You don’t to have a particular faith to enjoy going to church. Visiting a parish church or chapel offers you the chance to walk into a place that has been at the heart of its community for decades, even centuries. History is literally carved into their furniture and stonework and, amid the excitement of Christmas; churches also offer calm respite from the excesses of the festive season.

Visit Essex has put together a Top 10 of fascinating and beautiful places to discover.

1. St Mary’s church in the wonderfully named village of Wendens Ambo was originally built in the Saxon period before being reconstructed in the Middle Ages. The church has several heritage highlights; including a medieval brass effigy, 14th, 15th and 16th century wall paintings, medieval glass and bench-end carvings and four remarkable carved grotesque heads.

2. In Dedham, right in the heart of ‘Constable Country’ sits the impressive St. Mary the Virgin church. Begun in the same year that Christopher Columbus discovered America, it was completed prior to Henry VIII appointing himself Defender of the Faith and head of the Church of England. Inside is a rare painting by John Constable, The Ascension. The image is one of only three religious paintings by the artist, all of which were commissioned for churches in his native Stour Valley. It was commissioned in 1821, the same year that he completed his world-famous masterpiece, The Hay Wain. The churchyard also provides the final resting place for the infamous art forger, Tom Keating.

3. Although not strictly a church, Mistley Towers are the haunting remains of what was once St Mary the Virgin, which was demolished in 1870 when a new church was built nearby. The two porticoed classical towers bear all the hallmarks of their designer, Robert Adam, and give a brief sense of the grandiose but highly unconventional Georgian church that stood between them.

4. A remnant of the early origins of the church in Essex is the haunting chapel of St Peter on the Wall at Bradwell-on- Sea. Built by St Cedd of Lindisfarne in AD654, this Saxon chapel is always open and offers a small exhibition about its history and a bookstall. Having set sail from the monastery at Lindisfarne, St Cedd landed in Bradwell and found the ruins of a Roman fort. Using the stones, Cedd modelled his chapel on those established in Egypt and Syria. It was from here that he successfully converted the East Saxons (Essex) ruled by King Sigbert.

5. Another historically important church in the county is that of St Andrews in Greensted. This is the oldest wooden church in the world and is believed to be where the body of the martyred King Edmund body was rested on its journey to Suffolk in 870 AD. Fans of the current BBC2 series The Last Kingdom will recall that St Edmund was beaten and then shot with arrows, after St Sebastian, by invading Danish Vikings. Dating from the 11th century, the wooden walls of this tiny church were already standing when William the Conqueror landed at Hastings in 1066. However there are traces of earlier foundations beneath the present ones, giving credence to the story about St Edmund. The brickwork of the chancel and sanctuary is from Tudor times, and the tower from the 17th century. The ancient grave slab on the right of the porch is thought to mark a crusader's grave.

6. Another church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin can be found in Stansted Mountfitchet. Dating back to the 12th century, this lovely example features two exceptionally fine 17th century monuments with effigies: one to the wasp-waisted Hester Salusbury in her hunting clothes; the other to her father, Sir Thomas Middleton. The church was restored between 1887 and 1888, during which time 14th Century wall paintings were discovered. Two hundred years previously, in 1120 William Greno raised a hill and built Stansted Castle. William became known as 'de Monte fixo' which became Mountfitchet. He was probably responsible for the chancel, north and south nave doorways - which are from 1120. The font dates from 1200. In the 13th Century a chapel was added on the north side, possibly by Roger de Lancaster, who was lord of the Manor of Stansted Hall from 1285-1291. Roger’s son Sir John de Lancaster probably extended the Chapel eastwards. A stone effigy of a knight in armour, lying with his legs crossed is believed to be either Robert, or his son John.

Echo: St Peter on the Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea

7. Continuing the Essex preoccupation with St Mary, the largest church in Essex is another dedicated to her. Nearly 200 feet in length and lavishly designed, this church was built in 1430 under the supervision of John Wastell, who also designed King's College Chapel in Cambridge, this magnificent building stands overlooking the historic market town of Saffron Walden.

8. The remains of one of the earliest Augustinian priories founded in England lie in Colchester. Begun about 1100, St Botolph’s Priory is an impressive example of Norman ecclesiastical architecture, made all the more notable for its use of flint and recycled Roman brick. A key feature of the priory is the series of huge circular pillars and tall round arches. The Civil War siege of the town in 1648 resulted in St Botolph’s being badly damaged by cannon fire.

Echo: St Andrews in Greensted

9. The hamlet of Bures on the Essex/Suffolk border can claim to be one of the most important sites in English history. On Christmas Day in 855, Edmund was crowned King of the Angles at ‘Burva’, what is now believed to be Bures. The site of Edmund’s coronation was an ancient royal hill, upon which now stands St Stephen’s Chapel. Intrepid visitors to the now disused chapel will be rewarded for seeking it out. Lying about a mile outside the village and accessed via a track through Fysh House Farm, the chapel contains the effigies of three Earls of Oxford, the only survivors of twenty-one tombs once found at Earls Colne Priory. Experts have speculated that there are actually not three but seven monuments that make up what can be seen today. The confusion in trying to piece together the tombs was probably caused by the destruction of the original Priory during the Reformation.

10. Prittlewell Priory is a medieval priory in Southend-on-Sea. It was founded in the 12th century, by monks from the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras and passed into private hands at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Today it is a fully restored Grade 1 listed building where you can trace the story of the priory through the words of the historic house's former residents.

For more ideas and inspiration about Essex’s houses of the holy, please go to