Tucked away at the end of a narrow lane next to Debden’s pretty primary school, you’ll find an ancient church surrounded by trees and farmland. The church, St Mary the Virgin and All Saints, is a delightful find. The earliest parts of the building date from the 13th century, though to be constructed back in 1220, with the rest added piecemeal ever since.
The impressive steeple isn’t original. The first one contained five bells but collapsed in 1698. The villagers attempted repairs, but they weren’t up to the job and the whole thing fell down again in 1717. Knowing their limitations, the villagers gave it up as a bad job.
Fortunately, in 1786, the Chiswell family decided enough was enough. Richard Chiswell had purchased Debden Hall in 1715 and the family gradually bought up the ancient manors and farms in the vicinity until they had a flourishing estate of about 5000 acres. In keeping with their position, the Chiswells paid for the demolition of what they described as a “miserable dark and damp vestry” on the north side of the church and at the same time, constructed a new steeple, this time with a single bell. The stone font, located to the left of the door as you enter the church, dates from the same time.
Sadly, Debden Hall no longer exists, having been demolished as uneconomic to run back in the 1930s. The tradition of local patronage of the church does, however, continue. In 2000, to commemorate the Millennium, a new room and vestry were built next to the church, entirely funded by 70 local families and worshippers.
These days it’s rare that someone’s brave enough to open a church’s doors and leave the building unattended. Thankfully, this beautiful structure is open daily and it’s well worth a visit. You’ll find Debden midway between Saffron Walden and Thaxted in the north west of the county; don’t confuse it with the other Debden, a suburb of Loughton.