Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

St Bartholomew, Orford

St Michael, Framlingham

St Mary, Dennington

Sometimes entering a church still takes my breath away. Usually, it's the combination of architecture and fittings that provides the tingle of hairs down my neck. St Mary's did that.

The plan is typically Suffolk: a Perpendicular Gothic nave, clerestory and aisles, leading to a handsome decorated chancel. The architectural details are of high quality: elegant arcades of 14th century rather than 15th century design, but it is the spacious chancel that takes the prize: matching 3-light windows on the north and south walls lead to a large 5-light east window, all with reticulated tracery, hood moulds with carved stops. They bathe the chancel in light. The Piscina and Sedilia have a unique decorative treatment of straight-sided arches. At the end of the south aisle, the Bardolph chapel also has fine decorative stonework, particularly around the south window which has an unusual cusped arch, stone shafts carrying candle platforms, and panelling above.

The fittings and furnishings more than maintain the interest: both north and south aisle chapels have exceptionally well-preserved and painted 15th century Parclose Screens, complete with lofts; there is a three-decker pulpit of 1625-8; a wonderful mix of 15th century benches with carved poppy-heads and animals, next to severe box pews of 1630, 1765 and 1805; and decorated doors to rood loft stairs in both aisles. The chancel windows retain the upper fragments of 14th century stained glass, as well as a very rare spire-shaped wooden pyx cover, suspended from the ceiling above the high altar.

In the Bardolph chapel there is a fine alabaster tomb chest with effigies of William Phelips, Lord Bardolph (d. 1441) and his wife, Joan (d. 1444). The effigies are coloured and exceptionally well preserved, right down to the details of jewellery and Lady Bardolph's fine and rather uncomfortable looking head-dress. Bardolph himself is encased in armour of exceptional quality with the blue Garter (of the order of the Garter) on his left leg. His feet are propped on a startlingly gilded eagle.

St Mary the Virgin, Dennington, Suffolk, IP13 8AA

St Mary the Virgin, Earl Stonham

St John the Baptist, Needham Market

The story of St John's is that of a roof. In a county of innovative, impressive and decorative roofs, Needham market takes the prize. Pevsner's Suffolk edition of the Buildings of England devotes a whole page to describing it, and the author F H Crossley described it as 'the climax of English roof construction'.

The church sits on the town's main street, sorely beset by traffic. There was an earlier church on the site, but the present building was built by the Bishop of Ely in 1458-78. It was a Chapel of Ease until 1907 and is composed of a single, hall-like room without aisles, crossing, or a chancel arch. It therefore lacks many of the details one finds in other churches, though there are some surviving decorative poppyhead benches and the signs of a rood stair (but no chancel arch). On the outside, there is a timber-framed extension on the west end in an oddly mismatched vernacular style, and a late Victorian porch with a funny 'spirelet'.

But the roof is enough: the complex hammer-beam design provides a clerestory within the roof space, but it also gives the impression of providing a second nave and aisles in the air. It is as bold as it is breathtaking, and is inevitably decorated with angels.

St John the Baptist : High Street, Needham Market, Suffolk, IP6 8AE

St Mary, Combs

St Mary, Combs sits on a ridge overlooking the settlement of Combs, now effectively an extension of Stowmarket. It is grand and oddly isolated for an urban church - access is by a very narrow, mile-long lane from the edge of a housing estate.

A church is mentioned on the site in the Domesday Book, but most of the present building is typical Suffolk. it has a bold, Perpendicular Gothic tower, nave and clerestory; with a smaller, older Decorated chancel, although the west window in the south aisle dates from around 1300, suggesting that the nave and aisles were enlarged on the same plan in the 1400s. The interior is wide and spacious, but the interest is in the fine details: the striking piscina and three-seat sedilia in the chancel was composed as a unity, under four matching crocketed ogee arches. The effect is strangely modern.

Much of the mediaeval glass had survived until 1871, when an explosion at a gun works in Stowmarket blew out the windows. Nevertheless, enough remains to make for an interesting visit: subjects include the life of St Margaret, the Seven Works of Mercy (the counterpart to the better known Seven Deadly Sins), and part of a Tree of Jesse. Other items of interest are the 15th century Parclose screens in the north and south chapels, benches with poppyheads and beasts, a fine Jacobean pulpit, and a 14th century font with foliage and blind tracery on the stem.

St Mary's Church, Church Lane, Combs, Suffolk. IP14 2EH

Monday, 15 August 2016

St Nicholas, Rattlesden

St Peter, Felsham

St Ethelbert, Hessett

St Ethelbert is a church visitor's delight: a small village church packed with interest, and well preserved.

A church is recorded here in 1005, but the present building is largely 15th century, except for the 14th century chancel. The exterior has a handsome battlemented west tower, with decorative battlements continuing along the clerestory and aisle roofs. There is also a fine south porch, with attractive flush-work, niches for statues, panelled tracery and, above the arch, images of St George and the Dragon.

Inside, the elegant Perpendicular nave arcade draws the eye to a delicate chancel arch. This is filled with a late 15th century screen, still retaining traces of paint. the rood stair is still intact. The chancel beyond has a pretty decorated east window with flowing tracery, and benches with decorative poppy-heads, one of which has a splendidly carved back of shields, quatrefoils and birds.

But the real excitement is found in the aisles; these have the remnants of wall paintings, of St Barbara and St Michael in the south aisle, and St Christopher above the north door. Further along the north aisle is a depiction of the seven deadly sins, formed as a tree emerging from the mouth of hell. Below this is a very rare 'Christ of the Trades', with the head of Christ surrounded by the tools of various trades, and, oddly, a six of diamonds playing card. Traditionally, this motif was a warning against breaking the Sabbath by working; the tools surrounding Christ's bleeding head resemble a crown of thorns, the implication being that working on the Sabbath inflicts his wounds anew.

As if these treasures were not enough, the aisle windows contain late mediaeval glass, albeit rather muddled, so that St Mary Cleophas, surrounded by her four children, has been given the head of a Bishop (and therefore confused as St Nicholas). One of the children (St James the Less) is holding a fuller's club, the instrument of his subsequent martyrdom. (Pevsner cheerfully calls it a golf club in the Suffolk edition of the "Buildings of England"). There is also a fine panelled font of c. 1451, and a picture of two treasures, now at the British Museum: a sindon (pyx cloth), which would have covered the reserved sacrament, and a burse, for containing the linen for the act of consecration.

The Church is still used regularly for service, as part of the benefice of Rougham, Beyton with Hessett and Rushbrooke.

St Ethelbert : The Street, Hessett, Suffolk, IP30 9AX

All Saints, Beyton

St Mary, West Stow

All Saints, Icklingham

St Mary, Lakenheath

St Mary & St Andrew, Mildenhall

Sunday, 14 August 2016

St Mary, Woolpit

The story of St Mary's is that of a porch and a roof, each a confident display of the late mediaeval wealth of this small village.

The records indicate that there has been a church here since Saxon times, and it is probable that the church was rebuilt early in the Norman period. A lovely rhyme, written by the monk Lidgate, may describe this event:

A newe church he dyde edyfye
Ston bought from Kane out of Normandye
By Se, and set upon the strande
At Ratylsdene, and carried forth by land

If this is true, a more remarkable fact would be that the Rattlesden River was navigable so far inland in those days, but it is a nice story. More certain is the fact that late mediaeval wool wealth resulted in the church being impressively rebuilt over 200 years later. The chancel and south aisle are both 14th century and in the Decorated Gothic style, the East window being a good example of reticulated tracery. But the remainder is all Perpendicular: the porch was built in 1435-55, the North Aisle in the late 1400s, and the tower around 1513. The church has an impressive record of bequests during the 1400s for both the porch and the north aisle. The tower and spire have had a particularly chequered history, being damaged by storms and lightning in 1602, 1703 and 1852. The present tower dates from the Victorian rebuild and is impressive, if a little geographically odd, since it of the type found in the Nene Valley in Peterborough.

The porch is two-storied, and decorated on the front by panel tracery with tall niches, and a large ogee arch over the door. The east wall has chequerboard flush-work (a Suffolk specialty) and inside the ceiling is vaulted, with no fewer than 21 bosses. Inside, the delicate Perpendicular arcades draw the eye to the chancel arch, but the more excitement is found by looking up; here, a clerestory of  double-light windows sits beneath the incredible double-hammer beam roof, supported on tall wall posts. Everything is covered in angels; there are angels on the wall posts, at the end of each hammer beam, and two rows of angels on the ceiling panels for good measure. The pattern is repeated over the aisles; when originally built (and vividly coloured) they must have been quite a sight.

The church also has a fine mediaeval carved screen, the panels of which have been repainted, and high above the chancel arch, a coloured vaulted rood canopy, and pews with wonderful carved poppy-heads. These date from the late 15th century, and depict charming animals, saints and bearded men. The eagle lectern is early 16th century, and of a type made for a chained bible.

Friday, 5 August 2016

The Holy and Undivided Trinity, Norwich (Norwich Cathedral)

Norwich Cathedral is a gem of English mediaeval architecture, and one of the best preserved from the Norman period.


The Normans moved the Saxon see of Elmham to Thetford in 1072 and again to Norwich in 1094. Building started in 1096 and was completed in 1145. Much of this fabric survives, particularly the main tower and the arcading of the nave and choir. The exceptions include the clerestory of the choir, rebuilt in the Perpendicular style after the spire collapsed in 1362; the spire itself (1480), replaced after being struck by lightning in 1463; the vaults, built successively in the 15th and 16th centuries; and the cloister (1297-1430).

The cathedral suffered badly in the Commonwealth period, when mobs stripped what they regarded as idolatrous furnishings. Repairs were carried out after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and again in the 19th century in 1950s. A new, award-winning refectory was built in 2004 on the site of the mediaeval original.

The Church

The Cathedral retains its original proportions and ground plan, unusually in England in having an apsidal East End behind the high altar, with a processional ambulatory. The spire is, at 315ft, the second highest in England after Salisbury; the cloisters are the also the second most extensive (again after Salisbury). 

The arcades are wonderful examples of Norman Romanesque, but the vaulting is equally spectacular - the collection of bosses (over 1,000 in total) is unique. Those in the Nave tell the story from the Creation to the Day of Judgement, whereas those in the Cloister (which are more easily accessible) depict the life of Christ and scenes from the Apocalypse.

Other furnishings of interest include a superb set of over 60 misericords, the 11th century statue of St Felix, and the outstanding Despenser Reredos. Rediscovered in 1847, this dates from the time of the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, and may have been commissioned as a thanksgiving. The Erpingham Window contains most of the Cathedral's surviving mediaeval glass.

Outside the Cathedral, the Cathedral Close has well preserved 14th and 15th century gatehouses, and a variety of buildings, ruins, monuments and gardens within its 85 acres. Buried here are the remains of Edith Cavell (1865-1915), the nurse infamously executed in Brussels by the German Empire in the First World War. Her remains were brought back to Britain and interred in 1919.

Norwich Cathedral, The Close, Norwich, NR1 4DH