JUTTING out across our country’s rural landscape stand monuments to a time when religion dominated all facets of society.

These old parish churches tell the story of our country’s history.

If we only dare to glance within, we can find examples of artistic style from almost any period of rule and examples of the conflicts which shaped our lands.

The importance in preserving them is paramount.

Sitting on the outskirts of modern-day West Bergholt there is a prime example of one such church.

Although it no longer has a congregation, St Mary’s Old Church is still consecrated and plays host to weddings, concerts and speakers.

During the Victorian era, many churches lost the old look and feel during a huge restoration and rebuilding effort.

St Mary’s was one of the few churches spared rampant change through renovation or demolition.

The Victorian neglect of the church was a blessing.

Left largely untouched, the building offers fascinating glimpses at Britain’s history stretching back more than 1,000 years.

Its Saxon doorway shows St Mary’s had been the parish church of West Bergholt before the Norman conquest in 1066.

The main structure of the present building was constructed in the 12th century, with additions made in the 14th century.

Standing inside the church and looking towards the altar, visitors can still see the Royal coat of arms of King James I - a prime example of the Jacobean-era style dating back to the 1600s.

The church boasts real drama to match its aesthetics.

From 1370 until the present day, a record 36 people have been Rectors of West Bergholt.

The private lives of many are astonishing.

There is the story of one drunken rector who dodged a date with the executioner during the reign of Henry VIII.

His crime was spending so much time in the ale houses of Colchester he neglected his parishioners.

He failed to read out the king’s latest version of religious doctrine - an offence punishable by death - but got away with it and continued as Rector until his death 14 years later.

Queen Elizabeth I personally intervened to remove one vicar.

In 1581 she received reports West Bergholt Reverend Richard Kyrby had refused to conduct the service in English after the introduction of her new prayer book, insisting it should remain in Latin.

Through remarkable etchings and recently discovered wall paintings, we can see glimpses of potentially Medieval-era art.

Internal redecoration work, commencing in November, revealed the wall paintings.

Conservation experts were called into the church in early December and discussions are ongoing about how to handle the discovery.

Chris Betts, architect and member of the Friends of St Mary’s Old Church, said: “A few chips with a chisel revealed paint of different colours and recognisable shapes from medieval wall paintings common in pre-reformation churches but plastered over by Puritan reformers.

“I have been sent some images of Medieval wall paintings at another church which have been stripped back and conserved.

“This effectively is what could lie behind the plaster.”

He added: “It is a very humble building, off the beaten track and quite popular because of that good background.

“It is now looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, which looks after about 350 churches across the country.

“Many churches which have fallen out of use effectively become redundant for one reason or another.

“We have seen great support here, but some churches are not so fortunate.

“Many are sharing use or going for a complete change of use, but there are only so many community centres you can have in one town or village.”

In the late 1800s West Bergholt gravitated towards a brewery which served as a centre of employment.

The decision was made to build St Mary’s new church and by the 1970’s the old church was being used less and less.

In 1976 it was declared redundant by the Church of England.

Like many similar churches, St Mary’s survived because of the unfailing support of nearby residents - with two steadfast women looking after the church until 2012.

When they could care for it no longer, the Churches Conservation Trust agreed to take it on and appealed for volunteers to form a group to manage it.

Friends of St Mary’s Old Church was formed, immediately organising a rota of volunteers to open the church to the public every day.

They also resolved to organise events, including concerts and speakers, to put the building back into use and to raise the cash for maintenance.

When West Bergholt resident Yvonne Henderson passed away around five years ago, she left £50,000 to the group to carry out internal redecoration of the church.

In 2017, the Friends won the Marsh Christian Trust prize for Best Volunteer Group in the South East after raising £10,000 in just eight months for repair work.

The church still registers around 3,000 visitors every year.

The Friends are now raising funds to install a toilet to be used alongside events and are looking to further investigate medieval graffiti on the church’s porch.

Chris said: “Why do we give ourselves all this work?

“It is our only ancient public building in the village, holding a lot of West Bergholt’s history within its walls and churchyard.

“In this hectic life it is important to conserve and keep open some special places where people can find peace, reconnect with their history and with their God.”

These churches still serve a practical purpose, but their continued upkeep and preservation is justified by historical significance.

They are doorways into our past, living stories shaped and moulded to reflect the culture of their time.