History Files


Modern Britain

Gallery: Churches of Essex

by Hannah Fry, 17 January 2010



Basildon Part 1: The Church of St Martin of Tours

The Church of St Martin of Tours

The Church of St Martin of Tours can be found at the north-western edge of Basildon town centre in Essex, next to the Towngate Theatre and council offices. It is set in St Martin's Square, which takes the form of a Sensory Garden. The church was consecrated in 1962 for the new town of Basildon and although the contemporary exterior blended well with the new town as it emerged, in the intervening years more modern buildings have sprung up, which date it somewhat.

The porch of St Martin of Tours

Over the porch on the southern side of the church is a wooden sculpture depicting 'Christ the King'. To the onlooker, the sculpture may appear to depict the crucifixion, with Christ being pierced by spears. However, it is actually depicting Christ in glory, emanating rays of light, and serves as a dramatic entrance to the church. Alongside the porch is a garden of remembrance, bearing a simple memorial which provides a focus for the town on Remembrance Sunday.

The windows of St Martin of Tours

Some of the church's windows, which form the 'walls' of the nave, include depictions of the cathedral at Tours - after which the church is named - and even the Thames Flood Barrier. There is a lovely surprise inside the nave when the sun shines through the modern stained glass windows (designed by Joseph Nuttgens who in 1938 opened his own studios in the Chiltern Hills). In this particular window the triangle represents the Trinity.

The Lady Chapel of St Martin of Tours

The Lady Chapel window represents the Blessed Virgin Mary in heaven, depicting sun, moon and stars, creating a dramatic atmosphere in this small space. Behind the altar is a brick picked out in red mortar. Buried here are some ashes brought from the gas chambers of Auschwitz concentration camp. The church was asked to receive these after it housed an exhibition on Auschwitz in 1984. A candle burns continuously next to the ashes, serving as a reminder of man's atrocity to man.

The east wall of St Martin of Tours

A dramatic focal point is created by the alternative east wall (seen here). Unlike in many older churches there is no east window; instead, there is a plain, soaring wall with a large metal cross mounted up high. When the wall is lit, the cross casts a shadow either side of it, to create the three crosses associated with Christ's crucifixion. The stained glass windows - the church's walls - replaced opaque glass some years after opening, completing the simple and elegant design.

The church and bell tower of St Martin of Tours

The thirty metre high bell tower at the west end of the church is free-standing and is the only completely glass and steel bell tower in the world. Although the tower was only built in 1999, some of the bells date from the medieval period, most notable of which is the tenor bell, cast by Joanna Hill in 1441 - apparently the first bell in the world to have been cast by a woman. When lit at night, the tower is an imposing feature of Basildon's skyline.

All photos and text on this page contributed by Hannah Fry.

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