Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Birchanger, Essex

Arthur Mee:

BIRCHANGER. Very impressive are the trees at the great house, a splendid clump of eight elms in a field, a lovely larch in the churchyard, and a superb cedar of Lebanon, 18 feet round the trunk. Birchanger Place has also a dovecot with plaster nests still on its walls. The church has lost the old round tower which would have made it one of a select little company of seven in Essex; but it has kept its Norman nave with two doorways, each with a tympanum, one carved with a horse. The chancel is a century younger, with four small lancet windows. We come in through one of the Norman doorways to see a 15th century font, seven benches as old, and a modern brass, interesting as being one of the first pictures of a soldier's khaki uniform on a memorial. It is to Jack Watney, a lad of 19 who fell in South Africa in 1901, and shows a figure in khaki in front of a machine-gun. The gravestone of a rector tells a moving little story of Advent Sunday in 1877, Walter Hatch had taken as his text the words "Come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord"; and only a few minutes later "God took him."

I was lucky when I visited as the church was locked, with no evidence of a keyholder, but a kind lady heard me trying the door and let me have a look around and take pictures. The exterior suffers from the loss of the tower (it also didn't help that it was overcast and mizzly) but the interior was interesting - the more so since it is normally inaccessible to the casual visitor!

St Mary the Virgin is one of the 250 Anglo-Saxon, or part Anglo-Saxon, churches that survive in Britain. It is built of flint rubble with dressings of limestone and clunch, and dates from the Saxo-Norman period (1000 to 1199). Birchanger may have had some kind of pre-conquest church but, due to re-building and alteration over the years what preceded St Mary is a matter for conjecture.

In the 1930's a 12th century south doorway was discovered, the internal arch was subsequently raised to accommodate the staircase to the organ gallery. Although similar in decoration to the west doorway it has additional foliage scrolls along the arch and a small carving high up in the tympanum depicting the Lamb of God, with cross flag of victory.

The interesting brass mentioned by Mee is to Lt Jack Southard Watney.He was killed in action at Tweefontein, in De Wet's attack on Christmas morning, 1901. He was the eldest son of Mrs Hattie Gilbey Watney of 24 Clanricarde Gardens,and of Ernest Watney. He was born in March 1882, and educated at St Paul's School and at Eton. He volunteered for active service in South Africa, and first served in the ranks of the Imperial Yeomanry. He was quickly promoted sergeant, and appointed to the 11th Battalion in June 1901, as machine gun commander, with the rank of Lieutenant in the army. In the action in which he fell he was in command of a maxim gun, and reported by Lord Kitchener to have been killed "while heading a charge". He died with all the men of his gun section around him either killed or wounded. Lieutenant Watney was buried at Tweefontein, and his name was inscribed on an obelisk, which has been erected there in memory of all those who fell in this action. He was buried near the battlefield but his remains were moved to Harrismith cemetery in 1958/9.

St Mary the Virgin

Aisle and Organ Gallery

Jack Southard Watney

 Is this graffiti and if so, is it a camel, a five legged horse or an excited stallion?

Window detail

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