The church is situated just south of Layer de la Haye on the B1026. Heading south, it is on the left hand side just after Wick Farm. It overlooks Abberton Reservoir which is well known for its waterfowl. There is a newly constructed church car park to the south of the church which is visible from the road. Coming from Layer de la Haye, drive a short distance past the church and turn left into the very short access road and left again into the car parking area.
The first record of the church's existence is found in a charter of 1128, although the oldest parts of the present walls were built some time before. At this time the church belonged to the Abbey of St John in Colchester, but within sixty years it had passed to the Priors of St Botolph. It was from these two great religious houses that the priests who ministered to the needs of the parish were drawn for over four hundred years.
The written records of the church are few. We know that after the Black Death the monks of St Botolph set to work to rebuild the nave and tower, both of which date from about 1350. A hundred years later they raised the chancel arch and gave the church its oldest bell (1459).
During the 17th and 18th centuries the church suffered from neglect while it was held in plurality with Berechurch and other places. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that steps were taken to repair the fabric of the church and make it fully fit for worship. This was during the incumbency of the first resident vicar. The church was also enlarged by the building of the south aisle because the population had more than doubled since the turn of the century.
The registers of the church date only from 1752, fire having destroyed the earlier ones which probably dated from the sixteenth century.
The bells are of particular interest and below is a link to a page giving fuller details. Early in 2001 we completed a major restoration project involving the installation of a new bell frame and ringing chamber in the tower, a new bell, and refurbishment of the other bells, the oldest of which dates back to circa 1459.
Related pages: - The Bells | Visitor's Guide
More images of the interior and exterior can be found at www.essexchurches.info/church.asp?p=Layer de la Haye
The church stands at the south west corner of Layer Breton Heath. Driving from Birch to Layer Breton you will find it on your left just before the Heath gives way to housing. There is a small car park on the south side of the church.
The smallest and newest of our three churches, St Mary's was constructed by the village firm of Huttons and consecrated on 16th November 1923. Built in remembrance of James Round of Birch Hall (a local landowner and Privy Councillor) by his relations and friends, it replaced the old Layer Breton Church. (This stood opposite Layer Breton Hall until being demolished in 1915 because it was unsafe. A picture of it hangs at the back of the church near the font.)
The sanctuary has fine oak panelling. On the north wall of the nave there is a memorial to a former churchwarden and benefactor, Walter de Zoete, given in 1934, and another to his wife Edith who died 13th May 1924. The organ at the back of the church was built by students of Merton Technical College, Wimbledon, and installed in March 1996. The cost was met by a bequest from a former parishioner, Vera Reiney.
Since the closure of St Peter's Church, Birch in about 1987 the church of St Mary has served the village of Birch as well as Layer Breton.
Layer Breton Heath is a good place for a short walk. The Heath is well looked after by a management committee and a hard working local group of Conservation Volunteers.
More images of the exterior can be found at www.essexchurches.info/church.asp?p=Layer%20Breton
St Peter's Church, mentioned above, is opposite the school in Birch. Designed by a well known Victorian church architect, Samuel Sanders Teulon, it was built in 1850 by Charles Gray Round, a local landowner. The spire is a prominent local landmark but was constructed of a relatively porous French stone which is now seriously decayed. The rest of the structure is also in a very bad state. Various efforts, including a flower festival, were made in 1985 to raise funds for the church's restoration. However, it became clear the fabric of the building was in such poor condition that the cost of restoration, some £80,000, was well beyond the resources of the local community. For safety reasons, such as falling masonry, the church ceased being used for worship in about 1987 and was officially closed in October 1990.
Around the time of the millennium, Birch Spire Arts Trust was set up with the aim of securing a sustainable future for the church by turning it into an arts centre. It was recognised the only likely alternative would be demolition of the building. Viability of the project depended on a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund but the Trust's application was turned down. In May 2006 a developer put forward proposals for converting the church into six residences. The proposed scheme involved two other 'enabling' residential developments in the village to provide the additional funding necessary to meet the cost of restoration work on the church. The consensus view among local residents was that they would prefer to see the church demolished rather than have the two other residential developments which the developer claimed were essential to the viability of its proposals. Subsequently the developer's option to purchase the building lapsed and was not renewed.
The building was inspected in January 2012, following which the total cost of repairs was estimated at £1.4 million, not including VAT and professional fees. Early in 2013 the Church Commissioners issued a Draft Pastoral Scheme for demolishing the building and making the footprint into a garden of remembrance, as part of the churchyard (which is still used for burials). Objections to the draft Scheme were lodged with the Commissioners and during the summer of 2013 the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust carried out a feasibility study of proposals to preserve the tower and spire by incorporating them into a residential dwelling. The outcome of the study was shown at an exhibition in Birch Memorial Hall on October 4th and 5th. The three proposals of the Trust itself were found to be unviable as in each case the cost of development was substantially greater than the estimated end value. A fourth proposal for residential development, by Mr Gary Cottee of Tiptree, was also shown. This proposal was submitted to the Church Commissioners in late October and considered by the Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee on 18th December 2013. The Committee reaffirmed its decision that the Draft Pastoral Scheme for demolition should proceed. It took the view that the proposals from Mr and Mrs Cottee were not financially viable or sustainable and would lead to a further prolonged period of uncertainty about the future of the building. The decision to proceed with the Scheme for demolition was referred to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who in July 2014 decided that a non-statutory public inquiry into the matter should be held. The public inquiry is expected to be held sometime in 2017.
More information about the church, and images of the interior and exterior, can be found at www.essexchurches.info/church.asp?p=Great Birch
From the B1022 road follow the brown signs to Layer Marney Tower. Continue along the road, past the entrance to the Tower. At the end of this road turn right and drive along the track to the church. From this track you will see a splendid view of the Tower on your right. There is space to park in front of the church.
The ancient and beautiful church of St Mary the Virgin is next door to the famous historic house of Layer Marney Tower. The church was rebuilt by Henry, 1st Lord Marney and John 2nd Lord Marney at the beginning of the 16th century, and left unfinished on the death of the 2nd and last Lord Marney. Their wills made provision for the church to be finished. Restorations were carried out in 1870 and 1911.
The church, all in the Perpendicular style, is built of Tudor brick (reputed to have been made locally). It has a west tower. On the north wall of the nave is a mural of St Christopher, dating from c.1520, which was uncovered in 1870. Also in the church are the tombs of the 1st Lord Marney who died in 1523, and his son John, 2nd Lord Marney, who died in 1525. A further item of interest is a five hundred year old iron-bound chest, given to the church by Lord Henry Marney or willed to it by his son.
More images of the interior and exterior can be found at www.essexchurches.info/church.asp?p=Layer%20Marney
Both the Church and the Tower are well worth visiting. The church is usually open during the day. Information on visiting Layer Marney Tower can be found on its website at www.layermarneytower.co.uk
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Page updated: 15 AUG 2016