Churches talk from an expert in his field lifts the spirits

Spectacular, but do you know which Essex church this is?

Dr James Bettley gave the latest in our series of free CPRE Essex ‘virtual’ talks when he considered My Favourite Essex Church. Here is a summary of what he shared with a delighted audience.  

Forgive the rather cheesy title, Dr James Bettley urged us as he began his talk My Favourite Essex Church.
The architectural historian continued in self-confessedly twee vein in telling us that the answer to the question of his favourite was usually “the one I am about to visit”.
And that amounts to a lot of favourites, the speaker and author of the Essex volume of the Buildings of England series having visited all the county’s churches aside from a handful built since the Second World War.
Acknowledging we all have our own favourites for different reasons, he shared with an audience of almost 40 people some of those that rang his own bell.
There was the church that provided the view from his bedroom window; there was St Edmund and St Mary’s Church, Ingatestone, where he was married; there was St Mary the Virgin Church at Debden, an example of 18th-century Gothick, for which he had a particular admiration.
The latter highlighted the role churches have played in the history of our society, the Debden site hosting the tomb chest of a fellow called Richard Chiswell, who shot himself in 1797 after losing money in the West Indies – he had been involved in the slave trade.
St Martin’s in Chipping Ongar; St Andrew’s in Hempstead, where eminent physician William Harvey was buried; St Leonard’s at Southminster; St Peter’s Chapel at Bradwell-on-Sea; Copford’s St Michael and All Angels, with its 12th-century wall paintings… it seemed no corner of Essex was untouched during the talk.
We learnt that Waltham Abbey was one of the largest places of Christian worship in the country – it had been considered as a cathedral but its proximity to London sank the idea.
Where there’s a Yin, there’s a Yang, they say, and so James felt moved to tell us about some churches that were definitely not among his favourites.
On the naughty step were St Andrew’s at Marks Tey, where the fittings had been cleared and the floor levelled to leave a bleak interior with the font marooned in “a sea of white flooring”.
St Nicholas at Tillingham on the Dengie peninsula had also had its pews taken out; their replacement with upholstered chairs and uninspiring tables gave the church the look of an old people’s home, our speaker believed.
St Mary’s at Stebbing with its leather sofa in the chancel drew particular ire, but James stressed that reordering could be done sensitively – you wouldn’t know anything had been done at St Peter’s in Boxted, we were told.
Critical to James’s view, though, was the importance of a church offering plenty to cherish on the inside as well as the outside. Further, there must be no padlocks on the doors!
And the winner? Dr James Bettley’s favourite Essex church?
St Mary’s, Radwinter, came close, but it was a building close to his home that took the title. OK, there were a few too many notices on the door (even if they were all welcoming), but St Nicholas at Little Braxted emerged the winner. The stunning interior is pictured above.
It had been a fascinating and enjoyable evening – and in truth there wasn’t a slice of Cheddar in sight…

  • The next CPRE Essex talk, being held via Zoom, is titled Essex Wildflowers and is scheduled for Wednesday, February 17. If you would like to join us, please contact David Mairs at