‘Thurifer’ finds himself church-crawling in Suffolk


Imposing medieval churches dominate several beautiful Suffolk villages; and these great buildings owe their existence to the lucrative wool trade. Architecturally impressive, they stand like battleships in tiny coves. I was in Lavenham at the invitation of London friends, staying in their timber-framed, comfortable, and capacious country house.

Two of the churches visited were dedicated to Ss Peter and Paul. Eye has a splendidly restored rood screen by Comper, with King Henry VI among the painted figures in the panels. The case for his canonisation was vigorously supported from Eye by a former Vicar, Fr Donald Rea, to whom Pope John XXIII had given his personal Breviary following an Audience.

Clare Parish Church was described as a “good church” by Defoe – but this may have been as a result of the despoliation and destruction of the stained glass (a few fragments remain) by the vile Puritan, vandal, and iconoclast William Dowsing, who cut a swathe of damage through East Anglia. Reparation has been made with a fine window attributed to F. C. Eden. The “Fountain of Life Window” depicts the Crucifixion attended by St Michael and St George: it is the memorial to the parish’s Great War dead. “In honour of our Lord Jesus Christ, this memorial to those who offered their lives for their country.”

Secluded, peaceful, quiet among trees in Clare is an Augustinian Priory, founded in 1248, suppressed in 1538, and restored 1953. Behind the ruins of the monastic cloister a modest Manor House accommodates the present community. The medieval Infirmary served as a Chapel; but it is now the entrance to a new extension consecrated in 2015. Given heritage constraints and modest space it has succeeded in its aim to be “unobtrusive without being retiring and contemporary without being strident.” A perfect setting for a retreat.

Medieval glass fared better in the parish church non pareil, Holy Trinity, Long Melford. Images of saints have survived, as has a glorious series of images of aristocrats and gentry – including Elizabeth de Mowbray, thought to have inspired John Tenniel’s illustration of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. In comparison, the later Victorian glass is vulgar. There are other glories to be enjoyed: the soaring light and graceful nave of rhythmic perpendicular pillars and arches, the longest in an English parish church. Externally the astonishingly accomplished flushwork, that combination of knapped flint and ashlar stone is of the highest quality.

St Mary the Virgin, Cavendish, has an hour-glass next to the pulpit: you have been warned. Unusually, there is a step down into the chancel. There are memorials to Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder, who lived in the village. Cheshire was awarded both the Victoria Cross and the Order of Merit, a rare but not unique honour: the other recipient of both was Field Marshal Earl Roberts. There is also a 16th-century reredos, exuberant and colourful, from Athelstan Riley’s house in Kensington. Riley is remembered as a hymn writer, who wrote – among others – “Ye Watchers and ye Holy Ones.” A prominent lay Anglo-Catholic, notably active in the English Church Union, he was a much-valued associate of Lord Halifax.

St Mary’s, Bungay, is now redundant but well-maintained. The Benedictine Priory was suppressed at the Reformation: the nave of the Priory Church was the parish church; but the chancel was demolished. Next to it, the Roman Catholic church of St Edmund is florid and ornate 19th-century Gothic Revival brick, a contrast to the flint and stone of the Perpendicular St Mary’s. We made a brief stop at Fressingfield to see the tomb of the hero William Sancroft, the last Archbishop of Canterbury to be deprived of his office.

We visited Bury St Edmunds on Market Day. Here, famously and magnificently, an undistinguished parish church has been transformed into an elegant, pitch-perfect country Cathedral. Stephen Dykes Bower lived to a great age, accomplished much, but did not live to see the completion of his vision. When he died in 1994 he bequeathed £2 million to complete the Lantern Tower. That was done as a Millennium Project, completed in 2005. It is a perfect memorial: light floods the building, and with its limed oak furnishings the effect is delicate and ethereal.

Nearby, Ickworth Rotunda as it is today was the work of the 4th Earl of Bristol, who also occupied the See of Derry but spent much of his time touring Europe – to which the numerous Bristol Hotels bear testimony. The house was obtained by the National Trust in lieu of death duties and the lack of, as one room guide said, “suitable” heirs. The present Marquess of Bristol sought to buy back the lease his dissolute predecessor had sold to the Trust, but was refused. Contrary to the wish of the original donor the wing intended as a family residence is now a hotel. Melford Hall, meanwhile, is more conventional. Occupied by the Hyde Parkers it has a charm that the cold Ickworth does not.

A walk over the pebble and shale beach at Aldeburgh, looking over the grey-blue sea, the same view that Benjamin Britten would have known before moving inland to The Red House, was enjoyable. The town is little changed and decidedly uncommercial. There was a small boating lake for children to sail their traditional small wooden yachts. That gentle constitution followed an excellent lunch (in a week of good food) at The Butley Oysterage in Orford. After an untoward reaction to oysters years ago I stuck to whitebait and fish pie, which were both first-class.

It was good to see mission active in the countryside. One church advertising a Pet Service invited those unable to attend to send a photograph of their pet, alive or dead, for a blessing. It needs only a small leap of imagination to ask members of the congregation who cannot make Sunday morning to send their snaps to participate fully in sacramental grace. Problem solved. I commend my stratagem to the Society’s Bishops.