Roman recycling

TOLLESBURY IN ESSEX on the Blackwater River estuary is a village just over 5 miles southeast of Tiptree, a small town close to the Wilkinson jam factory and museum. This charming village, where a good friend of ours lives, has a venerable parish church, St Mary the Virgin.

Roman bricks used to construct the arch above the south entrance of St Mary’s in Tollesbury, Essex.

In common with most of the parish churches we have visited during our extensive roamings around the English countryside, this church, whose construction had begun by the 11th century, contains a rich selection of interesting features. These are well described in a copiously illustrated booklet about the edifice published by the Friends of St Mary’s Tollesbury in early 2020. Amongst the interesting things we saw within St Mary’s, one of them particularly intrigued me: the incorporation of Roman bricks in the fabric of the church.

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a Romano-British cemetery near the village. They have concluded from their findings that in about 200 AD, there was a significant rural settlement located near Tollesbury at that time. Other remains are evidence that the district around the estuarine village has been the site of human activity since the Neolithic era (4000-2000 BC).

As if to prove that recycling is not simply a recent trend, the church of St Mary incorporates bricks made whilst the Romans occupied England. These can be seen clearly above the south doorway within the church. The 11th century arch above this portal is made entirely of recycled Roman bricks. Some more brickwork made with Roman bricks can be seen exposed above the gothic archway in the western wall of the nave, which is also part of the late 11th century bell tower.

Although the re-used Roman bricks have been ‘highlighted’ in St Mary’s, the structure of the parish church in the nearby village of Goldhanger also contains recycled Roman bricks. Making bricks at the time when these churches were built would have been far more laborious than making bricks using today’s industrial techniques. So, re-using bricks that had already been made would have been very sensible.

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