If you were to ask residents of Stanstead Abbotts which was the oldest building in the village, a large percentage would reply ‘The Red Lion pub.’ Admittedly, the pub is 16th century and probably late 15th, but it is certainly not by several centuries the oldest building. Out of sight, out of mind,’ is an old truism which must apply in this case as the church of St. James at Stanstead Bury, nearly a mile from the village centre, was first commenced circa 1050, years before the Norman Invasion and long before the Domesday Book, according to a stone-by-stone survey done in 2005 by Daniel Secker for the Churches Conservation Trust.

    The church is not in the village centre because our village commenced life in Roman and Saxon days high up on the hilltops at Stanstead Bury on the Roydon Road because the valley a thousand years ago was very swampy and unfit for building. Ancient tribes usually chose hilltops for their settlements as it gave them a vantage point to spot any enemies and during the last few centuries, the river Lea, very prone to flooding, has been gradually tamed so that businesses and housing eventually emerged on our High Street where it is located today. In 1881 the church of St. Andrews took over the duties of St. James, thus saving residents the long trek up the steep Cat’s Hill. Because of this our village is listed as one of Hertfordshire’s deserted villages and certainly there is no longer any village around the old church as it is affectionately still called by some. The village gradually moved from the hilltops down to the riverside, but just occasionally the river makes its presence felt by flooding the High Street and several times we have seen rowing boats delivering food to stranded High Street residents.

Occasionally the river makes its presence felt...

St. James Church is not just an old building. It served as the parish church for our village for many centuries. Hundreds of children were christened here; hundreds were married here and hundreds buried here. For centuries the local lords of the manor lived at the ancient manor house, Stanstead Bury, next to the church.  The church was a very important part of everyone’s life in centuries past, a place where the village lord, the villagers and farmers all worshipped together. The oldest part of the church was commenced in Saxon times, but every century had its additions or alterations and much of the church is 15th century as is the attractive wooded porch (illustrated). Within the church the interior is un-restored 18th century and in the north chapel is a monument to Sir Edmund Baesh who died in 1587. William Roxburgh and his wife Alice who lived at Stanstead Bury are buried here and a very worn memorial brass tells us that Alice died in the year 1400.  

Thousands have passed through this porch…

Photo Brian Johnson

In 1881, lord of the manor, Thomas Fowell Buxton donated land and built a new church in the village in Capell Lane and from that date St. Andrews Church became the parish church for Stanstead Abbotts.  St. James then became a redundant church although it is still open part of the year. If residents wish to visit a church which contains thousands of memories of happy and sad occasions in the life of our village, they can be recaptured here. Some special people of the village are also buried underneath its stones and many more village people are in the churchyard. When the church was commenced, a number of Roman bricks were left here from Romano-British buildings and many of these were incorporated into the nave and nave walls. Today the church is cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust, a charitable organization which works to protect over 340 churches. They have a staff of 44 employees and an army of 2,000 volunteers who work to ensure that the redundant churches remain waterproof to protect the buildings and all their contents. Funding from the government and the Church Commissioners has been frozen from 2001 and finance has been sought from elsewhere, including the general public as it is obviously very important to conserve these important buildings which have been so much a part of village life for so long. Many people thought them so important that they left their bodily remains here, anxious to still be a part of the church after physical death.

    St. James Church is open in summer from June to September on Sundays, from 2.30 to 5.00. (Check website Churches Conservation Trust for up-to-date information)  Worth a visit?

Ron Dale