Site unseen: Conrad Noel's house, Thaxted, Essex

Recent events in Northern Ireland have confirmed the potency of symbols. For the Orange Order, their alleged right to march where they please, accompanied by flags and bands and clad in sashes and bowler hats, is an essential part of their identity.

Flags in particular often arouse passionate feelings, as was demonstrated by the long-running "Battle of the Flags" which disrupted the small town of Thaxted in Essex for several years.

In 1910 the local landowner Lady Warwick, the "Daisy" who was Edward VII's mistress but also an outspoken left-winger, appointed the Christian Socialist, Conrad Noel, to the living of Thaxted. A man of enormous energy and talent, Noel transformed Thaxted into a maelstrom of political and cultural activity.

Inevitably dubbed "The Red Vicar" by the popular press, he placed three flags - the Union Jack, the Sinn Fein banner and the Hammer and Sickle - inside the church. Generations of Cambridge undergraduates journeyed here to ceremoniously pull them down, sparking off fist-fights and other disturbances.

But Noel's insistence that Christianity was about beauty and ritual, too, attracted many well-known artists and musicians to Thaxted. For several years the composer Gustav Holst lived just down the road in Town Street and played movements from The Planets on the church organ.

Thaxted is still beautiful - even if the planes above make their noisy way in and out of Stansted Airport - distinguished by fine buildings which range the centuries. The timbered Guildhall, for instance, was built by the cutlers over 600 years ago, the Recorders House is 16th century and the elegant Clarence House dates from 1714.

At the back of the church is a kissing gate for those of amorous disposition, and a windmill which is open to the public in the summer months and which offers some splendid views over the neighbouring countryside.

Nearby are some almshouses, built in the early 18th century to house the poor. Opposite is a thatched building that was once a medieval priest's house. By the 1920s it was in a dilapidated condition but Conrad Noel bought it on behalf of the church. His Christian socialism did not always go down well with some of his more wealthy parishioners but no one ever doubted his sincerity and charisma.

When Noel died in July 1942, he was buried in the churchyard close to the High Altar. Inside the church, he is remembered by a bronze head in the crossing, facing the high altar.

His tombstone carries the words "He loved justice and hated oppression." Perhaps New Labour might like to adopt this slogan - it is certainly more pithy than anything their soundbite experts have so far come up with.


Conrad Noel's house, Thaxted, Essex


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