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Wholesome vernacular

Squelching, salty marshes, galloping, open skies, crunching, cockleshell spits broken by echoing bird-calls make up the Dengie Peninsula: a mass of land in Essex, washed into existence by the Rivers Crouch and Blackwater and the North Sea.

The peninsula was once thick with trees. Now, the Mundon Furze is one of the last remaining areas of ancient woodland. These ancient oaks are often referred to as the ‘petrified oaks of Mundon’. Yet they are not petrified in the true sense: they are simply dead. Their gnarled branches reach, almost in agony, in to the sky, casting long shadows. Their silhouettes are haunting.  Here, it feels like time has ended.

Just an hour from central London, this desolate landscape is said to have influenced the cinematics of Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, as well as inspiring the Martian landing scene in H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds.

The tower at St Mary’s, Mundon, with its curious timber-framed skirt, could almost pass as a space-ship. Certainly, when one encounters it at the end of a winding road with the ancient oaks standing sentinel behind, it looks as though it simply landed on earth.

This structure of oak and clay wraps around the weather-boarded bell-tower of 1600,steadying the double-storeyed structure against the shifting earth underfoot.

The north porch, with its moulded mullions and frilly foliate carvings, also dates from this period. Over the threshold and underfoot,is the indent for a lost 16th century brass, once depicting a man with his two wives and his two groups of children. Now just empty outlines.

The north doorway itself dates to 14th century and is decorated with halved rosettes and square flowers. Indeed, the entire chancel, built of plaster and rubble, dates to this century. Recent conservation work revealed medieval wall-paintings to the north wall of the nave. Amongst fragments of a masonry grid, a crowned head pursued by assailant can be seen. Research has given us good reason to believe this is a depiction of the martyrdom St Edmund, who was killed by the Danes for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

The original chancel, we believe, surrendered to the moving soil, and was rebuilt in red brick in the 18th century. Murals coeval with the rebuilding decorate the interior. These are a naïve execution of trompe l’oeil or 'deceives the eye' - a painting technique that creates the illusion of a real, three-dimensional object.

The Commandment boards, topped with broken pediments and urns, are feigned in rich ochres. The Lord’s prayer is framed in painted pink marble and suspended from delicate ties.The entire composition is framed by heavy curtains, held back by tassels, which themselves cast dark shadows.A flash of Baroque in an otherwise wholesome, vernacular building.

The village that once surrounded St Mary’s is long gone. Apparently, it moved during the plaque of 1655 that was blamed on the marshland. However, the church remained, being on the pilgrimage route to St Peter’s church at Bradwell.

In 1944, St Mary’s was damaged by an errant V-bomb. Repairs followed some five years later, but by 1957, the roof was collapsing. It continued to decline.

The Friends of Friendless Churches rescued this building from the brink in 1975 (see photo). Taking it into our care, we repaired the building. By 2009, with the generosity of (then) English Heritage, we set about underpinning the building and conserving the fragile murals.

On land like this, St Mary’s won’t stay still for long…

This article first appeared in December issue of The Countryman and is reproduced with kind permission of the editor.  More articles on Friends churches will appear in 2019 issues of the magazine.