St Mary’s, Mendlesham

Norfolk and Suffolk aren’t the same, despite what outsiders may think. When you spot the colour-washed houses, you know you’ve reached the Suffolk border, and there are architectural features in the churches that act as tell-tales too, as if the River Waveney acted as a cultural barrier.

Drive up past some of those painted houses and note the give-aways in the tower – its rich flushwork; the absence of the ‘sound-holes’ so characteristic of 15th c. Norfolk towers; the prominent double windows in the belfry stage. This tower was going up when Robert Goodwyn bequeathed ‘to the newe stepyll of Mendylsham iiis iiijd’ in his will of 1490, the epoch when the villagers of Mendlesham rebuilt a 13th–14th c. church, giving it two fine porches (the chamber above the N porch holds the best collection of 15th–17th c. armour in the land).

And what would a medieval inhabitant of Mendlesham think, if miraculously transported forward to 2010? He would admire the holy water stoup in the N porch, actually a font rescued from derelict Rishangles. The interior would provide surprises; no wall paintings, no screens, and what is that altar doing at the east end of the nave?

The Jacobean font cover and pulpit, both made in 1630 by John Turner, a local carpenter, would also be novel. But the religion would be familiar, with lots of altars, statues, votive lights and medieval pews, some of the latter from Rishangles too, as the thorough makeover in recent years makes Mendlesham defy thepassing centuries.

Jesus said, ‘Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old’ [Matt. 13.52].

Simon Cotton