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All Saints Great Braxted

All Saints Great Braxted


ST NICHOLAS WITHAM ROAD LITTLE BRAXTEDSt Nicholas, Little Braxted, is one of the smallest churches in Essex, and is also one of the most surprising.  It was built in the early part of the 12th century.  On the outside it is very simple, almost plain, with its walls of flint-rubble and puddingstone held together by generous quantities of render.  It has kept its original Norman apsidal east end, although only one Norman window remains, on the north side; the rest have been replaced at different times, mostly in the 14th century.  But as you step inside the door you enter a completely different world, for the interior is richly furnished and decorated in a quite unexpected way.

ST NICHOLAS WITHAM ROAD LITTLE BRAXTEDThis contrast is due to the Revd Ernest Geldart (1848-1929), who was rector of Little Braxted from 1881 to 1900.  Before taking Holy Orders Geldart trained as an architect, and thereafter managed to combine the two careers, supplementing his rather meagre stipend by designing, for the most part, church furnishings and fittings and small extensions for his fellow clergy.  At Little Braxted, he found the basic structure in good shape (it had been restored in 1856 by Ewan Christian), but the inside was, to his mind, rather dull, and not what he considered a church should look like.  ‘God’s house,’ Geldart wrote, ‘ought to be the finest house, and the most beautiful house in a parish’, and that is what he set out to create here.

Over a period of five years he gradually transformed the interior, and also added a new north aisle and vestry.  The walls and much of the furnishings were comprehensively decorated with stencil-work and pictures (much of the work done with his own hands), and he installed a new font, low chancel screen, altar and reredos, and choir stalls.  Practically no surface was left unadorned, and the combination of pictures, texts and symbolic devices spells out Geldart’s theological as well as his artistic creed.  The paintings on the reredos depict the Old Testament forerunners of Holy Communion.  Shields round the top of chancel wall carry emblems of the Passion, while the emblems on the shields along the chancel screen represent Christ himself.  The three large pictures show the Nativity, the Apostle’s Creed, and the three Trees (Knowledge, Healing, and Life), and thus encapsulate the fundamentals of Christianity.  By way of intellectual diversion, the decoration also includes a number of chronograms: Latin inscriptions containing letters that double as Roman numerals (i, v, l, etc) which, added together, come to 1884, when the major part of the work was completed.  Geldart also introduced new stained glass windows by Cox, Sons, Buckley & Co., and Ward & Hughes.  A long-case clock that he placed at the back of the church was unfortunately stolen a few years ago.

Not everyone approved of the changes that Geldart made, because they were accompanied by elaborate services, with vestments, candles, incense, processions and other forms of ritual, which for many people too closely followed Roman Catholic practice.  Letters of complaint appeared in the local papers and Geldart was even threatened with prosecution; but gradually his changes came to be accepted, and the numbers attending his services steadily grew.

Ill-health prevented Geldart from carrying out yet more work to the church: he had hoped, for example, to replace the little timber bell-turret with something bigger, and to build a lychgate in the churchyard.  In 1896, however, he added a small chapel to the rectory (now Little Braxted Place) in the main part of the village.  Other churches in the neighbourhood on which he worked include Great Braxted and Great Totham, and in terms of decoration the chancel at Ardleigh, near Colchester, rivals Little Braxted.

Over the years the wall paintings became extremely dirty and those in the north aisle were badly affected by damp.  In 1989-92 they were restored by Donald Smith, and the brocade and raffia wall coverings – another unusual example of Geldart’s taste in interior decoration – were restored by Rachel Ricketts.  Further repairs to the roof and ceiling were completed in 2005.

Other features of note at Little Braxted include the brass to William Roberts (died 1508), with his two wives, two sons, and three daughters.  William’s son Thomas, who died in 1535, left £4 for the south porch to be built, but it was rebuilt in the 19th century.  The last recorded member of the Roberts family at Little Braxted, also Thomas, died in 1680, and his tombstone can be seen in the floor also.

St Nicholas’ Church is situated just off the A12 to the east of Witham. It is normally open every day.