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All Saints Great Braxted

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Featured Church: St Mary the Virgin, Farnham CM23 1HR

St Mary's in about 1856
St Mary's in about 1856

The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Farnham was reroofed in 2011, with the help of a grant of £2500 from the Friends of Essex Churches Trust. St Mary's was rebuilt in 1858-59, and is an excellent, unspoilt example of a high-quality church building of its day. The building it replaced was described in 1768 by the Essex historian Philip Morant as being 'built, cathedral-wise, in the form of a cross, and leaded', but drawings of the church made shortly before the rebuilding show it to have been of very much the same shape and size as the building which replaced it, with a west tower, nave, chancel, and south porch, and no transepts. It had been restored in 1827 by George Perry of Bishop's Stortford, when a gallery was inserted at the west end at a cost of £38. By 1854, however, the church was described by the diocesan architect, Joseph Clarke, as having 'few points of attraction or interest, saving the south porch, and one or two isolated features. The tower is late and uninteresting, containing a weak outline and debased detail. The structure must now be considered on the verge of decay.'

Clarke's report led to the building of a completely new church, which was opened on 27 September 1859. It was largely paid for by Robert Gosling of Hassobury, the large house that lies about a quarter of a mile across the fields to the north-east. The Goslings, a London banking family, had been living at Hassobury since 1746, and Robert Gosling went on to rebuild the house in 1866-70. The cost of the new church was between £5000 and £6000, of which £4000 was contributed by Gosling and the balance by the rector, W. J. Copeland (the rector was legally responsible for the chancel, and presumably this is where his money was spent). This was not the first joint venture by Gosling and Copeland; in 1855 they had between them built the village school, designed by G. E. Pritchett of Bishop's Stortford.

St Mary'sThe new church, capable of seating 300 people, was built of brick, faced mainly with flint, and with dressings of Ancaster limestone. In addition to the nave, 50 ft long and 20 ft wide, and the chancel, 30 ft long and 17 ft 6 in. wide, there was a north aisle 14 ft wide, and a chapel on the north side of the chancel, used for the vestry and organ chamber. All that was kept from the old church were six bells (three by Miles Graye, of 1615, 1618, and 1625), restored by Messrs Mears, and a seventeenth-century Flemish stained-glass panel of St Basil the Great. This had been purchased in Ghent by the Revd William Greenhill, rector for 23 years until his death in 1849, and whose monument (by Thomas Gaffin) was re-fixed in the tower. As well as restoring the church in 1827, Greenhill also built the rectory (now Thrimley House), designed by Samuel Ware in 1826; Greenhill was probably the first rector since the Reformation who actually lived in the parish.

The new church was described by the 'Ecclesiologist' (a publication notoriously difficult to please) as 'costly and beautiful', a reflection of the high standard to which it was finished. The reredos and other stone-carving were executed by William Farmer, and the coloured encaustic floor tiles were supplied by Minton, both leaders in their field. The 'opus sectile' gold and mosaic panels on the reredos, depicting the four Evangelists and Agnus Dei, were added in 1890 by James Powell & Sons.

St Mary's Stone WallA notable feature of the church is the low stone wall which separates the chancel from the nave, and which incorporates on the north side the lectern and on the south side the pulpit. Both are decorated with little columns of red marble from Darlington, and elsewhere red and green serpentine, with red granite and Cornish polyphant, were used. The font stands on six small shafts of Devon marble.

Very few changes have been made to the church since 1859. The additions to the reredos in 1890 have been mentioned. Stained glass windows have been installed over the years, mostly made by John Hardman & Co. as memorials to members of the Gosling family, including the east window to Robert Gosling (died 1869), chancel south to John Hobart Gosling (died 1880) and two windows in the north aisle of 1908 and 1923. The choir stalls were reset and new ones added in 1887, candle branches were added to the lectern in 1892, and the brass pulpit desk in 1898. The organ, by Henry Jones & Sons of South Kensington, was dedicated in 1890. In 1909, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the church, the font was enriched by laying a floor of Italian mosaic around it, and by the addition of an oak lid and brass ewer, all designed by the Revd Ernest Geldart, formerly rector of Little Braxted (see ST NICHOLAS, LITTLE BRAXTED). At the same time the churchyard was given a new oak fence and gates, but these have not survived. The war memorial opposite the west tower, a column of Forest of Dean stone, was designed by R. D. Shirley of Winchester and dedicated on 28 November 1920. In 1957 a new rector's stall was provided in memory of W. S. Gosling, designed by John Pym; the low screen which surrounds it incorporates a squirrel, from the Gosling coat of arms.

The church is located at the end of a track that runs east from the centre of the village. It is normally locked, but a key can be obtained from one of the churchwardens, Jo Wilson (01279 771295, jwilson.theglobe@btinternet.com).