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St Mary, High Easter

High Easter

clerestory and porch (16th Century)

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  This is a large and impressive church that might have felt more at home in Norfolk or Suffolk were it not for the striking and memorable red brick clerestory raised in the early 16th Century and the accompanying battlemented porch, the material so familiar from Essex buildings of this time. Pevsner notes that the nave and chancel are essentially those of a preceding Norman church, but later arcades and aisles with their window tracery give it a feel , from the exterior at least, as being almost entirely of the late medieval period.

Even on a bright day the great space you step into can seem a little gloomy with its middle-brow floors and furnishings, a fairly urban affair of the 1860s, and this is perhaps because the restoration here was carried out at the hands of Frederic Chancellor, by no means always a happy circumstance. Still, the bones of the building survive, and looking east is to see the surprise of two triple light windows above the off-centre chancel arch. Best of all are the bosses in the low-canted roof above the clerestory. Among them, a man in a cowl lifts his cloak, a man sticks his tongue out and a cherub rises from an urn. There is a creature with a human head, a green man and what looks like a cat, though it may be intended as a lion.

person in a cowl lifting up their cloak green man cat
head man sticking his tongue out creature with a human head
cherub above an urn cherub long-haired man

A restored parclose screen from the start of the 15th Century sits at the east end of the north aisle, and may suggest a date for the completion of the church a century before the roof was raised and the clerestory added. The only other old survival in the nave is the font, a curiously primitive affair considering its size, the bowl with panels depicting the evangelistic symbols alternating with angels holding shields, though it is quite unlike the East Anglian series of fonts that feature this sequence. Glass of 1868 in the north aisle depicts a series of figures of saints by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, including St Valentine, and I cannot think of another representation of him in an Essex church, or indeed in any of the churches of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk or Suffolk either. The other figures here are St Edmund, St George and St Dorothy.

The best glass in the church is the 1931 east window by Martin Travers, an artist who was always more than competent and here especially so. The scenes of the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple flow into each other, and from a distance appear almost to form a single scene.

Annunciation, Nativity, Presentation in the Temple (Martin Travers, 1931) Annunciation (Martin Travers, 1931) Nativity (Martin Travers, 1931) Presentation in the Temple (Martin Travers, 1931) I have seen with my own eyes the coming of Salvation
and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger Gabriel at the Annunciation Mary at the Annunciation

There are a couple of pieces of old glass, a Tudor royal arms and an M monogram that would presumably have been associated with an image of the Blessed Virgin, but such details are thin on the ground in comparison with the sheer scale of the anonymous, urban space they inhabit. Most striking of all perhaps is quite how few memorials there are here, in comparison with so many grand churches which are home to the expensive monuments of successive generations of their wealthy local families. Such memorials are not always well done of course, and those that they remember may appal us at this distance, but such things do provide a counterpoint beat to the passage of a church building over time, telling us as much about the lives of the ordinary people of the parish as they do of their masters. Here, there are only a few scraps remaining of our ancestors' imaginations to speak for them.

Simon Knott, December 2021

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High Easter looking east looking west
font Tudor royal arms M European War
St Edmund St George St Valentine (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1862) St Dorothy
Samuel in the house of Eli, Lois with Eunice and Timothy (Heaton, Butler & Bayne?) St Valentine and St Dorothy (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1868) St Edmund and St George (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1868) Life of Christ (Heaton, Butler & Bayne?)


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