At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter and St Paul, Alpheton

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Alpheton porch south doorway holy water stoup (mortar?)

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          It was the summer after the Church of England's Great Coronavirus Panic, and coming back to Alpheton I hadn't really expected the church to be open, but it was. I remembered my first visit back in the 1990s, when I'd found the church locked without a keyholder notice, apparently abandoned to its fate. Since then it had been on something of a journey, firstly listing a keyholder and then being open throughout the summer months, which eventually evolved into it being open all year round. Lots of Suffolk parishes that had left their churches open daily pre-Covid were coming back to life cautiously, a number opening only on Sundays with perhaps one other day of the week as well. But all the churches in this benefice south of Bury St Edmunds seemed to have returned to their daily Christian duty with enthusiasm.

The setting could not be lovelier. You leave the village, pronounced al-fee-t'n, up on the busy road, and follow the winding lane down and into the valley. It twists and turns, allowing tantalising glimpses of the church tower. After a little under a mile, you reach the valley bottom, and find the Hall farm and church together in splendid isolation. A concrete track leads around the farm, and brings you into the graveyard from the south east. This is a trim little graveyard, considering its remoteness. The 15th century tower climbs beyond a pretty 15th century wooden porch. The 19th century revival carved the words COME UNTO ME above the 14th Century doorway.

The Victorians were kind to Alpheton - this is worth saying, because most 19th Century restorations were useful and necessary, but all too often removed the patina of the past, of the long generations of the parish. That could not be said here, and you step into a rustic church which feels inside as much a result of its 14th Century rebuilding as the exterior. This is sleight of hand perhaps, because the furnishings are largely 19th Century and there was an enthusiastic resetting of medieval features, not always liturgically articulate, but sunshine pours through clear windows onto old wood and stone, leading the eye to the chancel and one of Suffolk's very best 21st Century windows, the work of Pippa Blackall. It depicts the Risen Christ as a young man in modern dress. He is flanked by St Felix and St Fursey, the two evangelists of Suffolk, but also by scenes from local history - there are monks and an abbess, and there is Bury Abbey - and scenes of local life, including a tractor bringing in the harvest and a packed sheepfold.

Risen Christ Risen Christ, 21st Century tractor, farm sheep by Pippa Blackall
abbess by Pippa Blackall Bury Abbey by Pippa Blackall abbot and bishop by Pippa Blackall St Edmund by Pippa Blackall

Alpheton church was very much in the Anglo-Catholic tradition in the early 20th Century, and this overlays the evidence of enthusiasms of earlier ages. But there is also evidence of the much earlier liturgical life of the building. Either side of the chancel arch are the cusped image niches from the 14th Century rebuilding, but that on the north side has been raised up in the wall and has a Bacchus head crowning it - surely that cannot be original? Perhaps it came from a secular setting and its reuse here was a Victorian amusement. If so, the joker may have been inspired by what remains of the 14th Century sedilia in the chancel. This is cut through by a 15th Century window, but the most westerly bay has a splendid cusped crowning which leads up into what appears to be a king entangled in a tree, while another detail that I've seen descibed as a lion is clearly a wild man holding a club in his left hand.

sedilia sedilia sedilia detail: king in a tree?
sedilia detail: wild man holding a club? image niche detail: head surrounded by fruits

The 14th Century font, presumably made for the rebuilt church, stands on a low grey pedestal which is apparently made out of Purbeck marble. Fonts made of this material were very popular in East Anglia a century earlier, suggesting that this font stands on the base of its predecessor, a pleasing piece of continuity. The set of Charles I royal arms to the south of it were restored in recent years and, as Pevsner observed, they are charmingly rustic, suiting their church perfectly.

Several memorials recall the life of this little parish in years gone by. In 1905, Hannah Isabella Pearson entered into her rest. She had been Assistant Teacher in Alpheton National School. The post of Assistant Teacher in a National School was usually held by a young woman, so perhaps she died at an early age. Across from her is remembered Grace Adelaide Harvey, who entered into her rest at Felixstowe. In the chancel, one of several encaustic tile memorials to members of the Mitchell family tell us that Samuel C Mitchell was verger and gravedigger for 40 years. From an earlier century comes John Shepherd, a captain in the Royal Marines, who fought under the immortal Nelson in an attack on the harbour of Boulogne. Of course, Nelson was not immortal, and indeed neither was Captain Shepherd, for he retired to Alpheton with the wounds he received in the Battle of Boulogne, and died of them there ten years later.


Simon Knott, October 2020

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looking east font Alpheton
Charles I royal arms piscina image niche image niche
Assistant teacher in Alpheton National School, 1905 pulpit font looking west
while engaged under the immortal Nelson in an attack on the harbour at Boulogne received a severe wound on the head which after afflicting him for 10 years brought him to an untimely grave entered into her rest at Felixstowe, 1900
encaustic tile memorial: choirman encaustic tile: verger and gravedigger for 40 years encaustic memorial tile: choir 1902-1914

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