Old Woking: St Peter’s Great Oak Door

Great Oak Door. Image: Phillip Arnold

Great Oak Door. Image: Phillip Arnold

Grade I listed St Peter’s church is at the far end of Church Street in Old Woking. The nave is 11th century and the tower 13th century, the upper part being completed around 1340.

Of interest too are the mid 15th century pews, the collection of 14th century and later tiles and fragments, the 16th century brasses and the 17th century gallery.

By far the most important feature is the fine old door to the nave, a dendrochronological analysis of which has disclosed that it is the oldest in Surrey although not as old as the Pyx door to the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey which has been dated by dendrochronology to between 1032 and 1064. Another door too, at St Botoph’s, Hadstock, Essex has an earlier dendrochronological dating of after 1034.

The construction of the door probably occurred at some time between 1106 and 1138 during the reign of Henry I (1100-1135) and the four planks making up the door very likely came from a single tree which was over 270 years old when felled. This dating is close to the previous estimate of 1080-90 which was probably based on the position of the door within a Norman style archway and the door’s medieval ironwork. The age of the tree at felling means that it must have grown from an acorn which germinated in the reign of Egbert (802-39) before the time of Alfred the Great (871-901). It is wonderful to think of the door growing as a tree so long ago.

The door which today measures 2.43m high by 1.49m wide, is made up of four planks of differing widths. These planks are counter rebated. The door has no wooden frame but is entirely held together by horizontal iron bars of various lengths on both front and back. There are three glorious C-straps, the upper one of which ends in a flat animal-head terminal. The ironwork consists of a scrolled Latin cross, a saltire cross and a diamond motif with four tendrils projecting from opposite corners described in 1911 as a spider with a fly inside it Victoria County History, Surrey, 387-90.

The report stresses that Although not the oldest, this majestic door takes its place amongst the most ancient pieces of church woodwork in the kingdom. Moreover, the door is easily the oldest timber construction in Surrey. Dr Jane Geddes of the University of Aberdeen, in her book Medieval Decorative Ironwork in England has identified the door as one of only five picture doors in the country and the ironwork as medieval. Woking in particular and Surrey in general, therefore, should be proud of this important part of our history and heritage.

Originally, the door had a rounded top in the Norman style, adding 0.68m to its height. This was cut off, but remains in place, unhinged. It is said that the door had to be cut when the Zouche gallery was built against the west wall of the church in the 1620s. This seems strange given that the door opens outwards at the present time. However, an Edward Hassell water colour painted in 1830, see above, shows the door opening inwards, which would be logical since the door was the main entrance to the church before the tower was built in the early 13th century. This makes sense of the suggestion that the door was cut when the gallery was installed. There would have been no room for the door to remain opening inwards without being lowered, and this would have been done by cutting off the rounded top. It follows that the door must have been moved to open outwards some time after 1830, possibly when the church was extensively restored in 1886

C-straps and counter rebating are usually ascribed to the post conquest period, the door’s ironwork and construction, therefore, dovetail neatly with the dendrochronological analysis.

In the context of the door, the terms early medieval and Norman are synonymous. Almost certainly the ironwork is contemporary with the door of which it is part. Thus the ironwork can be termed early medieval even though the door is Norman.

Evidence of this kind is very important since it establishes the date of an important part of the church. So often the only evidence is anecdotal and even that can be embellished. Anecdotal evidence has described the ironwork on the door in the past as “viking” because it “sounded better”! We now know the door is Norman and the ironwork early medieval. It follows that the door is not from the original Anglo Saxon minister church.

The oak doors tree rings were measured in situ using a specially made jig by Andy Moir. Image: Rod Wild

The oak doors tree rings were measured in situ using a specially made jig by Andy Moir. Image: Rod Wild

Although the door is not the oldest in England, it has a number of features which make it and St Peters well worth visiting. It was always taller than the Pyx door over 10 feet as compared to 9 feet – but it has retained this height whereas the Pyx door is now only 6 feet high. Moreover, the rough outside surface of the door reflects over a centurys service as the entrance to the nave the smooth surface of the Pyx door betrays its long life on the inside. The Pyx door has only one of its original iron straps whereas the Old Woking door retains its glorious C straps as well as its medieval iron work.

The report on the Pyx door says The boards were cut from a single tree and the visible rings on them represent growth during the years from AD 924 to 1030. As the Old Woking door is said to have been constructed from a single tree which was over 270 years old when it was felled, it is likely that this tree was older than the source of the Pyx door. The fact that the door is built from five planks as opposed to the four planks of the Old Woking door may support this theory. The argument might be that more planks were needed to make the Pyx door because the tree from which it was built was younger and, therefore, smaller. On the other hand it only took four planks to build the old Woking door because the tree was older and as a consequence, larger.

For more information about Old Woking and St Peter’s Church visit www.oldwoking.org.


4 thoughts on “Old Woking: St Peter’s Great Oak Door”

  1. Caroline Jeffery says:

    Really interesting and informative.Is it possible to buy a book on the history of Old Woking and St Peters ,Village,buildings in Church Street ,primary school as I attended all please email me if there is a book on subject please.

  2. Frederick Rapsey says:

    I think that it would be appropriate to give the dimensions of the door wholly in English measurement, feet and inches,as it was used in its construction and was so referred to for over a thousand years. Use metric in brackets if you must.

    To use meretricious measures does a disservice to the piece and its constructors as well as being virtually incomprehensible to very many people.

    Thank you.

  3. Colleen Doughty says:

    I most certainly agree with the above statement, give this door its rightful measurement all in English feet and inches. That was how it was first done, keep it so!

  4. ESP Admin says:

    Many thanks for the comments about the measurement system used when St Peter’s (Old Woking) Great Oak Door was constructed.

    Modern Imperial Units of measurement were only introduced in the early 1800s with the passing of the Weights and Measures Act.

    In Imperial Units the Great Oak Door measures 7 feet 11 and 11/16th inches high by 4 feet 10 and 11/16th inches wide. The original rounded top added 2 feet 2 and ¾ inches to its height.

    In the Medieval era, when the door was constructed, there was no standard of measurement and a number of systems were in use. However, the North German foot (13.2 Imperial inches) was widely used. The foot was divided into 4 palms or 12 thumbs with a palm equivalent to 3 Imperial Inches.

    In terms of the North German foot the Great Oak Door measures approximately 7 feet 1 palm and half of a thumb high by 4 feet 1 palm 2 and 4/5th thumbs wide. The original rounded top added 2 feet and 1/3rd of a thumb to its height.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *