ID: GWG_GEX / Elaine Barker

TitleGreat Expectations at Great Wigborough
AbstractI have been going to the coffee mornings at Gt Wigborough Church which are currently being held every fortnight on a Friday morning. St Stephens is a pretty church in a beautiful location and a welcome is guaranteed plus tea, coffee and cake. Standing on top of Wigborough Hill the views are amazing especially if you go up the tower which is open on these coffee mornings. There are views of the reservoir, Mersea, Brightlingsea and Bradwell as well as Abbots Hall and Old Hall Marshes.

As a local historian it has also proved very fruitful. One visitor turned out to be Geoff Wyncoll whose grandfather, Thomas, was one of the Special Constables involved in the arrest of the German crew of the L33 Zeppelin in 1916. Geoff still has the watch Thomas was presented with. Now in contact by Email I have pictures of the watch plus details of another of his relatives I was interested in. Then, chatting to some of the residents on Wigborough Hill they reminisced about the time a TV crew came to visit.

In 1980 the BBC filmed a 12 part series (of 30 minute episodes) of Great Expectations featuring Stratford Johns as Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict, and Joan Hickson as the jilted Miss Havisham.

Stratford Johns was best known as the tough and abrasive Detective Inspector Charlie Barlow in the long-running BBC series Z Cars. Miss Hickson, whose home was in Wivenhoe, was best known as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. A young Patsy Kensit played the young Estella.

In Dickens' opening scene a lone figure of a boy, Pip, hurries home on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. Passing through the churchyard, where his parents are buried along with five infant siblings, Pip is confronted by the sudden terrifying appearance of a brutal escaped convict amongst the gravestones. Pip's first impression was of a fearful man, all in coarse grey with a leg iron on his leg ... A man who had been soaked in water and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped and shivered and glared and growled.

The churchyard for this momentous meeting, 'a bleak place overgrown with nettles' picked as the location by the BBC was that of Great Wigborough's St Stephens Church. Chosen by the TV company because at that time the graveyard was overgrown and wild, they also imported a huge amount of dead leaves to scatter around the churchyard. The description by Dickens of the wider landscape fits too '[the] dark flat wilderness intersected with dykes and mounds and gates..the marshes'

Memories of this event from those who live on top of Wigborough hill centre on the four stone lichen and moss-encrusted crosses from which Magwitch the convict starts up 'keep still you little devil; or I'll cut your throat'. One resident born and bred in the village remembers going up to watch. She remembered the regular breaks in filming as planes flew over and another resident recalls the gardener at The Old Rectory being asked to turn off his transistor radio!

It was quite an upheaval for those who cared for the church and Ann Coates remembers the BBC gave the church £200 for using the site.

Elaine Barker

If anyone has further memories or photos of the BBC's visit please do get in touch!

Do visit the St Stephens coffee mornings. For those interested in local history there are framed handwritten panels (which appear in so many of our local churches) researched and made by the late Tom Millatt, formerly headmaster of Birch School and local historian. Tom's lists of all the past rectors, important historical events in Great Wigborough, and a summary of the Wigborough Martyrs, who died in 1555, supplement the memorial windows, plaques and list of the village's war dead. As at Peldon, the church has a smart new kitchen and toilet and also an ample car park.
See for details of the Coffee Mornings - and more ...

If there are any Wigborough residents who would like to look into their villages' histories the church is a good place to start. Do get in touch!

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St Stephen's Church, Great Wigborough

AuthorElaine Barker
SourceMersea Museum