Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Little Leighs, Essex

St John the Evangelist is barn like and sits amidst the fields; despite the presence of two or three cottages it feels very isolated and exposed so I was utterly amazed to find it open (I almost didn't try the door so certain was I that it would be locked). Another minor miracle that restores my faith in mankind!

It's an extraordinarily peaceful spot and I spent much longer than usual mooching around the churchyard savouring the atmosphere. On my way to the next location I stopped to admire the very lovely Leez Priory but a wedding was in progress did not have the gumption to enter the grounds!

Sadly a fairly savage Victorian restoration has stripped the church of its soul but it does retain, in the chancel within an early 14th century recess, with external tiled quoins and a clunch canopy, the life-sized effigy (c.1300) of a priest buried in the tomb beneath. He wears Eucharistic vestments and his head is supported by two angels, now defaced.At his feet are a lamb and a lion with mane. More than 100 such wooden effigies survive but this is the only one of a priest known in England.The original appearance of the effigy is quite unlike that of today, being once coloured with gesso. There is some white in the creases of the robes and a small area of blue and red by the feet. Unusually, it is made of oak. It is wooden not because the donor could not afford stone, but because it was made to be movable to make a place for the Easter sepulchre.

ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST. Nave and chancel of flint rubble. The nave is of the C12, the chancel of the C13; it can be observed that the C12 laid the stones coursed, the C13 did not. One Norman window each in the N and S walls. No original windows in the chancel, but an original C13 doorway in the nave, with one order of columns and a roll-moulding with fillet. In the chancel N wall is an early C14 recess with ogee arch, cusped and sub-cusped, thin buttresses by the sides and a big finial. In the spandrels oak, roses etc. - the leaves already bossy. Over the W end of the church a belfry with a shingled broach-spire. - FONT. Octagonal, with tracery panels, C14. - PULPIT. With some old panels, e.g. linenfold. - BENCHES. Ten in the nave of a plain design, with a kind of vertical reeding in the ends. -  S DOOR C13 with two scrolled iron hinges. - PLATE. Cup and Paten of 1706 in a stamped leather case. - EFFIGY of a Priest, oak, c. 1300. 

St John the Evangelist (2)

Priest effigy c1300 (1)

Priest effigy c1300 (4)

LITTLE LEIGHS. A little place with two lanes and the River Ter between them, it has a great reminder of the world of centuries ago - a church with a Norman nave and Roman bricks in its windows, and the ruins of a priory which are still magnificent. They are all that is left of the paradise set up here by Lord Chancellor Rich out of the vast spoils that fell to his share when Henry the Eighth seized the monasteries and made millions. Here he kept Princess Elizabeth prisoner in the reign of Mary Tudor, and here lived the Chancellor’s descendants, worthier men than he, till 1673, when the place passed to the Earls of Manchester, then to the Dukes of Buckingham, and finally to Guys Hospital, whose Governors (we are sorry to say) destroyed it to save its upkeep. Today it is all a cared-for place again. Here flows the River Ter and down in its valley is this gem of Essex, the deep red buildings of the 16th century built on the site of the 13th century priory and with the gatehouses and courtyard of the priory itself. The river still shows us the ingenuity by which the monks filled their ponds, and the view of the medieval and Tudor buildings nestling in the valley is one of the most charming sights in the county.

What remains of the Tudor buildings is a group of two gatehouses and part of two sides of the outer quadrangle. The outer gatehouse has two storeys, and the original doors hang in the outer entrance; the inner gateway has three storeys with four turrets rising above its gables so that they almost hide four rich and lofty chimney shafts. The old doors of the inner gatehouse now hang in the inner archway of the outer gatehouse; they have panels with traceried heads, and at the ground level is a little door for dogs.

Through the inner gateway we pass into the inner courtyard, the cloister of the priory 700 years ago. In it stands a stately conduit built from stones of the monastic buildings; it has a pinnacled parapet. From the roof of the gateway we see the plan of the nave and transepts and tower of the old priory, and the white fragment of the tower remaining shows us how lovely this great white place must have been. Today there are lovely gardens surrounded by old brick walls, and this lovely place is a home again.

The small church, with the light still falling through windows shaped in Roman bricks, has two doorways 700 years old, one with its original door, a font and a roof 600 years old, and a very rare treasure in the 700-year-old chancel. It is the oak figure of a 13th century priest carved out of a log and showing him in his robes with his feet resting on two beasts, his head on cushions held by two angels. He is a very solemn figure and very beautiful, one of the hundred wooden figures that have survived from medieval England. He lies in a setting worthy of him, a recessed arch with a richly carved finial and shafts at each side with little heads at the pinnacles, and heads and acorns in the carving of the arch. In the nave are ten Tudor pews, and in the chancel a 17th century chair with its rich red cover still unfaded.

Flickr set.

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