Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Bradwell on Sea - St Peter on the Wall

I knew this was going to be special and it didn't disappoint (the birthplace of Christianity in East Anglia really shouldn't be a let down). Perched on the end of Essex St Peter is - lovely and when you add the history almost unique (can something be almost unique?).

THE CHAPEL of St. Peter on the Wall, simple as it at first appears, is of great interest, partly from its age - it is perhaps the oldest church in England of which so much remains - and partly as the sole monument of the short-lived Anglo-Celtic Church of the East Saxons.

Bradwell is really two sites, on the one hand the Roman fort/and St Peter’s by the sea-wall, on the other, St Thomas, the parish church, and Bradwell Lodge, 2 m. to the W, inland.

The ROMAN FORT now shows only by one four foot high fragment of the S wall. It stands close to the church, a little to its S. Excavations have proved the fort to have been 520 ft long. The E walls have been destroyed by the sea. So the width cannot be ascertained. Of the N wall 290 ft are known. At the NW corner and in the W wall further S were horseshoe bastions. The walls were c.12 ft thick. The fort is one of the class known as Saxon Shore forts, constructed to guard against attacks by sea rovers. The class is superbly represented in Kent and Sussex, and there is a fine example just outside Great Yarmouth (Burgh Castle). Bradwell-juxta-Mare has been tentatively identified with the fort named OTHONA listed in the Notitia Dignitatum, in which case it was garrisoned by a force of irregulars known as Fortenses.

ST-PETER-ON-THE-WALL stands astride the W wall of the fort. It is in all probability the very church built by St Cedd c. 654. It consists now of nothing but the nave, but the existence of a W porch and an apsed chancel as wide as the nave have been ascertained. In addition there were probably porticus, i.e. side chambers in transeptal positions to the N and S, just as in the earliest Saxon churches of Canterbury. Bradwell belongs in style to this Kentish group, the earliest group of surviving Christian churches in England. The chancel was separated from the nave by a tall arcade of three arches, just as at Reculver and St Pancras Canterbury. In the responds of the l. and r. arches, Roman brickwork can be recognized. The church is almost entirely built of Roman materials, apart from brick, also ashlar and septaria. The doorway is original except for the lintel. Original also is the W window, of quite a generous size. The side windows high up have original splays and jambs. The chapel lies completely alone except for one cottage a little distance away, exposed to the East winds of the North Sea, a moving sight.

St Peter on the Wall (3)


Park your transport

BRADWELL-ON-SEA. It is one of the forgotten wonders of our Motherland, with a story and a spectacle that must stir our hearts. We are here at the dawn of our history.

Here the Romans came and built a fort to keep the English back. They went away and the English came and built a church across the fort itself. The centuries passed, the Conqueror had had his day, the little church became a barn and was forgotten. The English builders set up their shrine about three miles away, 600 years ago, and from the 14th century till now its congregations have sung their praises and said their prayers within its walls.

Very old it has seemed to them, no doubt, as the generations and the centuries have gone by, and yet all the time there has been here this little consecrated barn built by the Saxons across the Roman fort, the citadel of God athwart the citadel of Caesar, one of the oldest surviving churches in England, far away in this forgotten corner of our land.

An enchanting little place, it has enjoyed its solitude for ages, a quiet pastoral life which even the Motor Age has not disturbed. It is true that the red brick tower of its 14th century church is only Georgian, but it is the newest thing we come to see. There are low plastered cottages, there is the brick cage which was the village lock-up with the whipping-post fixed to it, and there is a perfect mounting-block with an iron rod for the farmer’s wife to take hold of as she mounted her horse to ride home from church. There is a timbered rectory, with one wing built before the Reformation and one to keep it company in the Adam style.

It is a captivating group that is gathered about the church, and in the church itself is a chancel arch with moulded capitals, a brass portrait of a Bradwell lady, Margaret Wyott, in the days of Henry the Eighth, and little faces carved in stone by a mason 600 years ago. There are, on the walls and on the font, men with their tongues out, grim men with set lips, and a priest to keep them company. It is all 600 years old, and yet how young it is for Bradwell!

Come away to the consecrated barn by a tiny cottage on the lonely peninsula, where the Blackwater River runs into the grey North Sea. It is an ancient solitude, haunt of rare birds, nothing but a lonely land until one day a traveller came more curious than most and noticed this old barn. He noticed its unusual height, the well-shaped stones, and the Roman bricks, the round window high up above the tower, which the farmer did not use. He noticed the high gables and the signs of arches at one end. He measured it and excavated round about, and found a porch on the west and an apse on the east; and there was no doubt at all that this traveller stood in the very church founded by Bishop Cedd 1300 years ago at what was then called Ithancester.

For all these centuries this little place had stood, drenched by the spray at high tides, its prayer and praise forgotten by the world, but not actually forgotten, let us believe, within these walls which echoed them so long ago and have stood here braving the storms of the North Sea, waiting for praise and prayer to come again. And they have come. The old barn is a church again, a service is held within its hallowed walls once every year, and it is one of the 4000 scheduled monuments of England that are never to come down.

There is nothing like it in all England, for it is unique as a Saxon building, 50 feet long, 22 feet wide, with walls over two feet thick rising 24 feet up to the eaves.

But let us think of the dramatic conquest of which this little building speaks, the thrilling irony of its site. When the great evangelist of the Saxons came, Bishop Cedd, he found here a Saxon community with their huts and barns, gathered about the derelict fort the Romans had built to keep the Saxons out. Its walls were 12 feet thick, so jealous were the Romans of their little island. It was the Tilbury or the Sheerness of its time, and its great wall has been traced from one rounded corner to another rounded corner for a length of more than 500 feet, with two sides stretching seaward, one for 50 yards and one for 100. It formed a great quadrangle with two long lines parallel to the sea. The seaward line has been washed away by the waves, the sides running down to the sea are under the shore, the long inland wall can be traced exactly 522 feet. Only a fragment of this formidable work raises its head above the earth, a piece of wall and two bastions.

Thrilled by the arrival of a bishop in their midst, the Saxons set to work to build their church, and bravely they built it, for they set the church right across this 12-foot thick wall of the Romans, using the stones, red tiles, and pebbles lying about the ruined fort.

This is Bradwell. From this great wall the Roman Legions scanned the North Sea for the sea-rovers from the Elbe and the Schelde; it was their mighty refuge and defence. Now the sea covers their old home, the Roman Empire is no more, and the little church of the Saxons stands across the fort. Christianity has conquered.

We are all great travellers in these days, but who comes here? Few, very few; yet it is a sort of little Canterbury, and those who make this pilgrimage add a red-letter day to memory’s calendar.

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