The Mystery of the Horned Church

One evening a friend sent me a photo of a church with the caption, ‘Why is there a cow on this church?’ On closer inspection the cow looked like a bull with horns, which would be just as odd. I immediately thought of the cult of Mithras and the overlap with Christianity. But even so why was it displayed on the eastern apex of a church roof, even if that church was in a place called Hornchurch.

The St. Andrew’s Church website just added to the sense of mystery:
“At the East end of the roof is a bull’s head statue, which is a unique feature to find on a church. However, in 1222 the first written reference to the church mentions the monasterium cornutum or horned church at Havering. There are numerous legends and theories to explain the existence of the horns, but the truth remains obscure. In 1610 the horns were thought to have been made of lead but when they were repaired in 1824 they were found to be made of copper. In 1999 the copper horns were stolen from the bull’ s head. They were never recovered and new horns replaced them in 2001.”

The only solution was to strike out on foot to see what could be discovered on the ground. So the other week I caught the Elizabeth Line to Romford and walked down to the Roman Hornchurch Road and met Roxanne in St Andrew’s Churchyard to investigate.

Bull's head on St. Andrew's Hornchurch
St. Andrew’s Hornchurch

From St. Andrew’s we strolled up to the windmill at Upminster, which Rox told me had only recently re-acquired its sails. Naturally I thought of Don Quixote and how he saw a field of windmills as a hoard of giants and charged them on his donkey. It might also be a good metaphor for my practice of walking. The other significant location on the old Roman road that I wanted to visit was St. Leonard’s Church where the Revd. William Derham made the first accurate calculation of the speed of sound from the church tower in 1709. A Fellow of the Royal Society and contemporary of Sir Isaac Newton, Derham sounds like quite a character to have found himself in what would have been a fairly sleepy Essex village.

St. Andrew's churchyard, Hornchurch
St. Andrew’s churchyard, Hornchurch

Roxanne departed and I continued to the medieval tithe barn, which dates from 1450 and now houses the brilliantly named Museum of Nostalgia. Sadly it was closed the day I visited. Crossing back over the Ingrebourne Valley, I encountered the odd isolated stretch of the London Overground which connects Romford to Upminster via Emerson Park along a single track. An information board in St. Andrew’s Park informed me that this cutting was carved out by the Anglian ice sheet around 450,000 years ago ‘marking the maximum southerly extent of the ice sheet during the whole of the Ice Age’ making it ‘one of the most important Ice Age sites in Britain.’

Upminster windmill - John Rogers
Upminster windmill

My circuit was completed by returning to the heart of Hornchurch around the Queen’s theatre. Firstly I admired Fairkytes Hall, a mid-18th century house whose former occupants included Joseph Fry (son of Elizabeth Fry the prison reformer) a member of the influential Quaker family famous for chocolate and banking. And finally Langtons House, an even finer 18th century pile with gardens laid out to plans created by Humphrey Repton. The only way to round off such a glorious perambulation around Hornchurch and Upminster was to catch the train from Emerson Park along the single track back to Romford.

Massive thanks to Roxanne Maguire for inspiring and instigating this walk


  1. Christine Slike   •  

    Loved this walk but I want to know why someone didn’t say,Hey,that’s too pagan !!!

    • JohnR   •     Author

      There are some great comments explaining the bull – but at some point it must link back to Mithras I think even if via St Luke

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