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St Leonard, Southminster


Southminster north porch Southminster
three tiers west doors image niche base

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

  Here we are at the end of the Dengie peninsula, one of the more remote spots in the south-eastern corner of England. I cycled two miles north from the pleasing little seaside town of Burnham-on-Crouch to Southminster. Burnham is the second largest town on the peninsula after Maldon, Southminster the third largest, although all these things are relative, of course - wikipedia gives Maldon 14,000 people, Burnham has 8,000 and Southminster just 4,000. So it didn't take long.

Southminster probably takes its name from being the first outpost of St Cedd's cathedral at Bradwell at the end of the 7th Century, perhaps even on the site of the current church. The town is slightly rougher than its yachting centre neighbour, more Essex one might say, and its parish church of St Leonard, my 327th Essex church, is also far from sophisticated, being a great battered hulking beast of a church. The Reformation had left behind a squat, aisleless church with clerestories and an unfinished tower, but during the Georgian years at the start of the 19th Century, Alexander Scott the rector took advantage of the Church Building Act of 1818, the so-called Commissioners' Churches legislation, to greatly raise the walls above the clerestories in brick. This is rendered on the north side, but remains in its rather startling original form to the south, where there is also a sundial dated 1814.

A board inside the church records that the Commissioners' funding was insufficient in itself, but money also came from Charterhouse, the patrons of the church, to provide for the accomadation of the lower orders in unappropriated settings, which is to say free seats for the poor. Opportunity was also taken to vault the nave interior in an entirely unecclesiological style. I very much wanted to see this, but the church was locked without a keyholder notice, so I rang the current rector. He sounded terribly disappointed that someone wanted to see inside, but did at last agree to "wander down in a short while". A short while was only about five minutes, and it turned out that he was not reluctant at all, just a bit awkwardly shy, and his enthusiasm grew as we talked.

You step into a church unlike any other, the painted Gothick vaulting more typical of the 18th Century than the 19th, and entirely out of scale, without any weight. It feels unconnected. Looking east, the church opens out into a crossing, vaulted in the same style with wide, blockish transepts, and beyond them an absurd chancel, octagonal and raised high above the nave. This was the 1890s High Church work of the architect William Henry Lowder, a former pupil of Butterfield, who could do pretty much whatever he liked because he was the rector here. The massive reredos in the anglo-catholic style is still lost in this great space.

This is one of those big churches which still feels cluttered, the accretion of a couple of centuries worth of junk creating a sense of history having happened here in its own quiet way. And in a slightly louder way too, for Alexander Scott had been Nelson's chaplain and had been with him at Trafalgar when he died. When Scott came here, he brought with him various artefacts which he had inherited from his former master, including the great clerks desk which sits at the west end of the south side of the nave. Also Nelson's was the display cabinet shoehorned beside the tower arch, and there is more in the vestry which the rector took great pleasure in showing me, including Nelson's fireplace and, I kid you not, Nelson's mirror. Whether or not the mirror really did belong to Nelson no one can know now of course, but in the 1930s Arthur Mee in The King's England: Essex, loved the story, noting in awe of the mirror that into it he must have looked, as if it were a sacred relic, and thus as so often elevating one of his protestant Englishman heroes to the status normally accorded a popish saint.

While we were talking and I was poking around, three other people came into the church. I don't know if the rector was surprised, but to give him due he seized on them with enthusiasm, showing them around too. I was pleased for him.

I cycled on north, aiming for Bradwell-on-Sea. First, I headed out past Asheldham church, which I'd visited in 2017, to find at last the church of St James, Dengie, my 328th Essex church. The parish from which the peninsula takes his name is small, and its church small too, typical of most of the churches in the area. I'd briefly looked for this the previous year, but hadn't found it, and in the end had headed on to catch my train home from Southminster. It turned out that it was on the back road down to the marshes. A towerless church with a bell turret, and locked, which seemed a shame, as reading about it made it sound more interesting than most on the peninsula. A very odd blocked doorway sits on the north side of the west end - what could it have been for?

I cycled on through Tillingham, past the open parish church of St Nicholas which I had liked very much when I visited it last year, and over the long ridge and down into Bradwell-on-Sea.

Simon Knott, May 2020

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looking east

St Leonard and Christ the Good Shepherd The Risen Christ and St Cedd with Bradwell chapel chancel provide for the accommadation of the lower orders St Luke and St John (1940s) St Mark and St Matthew (1940s)
William Henry Lowder

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