Why, When and How it Happened
The Essex Churches website came about for several different reasons. The author of the site, John Whitworth, had always had an interest in churches, fundamentally one which had stood in Southend-on-Sea - the church of St Erkenwald, by Sir Walter Tapper. Using the software FrontPage 2000 he had, in early 2002, created a website dedicated to this church, which had been demolished in 1995. On February 10th 2002, he posted details of the very small website to an online Yahoo group called ChurchCrawling, where there was encouragement from founder member Phil Draper and others.
John continued to develop the St Erkenwald's website, and once he felt it had gone as far as it could at the time, he asked the ChurchCrawling group how they felt he could develop any future sites. The overwhelming response was that he should concentrate on an Essex-biased church website - and thus the concept for the site was born. There had been, since 1999, another website which listed the majority of churches in the county (http://www.essexchurches.com), and thus rather than compete, it was decided that the Essex churches collection would actually form part of the St Erkenwald's website, under 'Essex Churches' and 'Southend Churches' headings. However, two events conspired to change the course of the websites around October 2002.
It became clear that there was no logical way to arrange Essex churches at a lower level than a specific church in Essex; and also, around that time, John had offered the webmaster of the other Essex churches website some of his images to supplement their own. John received no response to this offer, and so from that point decided he would start his own dedicated website, and on 20th October 2002, registered www.essexchurches.co.uk as the website address.
As John had no formal training as a web developer, he began to build the new .co.uk website using FrontPage 2000, as he had done for the original St Erkenwald's website. He used some of FrontPage's internal templates, and built a traditional hierarchical site. The original site used a ready made theme called 'sitebuilder-orion 011', which was purchased from a theme vendor's website. This contained a very long Flash intro screen, which caused entry to the website to take around 18 seconds unless the visitor knew how to 'skip' the intro. These original website designs can still be found on the Wayback Machine. The original webhost for the website was Easily.co.uk - selected because they offered the necessary FrontPage extensions - needed to make FrontPage's in-built functionality work properly.
By June 2003, the website contained a small number of churches - namely Barling, Canewdon, Little Wakering, West Thurrock and four Southend-on-Sea area churches - All Saints, St Erkenwalds, St Mark Westcliff and Holy Trinity, Southchurch.
It soon became apparent that FrontPage could not handle the quantity of pages that were being added to the site, but there was very little that could be done, given the resources available. The solution, on 29th November 2003, was to split the churches on the site into sections, so that the hierarchy handled by FrontPage could be broken down. Thus the parishes were then split into A-F, G-M, N-S and T-Z.
By the end of 2003, the website had a guestmap, and a forum had been added to the website, to facilitate simple online messaging between visitors and the webmaster.
By 21st April 2004, the loading page had been removed and the website contained 58 individual churches, with a total of 356 images. Every image and every page was individually coded in HTML, and once again, the website was becoming extremely slow. The last major update in 2004 was made on 30th June - and there were no further image updates to the site for two reasons. The webmaster had moved house at the end of July 2004, and a major re-write of the website was underway, to alleviate the issues with the slow loading times.
On 16th November 2004, the new domain name www.essexchurches.info was registered. A new domain extension had been registered partly due to inexperience with the methods of writing a completely new site alongside an existing one - but also in an attempt to keep a seperation between the two sites, so that the old one could continue to be used until all content had been moved across to the new site. The new domain name was registered using 1and1.co.uk, who also hosted the website itself.
On 28th February 2005, an announcement on the .co.uk site announced that there would be no further updates to that site, and gave the link to the new .info website. A gradual process of migrating from old-to-new website was then underway. The new website removed much of the old manual page generation that had caused the demise of the old site. Although the parishes were still sorted into four alphabetical groups, and although those grouped index pages were still manually created, the actual page displayed for each church was, for the first time, dynamically generated using the Active Server Page technology, although there was still much usage of FrontPage on the website too.
The redesigned website used a logo which was copied from the logo of Essex County Council, consisting of the three seax knives with the words "Essex Churches" directly beneath.
On 2nd January 2006, having seen news articles about the Million Dollar Homepage, John Whitworth decided to buy a group of 10x10 pixels on that page, mainly in the knowledge that it would assist with Google search rankings, rather than for getting noticed on that page. The Million Dollar Homepage still exists today, and the Essex Churches square is still present - just above the Chad's left hand, about three quarters of the way down that page.
This subscription to that page was somewhat of a watershed moment. Not only did traffic increase to the website, but spin-off sites of the Million Dollar Homepage began to crop up. One such site (PixelsUSA) automatically created a page for each occupant of the Million Dollar Homepage, and it soon became apparent that the Essex Churches website was being criticised as being a very poor website. The criticisms were not helpful, and were more troll-like, but in a way, they did force John, by virtue of his nature, to push himself to the limit, and re-design the website from the ground up, around only a year since the last major update.
The ensuing website was Access database driven, and enabled an almost entirely dynamically running website. Most changes to the site could be effected by uploading images and simply adding new details to the database. At the same time, John had quickly learnt Cascading Style Sheets, and was able to dispense with the cumbersome and much-scorned table layout, upon which the website had existed before.
In October 2010, the site was again given a makeover, though the fundamental technical architecture (i.e. the database driven aspect) remained the same. The restrictive layout was removed, and several new search options were enabled, including an A to Z index which could show the entire content of the site, rather than having to scroll through page-by-page viewing 25 items at a time.
On March 21st 2011, another new feature was introduced onto the website. This allowed the searching for churches within the county by tower features, enabling the identification of photos of old churches were those features were shown. The tower features supported are its presence, its position, its main material and whether it has crenellations or a spire.
Apart from some tweaks here and there, not much happened with the design of this website between 2011 and 2016 - apart from the addition of the automated sales of photos.
As the world moves ever more mobile, I felt that I ought to bite the bullet, and make the site far more mobile friendly. This has been accomplished using HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET and Bootstrap. It's been a great learning experience once again - and I've little doubt that I will continue to refine the site over the course of 2016.
Copyright 2017 - John Whitworth (www.essexchurches.info)