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All Saints, Rayne


Rayne Rayne soon to be hidden
Rayne way in Rayne

    After the longest winter in living memory, it was good to be back in the saddle again. I took my bike on the train to Braintree, and then cycled out of that busy little town on the Dunmow road. Already off to the west I could see red brick All Saints on the hill across the fields, like a castle among the still-bare trees. I knew from cycling out this way on previous occasions that it would soon all but disappear. In a few weeks time, when everything has greened up, the body of the church will hide behind the foliage, and only the top of the tower will be visible, a sentinel.

A few minutes cycling and a few fields passed brought me into Rayne, whose village sign informed me that it had been Essex village of the year in 2006. I found this a little surprising, as Essex has so many lovely villages, especially in the north of the county. I would not have counted busy Rayne as one of them. But I suppose that, as in other beauty contests, they take more than good looks into account. And the setting of All Saints is undeniably lovely. You turn up the Shalford road and then eastwards down a short track. The church sits beside the long wall of Rayne Hall, parts of which date back to the 15th Century, and once home to the fabulously wealthy Capel family. Sir William Capel, who acquired the estate in the 1480s, bankrolled the building of the church's glorious west tower in 1510, and this is your first close sight of the church as you approach it from the west.

However, wandering around into the churchyard you find that the rest of the building beyond the tower is entirely modern, in redbrick to match the tower and obviously done well, but of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. However, this church is very interesting in its way, as we shall see inside.

I had been to Rayne twice before, but both times the keyholder had been out. Third time lucky, perhaps, because when I rang the number a very nice lady answered who said "I'll come and show you around", which made my heart sink a bit, but in fact she did so with the lightest of touches. She was informative without imposing herself, and I was very grateful to her.

You enter the church through the west doors, and the nave you step into is of 1840 and pre-ecclesiological, as if this was a non-conformist preaching house. It was gradually kitted out as the century went on. Then in the 1890s came the chancel, and best of all in 1914 a new sanctuary in the height of Anglo-Catholic fashion with dark wood and Morris-esque glass which I was surprised to find came from the Norwich Glass Company. The best glass, possibly by Powell & Son in the 1890s, is oddly set in the westernmost windows in the north and south sides of the nave. The keyholder told me that she thought they had been the original chancel windows, reset here when the new sanctuary was built, and I'm sure she was right.

St Mark (Norwich Glass Company, 1914) of Pandoul India (Norwich Glass Company, 1914) St Luke (Norwich Glass Company, 1914)
Annunciation Adoration of the Shepherds Presentation in the Temple Baptism of Christ Three Marys at the empty tomb

What looks at first sight like a set of royal arms above the south doorway is in fact an 18th Century painting of the arms of the Earls of Essex. I don't think it was a hatchment. The nave itself is otherwise a suitably plain setting for the view into the jewel-like chancel to the east. The only thing that spoils it all is the set of bog-standard 19th Century pitchpine benches. The parish wants to reorder it with modern chairs and add a kitchen and toilets, which seemed to me a very good idea, as Rayne is not without people, Braintree is close at hand, and the church would make a very fine concert venue as well as being more suited to a young and active congregation. The Victorian Society are apparently supportive of the plans, the only remaining obstacle is convincing the people of the village.

One curiosity in the nave is a pair of cherubs, reset in isolation on the west wall. They look as if they are late 17th or early 18th Century, and apparently they were found discarded in the tower, so they probably came from this church originally and were thrown out at the time of the rebuilding. They look as if they might have come from a reredos, or even an organ case. Oddly, Pevsner thought the huge font was 14th Century. Well, it is in that style, but I am pretty sure it is a Victorian one, very much in the style of the similar monster at Norwich St Andrew. If it is 14th Century then it has been very heavily restored.

All in all, an interesting church, perhaps not immediately loveable, but full of idiosyncratic character nonetheless. I said goodbye to my kind host, and then it was time to break the surly bonds of Braintree and head off into the mystery and delight of the narrow lanes of the prettiest and remotest part of Essex.

Simon Knott, April 2018


Arms of the Earls of Essex looking east font

brick tombchests and the wall of Rayne Hall

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