegory of the Wise and Foolish Counsel, the two creatures whispering into the man's ears. We are left in no uncertainty as to which one of the two he should listen to.

capital: bizarre lions (13th Century) capital: owl, cowled head, dog (13th Century) capital: bear and foliage (13th Century)

The chancel is long and stately, with seats under pointed arches running up both sides. The crispness is due to Chancellor's 1870s restoration, also the tiled floor which rather overwhelms I'm afraid. Back in the nave there are wall paintings above the north arcade, one of which Pevsner described as the Seven Deadly Sins but which I think is likely to be a Tree of Jesse with the Blessed Virgin sitting enthroned at the top. The font is a curiosity, with a plain bowl but the top half only of arcading on the stem. It is likely to be constructed out of two, and possibly three, separate fonts. The roofs of nave and north aisle appear to be old, perhaps even from the original church of the 14th Century.

In the north aisle sits a 19th Century desk from Great Sampford village school, which is of particular interest to me, for Great Sampford's is a church I revisit regularly, and I have a special reason for coming here. It was the home parish of one quarter of my family. My maternal grandmother's great-grandfather, James Reynolds, was born in Great Sampford in 1809, as had all the Reynolds generations before him back to when the registers began. It is easy to imagine my ancestors sitting at this desk, or perhaps being bent over it for a caning.

Poor farmworkers, they had large families, but some of them became well-to-do as the village tailors. James Reynolds was not one of these, and like so many of his uncles and brothers he had to travel to find work in those 19th Century agricultural depressions. The family ended up at Duxford in Cambridgeshire, and then the next generation moved to nearby Dry Drayton where my grandmother was born. But even at the 1911 census there were many Reynolds still living in Great Sampford, and their relations were scattered all over north-west Essex and south Cambridgeshire - as I say, they had large families.

All my ancestors in at least the last six generations were born in East Anglia or Kent. Here at Great Sampford there are three late 18th Century headstones in a row to the south of the church. One is to James Reynolds, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Reynold's brother, and the other two are to his son and daughter-in-law. To have a headstone in the late 18th Century you needed to be from a family with money. The great majority of my ancestors were desperately poor, which is why so few of them have headstones. In fact, I know of only one other churchyard with my ancestral memorials in it, which makes Great Sampford all the more precious to me.

Simon Knott, May 2020

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looking east chancel sanctuary
font The Great War benefaction crucified
Tree of Jesse Great Sampford James Calthorp, gentleman
Wisdom and Folly speak in the ears of cowled man (13th Century)

all the dead dears

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home - index - latest - e-mail
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