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St Mary, Wendens Ambo

Wendens Ambo

Wendens Ambo Wendens Ambo west door Wendens Ambo

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  Before the hills, Saffron Walden suburbia and the valley of the Cam. A short distance from the old London Road, tucked behind Audley End station which serves Saffron Walden but is actually in this parish, sits this lovely little church. The parish name means 'both Wendens', this being the former Great, the erstwhile Little having completely disappeared.

The Norman tower with its Hertfordshire spike is a reminder that we are not far from that border. The west doorway is ancient, the lining including old Rman bricks. The nave is surprisingly high, lifting well above the much earlier chancel and making the aisles below seem perfunctory. The clerestory is obviously even later, being in a 16th Century style right on the eve of the Reformation.

The setting of the church is lovely, with typical north Essex cottages with coloured plaster and thatched roofs lining the lane up to the church, but the nearby M11 fills the churchyard with its roar when the wind is from the west.

You step into an interior which inevitably feels rather cramped with its narrow aisles and nave roof lifted so high overhead, and perhaps a little gloomy too. But as your eyes adjust to the light you find that this church has a little of everything. As well as Peter Caller's striking Annunciation of 2002, depicting St Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin floating above the rooftops of the village, there is a 15th Century angel and continental roundels of the 16th Century including a crucifixion and St Mark writing his gospel with his evangelistic symbol of a lion seated patiently at his feet.

angel (15th Century) crucified (continental, 17th Century) St Mark lion of St Mark

Elsewhere there is a fragment of a wall-painting depicting part of the St Margaret story, a screen, old corble faces, the brass of a knight, and best of all, and surely most memorably, a 15th Century bench end of a tigress looking into a mirror.

tigress looking in a mirror (15th Century) tigress looking in a mirror (15th Century)

This depicts a story from the medieval bestiary - or rather, two stories that are slightly different. In the first, a man steals one of the tigress's cubs. She swiftly chases the man, but when the tigress comes near and the robber sees he can't escape, he throws down a a mirror. The tiger, seeing its own reflection and thinking it is her stolen cub, stops to nurse it, giving the robber time to escape. Perhaps it is an allegory about overcoming the power of evil. Equally interesting is the pairing sometimes found of a tigress with a mirror and a mermaid with a mirror and comb. In this case, the bench end represents vanity. I wonder if there was ever a mermaid bench end at Wendens Ambo.

Simon Knott, May 2020

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looking east looking west
knight Robinson memorial window Annunciation pipe organ prodigal son
martyrdom of St Margaret (14th Century) Wendens Ambo pigs
Homer Simpson killed in action at the Dardanelles Mr Burns

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