Quaint, historic buildings pepper the north Essex countryside. Most people exploring this area will strike out for the gems of Uttlesford, including Saffron Walden and Thaxted, with their magnificent churches. But, slightly off the beaten track, is the fairytale church at Helions Bumpstead.
The most striking thing about this church is its elegant, white interior, which creates something of a wedding-cake finish. The pews, pulpit, organ, walls and doors are all white, with a few red and gold highlights. Only a few pieces of furniture in the chancel are not white, but even they have their individual charm (which we will come on to later). This unique church has a calming atmosphere and is a lovely place to relax, especially on the warm Autumn afternoon that I visited.
But beneath all that atmosphere, the church has a story to tell. It bears its scars on its sleeve with reused woodwork, exposed wall paintings, graffiti, a badly painted monument and a shed that became a porch. Read on to learn all about the unusual church at Helions Bumpstead.
Scars of the Past
The outside shows a lot of interesting archaeological evidence of how the building has changed. There are different materials indicating stages of building and blocked up windows and doors. Yet it gives nothing away of its pretty interior!
We all know the turbulent background that churches have had. Medieval churches were once vibrant treasure troves of pictures painted on walls and stained glass. The Reformation in the 1540s and the religious zeal of reformer William Dowsing around 100 years later, saw the interiors of many churches stripped of all of their imagery and furniture. Helions would have been no exception.
Pre-Reformation churches would have had chancel screens that separated the nave from the chancel. Often called Rood Screens because a Crucifixion (or Rood) usually stood proudly on top. Helions would have had one of these which was destroyed. But later carpenters, who were tasked with building new pews and pulpit, recycled the broken remains of the screen and other woodwork. The pew frontal displays this most clearly where the arches don’t quite marry-up and carved faces, which would have been a feature elsewhere, go unnoticed here.
The two partially uncovered wall paintings probably date from the seventeenth century. Rather than the bright colourful figures and scenes of pre-Reformaion England, puritans felt that text was acceptable as it drew directly upon writing in the bible.
These two exposed features are quotations from the Apostles creed. There is likely to be much more wall painting underneath the plaster and some people might like to uncover as much of the wall paintings as possible. The reality is that it would be far too expensive to do that and we might risk losing them completely. At least while they remain covered up they are safe.
Masons, builders and parishioners have all left their mark on the church in the form of graffiti. Many churches would have had graffiti from the medieval period but rebuilding works, restoration and many layers of paint often obliterates it. Here in Helions we have masons marks, initials, a daisy wheel or witches circle and this lovely crossbow. Raking Light has documented them in depth.
Have you ever seen a monument painted in such a crude way like this one? Pevsner describes it as follows:
“Devereux Tallarkarne d.1627 and wife, epitaph of unusual design. No figures. Inscription and ornamental panels between termini caryatids. Tall obelisks and a shield on top. The monument is a copy of that to Luce Tallakarne at Ashen.”
Interestingly Pevsner does not mention the fact it is bright pink with the female figures supporting the obelisks painted in very fleshy colours – I wonder how the Puritans would have felt about her. Although not what we are used to, the monument would have been painted in the 1600s, perhaps even in similar colours. Check out its brother monument in Ashen here.
In addition is a marble wall mounted tablet, the inscription of which is all in Latin. A cherub’s head with wings supports the tablet from beneath and it too is painted in quite a striking way. His hair actually looks quite stylish and cute, but the eyebrows are very thick and have turned blue over time.
Although slightly worse-for-wear and a little crude, I am really rather fond of these monuments and the way the sit slightly out of place in a church, that is otherwise mostly white.
Final history bits
In the 1950s, locals restored the church to its former glory, after it had been closed for a number of decades. They recruited builders, who quickly got to work on the restoration, replacing the roof and the gutters. They even salvaged an old barn and erected it as the new porch. After a final lick of paint, the building reopened to the public and has served them ever since. Like many other buildings, this period of lockdown (Summer 2020) is the longest it has been closed since then.
Some of you may also be wondering – and hopefully smiling – about the name of the village: Helions Bumpstead. Bumpstead or Bumpsteda was the name of the area that covered both Steeple and Helions Bumpstead. It referred to a place where reeds grew. When William the Conqueror compiled his Doomsday Book, he gave the manor to one of his French friends called Tihell who came from a village in France named Hellean.
What a perfect name for a fairytale church to be at Helions Bumpstead.
A case against whitewashing
I just wanted to finish with a little bit of a debating point. Although I have celebrated the beautiful interior of this church, which is mainly because of its white painted interior, there are many people who prefer to see the stonework beneath. Over the years the styles of churches have changed based on the feelings of the time. During the Victorian period, architects and builders stripped the whitewash from the walls of many of our churches. This leaves the stone and brickwork beneath exposed, which is something we are much more used to seeing today.
Building historians argue that this allows us to see how a building has changed over time. Perhaps an archway had been blocked or a window opening altered in the past. It is much more difficult for us to see this evidence if it is covered over with a thick layer of whitewash or plaster. But other, historians argue that this appearance is not ‘original’. Who can say what is right? What do you think? Have you a preference either way? Do reply in the comments and let me know.
I hope you enjoyed the whistlestop tour around St Andrew’s church. It really is a unique building! If you want to read more about churches have a look at my tour of the highlights in Salle church.
Bye for now!