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Architecture. . One of the three classical arts since antiquity.
And we are surrounded by it. We live in buildings, work in and worship in them. We spend time in
buildings put up for our entertainment – cinemas, theatres, galleries - and we visit architectural gems
for our enjoyment.
Essex is where Britain was born, when many thousands of years ago our ancestors walked across the
vast wasteland, which is now the North Sea, to colonise what became this beloved island.
And so although images of our views and villages adorn less calendars, chocolate boxes and biscuit
tins than any other county, we have more than our share to offer to the country’s history through the
fabric and fables of our built environment.
“A Citadel of God athwart the Citadel of Caesar”
To Bradwell, on the lonely Blackwater Estuary, with its salt marshes, big, grey, low skies
and eerie call of invisible sea-birds, the Romans came in the 3rd century and built a fort to
keep the English away.
Eventually, the conquerors returned, the English came back and the Roman fort of Othona
was allowed to fall into disrepair and disuse.
Until in 653 AD the King of the East Saxons – Sigeberht the Good – asked Cedd to travel from
Lindisfarne to spread Christianity throughout his kingdom.
Legend has it that the Bishop travelled by boat from the Holy Island, down through the
North Sea, with only one other monk for company. When he arrived in Essex he found there
a thriving community built around the ruined fort who, thrilled at the visit from Cedd
himself, set to work building a church – the Chapel of St Peter on the Wall - using Roman
stones upon Roman foundations.
From here, Cedd founded many churches and monastic institutions including Prittlewell
(Priory), Tilbury, Mersea, and Upminster. He also established a number of preaching sites
including one at the location upon which now stands St Mary the Virgin in Great Burstead.
Cedd was eventually appointed Bishop of the East Saxons but following his death from the
Plague in Yorkshire (where he is buried), the Chapel became part of the Diocese of London,
eventually falling into disrepair, its remaining building being used as a barn.
In the early 1900’s, a traveller to this lonely and haunting peninsula noticed the barn, its
unusual construction, height and use of stones. When excavations revealed a porch and an
apse, it was realised that this humble building was the same chapel that Bishop Cedd had
founded – and preached from - 1300 years ago.
This Chapel of St-Peter-On-The-Wall was fully restored and is now once again holding regular public services and observing the Christian calendar. It is also a centre of worship for the local Othona Community, a meeting place for people of all beliefs, from all countries and backgrounds to explore the world, life and faith.
St Cedd is Patron Saint of Essex (celebrated on October 26Th) and the Diocese of Bradwell
today still stretches to, and incorporates, Southend-on-Sea.
The Chapel itself is the 19th oldest building in the UK and is unique as a Saxon building.
And from its strange and lonely location continues to this day to provide ministry to the
people of Essex and beyond.
Visiting St Peter-on-the-Wall: -
Address: Bradwell-on-Sea, CM0 7PN
Entry is free.
Location/Access: A small parking area to the east of the village and access is by walking
several hundred yards along a stony track. (Writer’s opinion: - May be
unsuitable/uncomfortable for wheelchair users.)
To contact the Othona Community:
Phone: +44 (0)1621 776564
Post: The Othona Community, East End Road, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, CM0 7PN
It would be impossible to miss the imposing and majestic edifice that is the Abbey Church
of Waltham Holy Cross and St Lawrence at Waltham Abbey. It has been said that it is
without an equal in the county of Essex. And the chronicles and legends that are
associated with this magnificent place are woven amongst the accounts that make up the
history of our own Island.
Back in the mists of time – and in the mysterious void we now refer to as the Dark Ages –
a humble Somerset blacksmith discovered a large flint cross bearing a likeness of Christ,
not far from the site of Glastonbury.
Upon the instruction of the Lord of the Manor, Tovi, the cross was loaded onto a wagon to be taken to one of the great religious centres at Canterbury or Winchester. But the oxen had other ideas and refused to move for any man, whatever his status. Eventually, Tovihad had enough and declared he was going back to his hunting lodge at Waltham, which he had been gifted by King Canute, for whom he was standard-bearer. At this, the cattle upped and proceeded to pull the wagon non-stop, 150 miles, until they reached north Essex whereupon Tovi immediately decided to build a church that would house and glorify his new religious artefact.
But this is not at all the beginning of the Abbey’s story.
Archaeological investigations in the late 20th Century revealed a much earlier origin of the site than had previously been believed – with possibly five distinct churches at the site, the earliest of which was a wooden structure built c.610 at the bidding of Sabert (The Good),King of the East Saxons and relative of the now internationally famous Prittlewell Prince.
After Sabert’s death in 617, his kingdom reverted to paganism and did not become Christian again until near the end of the 7th century, with the arrival of St Cedd who landed on the Essex coast at Bradwell.
Tovi’s church was the second structure at this site and it soon became a centre for
pilgrimage as people flocked to see the miraculous cross and to seek healing by praying
One of those was Harold Godwinson (later King Harold II), at that time Earl of Essex and East Anglia. Delighted by a miraculous cure for his earlier paralysis, he rebuilt the church – with a college - on a grander scale, and it was consecrated to the Holy Cross in 1060. He returned to the sanctuary in 1066 to pray on his way to meet William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings, and then returned again – but this time in body only – having received the infamous and fatal arrow in his eye. It is said he was carried there by the grieving Abbey monks – and his mistress! – to be laid at rest in the graveyard.
Daniel Defoe's 18th Century work “A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain” mentions Waltham Abbey where “the ruins of the abbey remain; and tho’ antiquity is not my proper business, I cou’d not but observe, that King Harold, slain in the great battle in Sussex against William the Conqueror, lies buried here; his body being begg’d by his mother, the Conqueror allow’d it to be carried hither; but no monument was, as I can find, built for him, only a flat grave-stone, on which was engraven, Harold Infoelix” (Harold the Unfortunate).
The new Norman conquerors, who strongly believed that great building works were
statements of great power, subsequently demolished Harold’s church and built one of their own – much of which can be seen today.
But in 1177, Henry II, as penitence for his role in the murder of the Archbishop of
Canterbury, Thomas Becket, re-founded Harold’s college as an Augustinian Priory and to
ratify the sincerity of the penance he raised his foundation to the status of an Abbey in
1184. There are still traces of an enormous eastward enlargement of the building, materials for which came from the Peak District, the Pennines, Gloucestershire and Kent. The completed abbey, which was now bigger than Winchester Cathedral and cost Henry over £1000, was finally re-dedicated on 30 September 1242, by the Bishop of Norwich.
In the following years, the abbey prospered, received thousands of pilgrims and was the last abbey to be dissolved during the Dissolution (probably because of Henry VIII’s fondness for the bountiful hunting grounds around Waltham and Epping), and although the King suggested Waltham as one of the new cathedrals for the Church of England, the proposal came to nothing. This was a disaster for the town which had relied upon the pilgrims for income and employment. The Cross itself now completely disappeared, the building fell into disrepair and the Norman tower collapsed. But one man who did very well out of it was the choirmaster Thomas Tallis (now considered one of England’s greatest composers), who was awarded 20 shillings in outstanding wages, 20 shillings "reward" and went on to become choir master at Canterbury Cathedral.
In 1859 the architect William Burges was appointed to undertake an extensive restoration of the site and to refurbish the interior, most of which we see today.
Of particular note to visitors are the supposed site of Harold’s tomb, and the stained glass which includes early work by the renowned Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burne-Jones.
Opening hours (Open seven days a week):
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday & Friday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Wednesday: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sunday: 12 noon to 4 p.m.
(Opening hours are subject to additional services and recitals. To check contact the Parish
Office on 01992 767897 or email them at email@example.com)
Although for us in this relatively peaceful era, the mighty River Thames represents trade
and commerce, wildlife and the environment, tourism and leisure, it has - since ancient
times - played a role of enormous strategic military importance and the evidence of this
can still be seen today in the remains of forts, abandoned military installations, disused
piers and in the relics of sunken wrecks and downed WW2 aircraft which lay quietly on the
In the 1860’s, during a period of political tension with the French, a fort was built at
Coalhouse Point, East Tilbury, to guard the lower Thames . It was equipped with some of
the most modern weapons and defences of that time. However, due to the lengthy
construction process caused by the marshy ground conditions, and the rapid pace of
artillery development across Europe, Coalhouse Fort was obsolete almost as soon as it was completed.
Henry VIII had originally ordered the construction of an artillery blockhouse in 1539 with a small permanent garrison in attendance, but by the 18th century it was in ruins. Although the Dutch fleet exposed the woeful weakness of the Thames defences (it was they who destroyed the tower of neighbouring St Catherine’s church at The Point), it was over 100 years until a new battery was constructed very close to St Catherine’s and named after a
coal wharf which had once served the Tilbury area.
In the 1850’s Britain and France engaged in an arms race with increasingly accurate and
powerful weapons mounted on faster and more efficient iron warships. For the British, such weapons in the hands of the French posed a threat to the armaments works at Woolwich Arsenal, the shipyards at North Woolwich and the Purfleet military installations.
Prevailing military strategy demanded that Coalhouse Fort be re-fortified to such a degree
that a minefield could be installed under wartime conditions.
It was Colonel Charles George Gordon (he who subsequently and famously died in the Battle of Khartoum) who supervised the completion of the construction project in 1861 when he was Commander of the Royal Engineers and therefore in charge of the defences of one of Britain’s greatest rivers. It was completed at a cost £130,000.
During the First World War the Fort was manned by No. 2 Company, Royal Garrison
Artillery and the 2nd Company London Electrical Engineers who operated the electric
searchlights. A minefield was installed in the river with mechanically operated mines in the
shallower parts of the Thames and remotely detonated mines in the navigable channel. The
Fort also took on the role of an Examination Battery controlling the river traffic, checking
incoming vessels and an anti-aircraft battery was also established to provide defence
against Zeppelins and enemy bombers.
Following The War, defence cuts prevented the Fort from being upgraded although it
became an "emergency" battery during the anti-invasion preparations of the early Second
World War and was subsequently enhanced with two light anti-aircraft guns, a detached
concrete observation tower - to control the electrically detonated mines that had been laid
in the river - and a radar tower. Its role in the defence of the eastern approaches to London
resulted in it being bombed on several occasions.
By 1944 the threat of invasion had abated and Coalhouse Fort was handed over to the
Home Guard and a detachment of Wrens who operated a degaussing range.
The Fort was decommissioned in 1949 and, having served various civilian purposes in
between, was purchased by Thurrock Council in 1962 the same year as the buildings and
installations at The Point were collectively designated as a scheduled monument in
recognition of their status as "a remarkable group of defensive sites".
Since 1985, the site has been leased to the Coalhouse Fort Project, a heritage charity
operated by volunteers who have since then been undertaking the gradual restoration of
the Fort. Regular public open days are held which showcase the Fort and the various
historical items of military equipment which it retains.
The project, which has a High Commendation from the British Archaeological Awards,
featured in the BBC Restoration series and in the 2005 film Batman Begins in which it
“played the role” of a Bhutanese prison.
St Catherine’s Church stands on the site of the original chapel of St Cedd (Bishop to the East
Saxons), built in 654 AD and which stood below the present high tide level.
The original St Catherine’s tower having been destroyed by the Dutch, was replaced by a
stump tower, built by the First World War garrison of Coalhouse Fort, No.2 Company,
London Electrical Engineers and established in memory of their fallen comrades.
Opening hours and further information: -
To find out about the Fort, its open days, guided tours and special events visit
For information about the ancient church of St Catherine, East Tilbury visit