At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Athelington

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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To the Glory of God and in Memory Athelington the Athelington dead

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You would not come across Athelington by accident I think. It sleeps in the narrow lanes between Horham and Worlingworth, miles from anywhere. Eighty years ago this was a much busier place, for the long-mourned Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, or Middy for short, had a station here, and the American airbase at Horham was only a couple of miles off. But now the modern world has retreated, and Suffolk has few more idyllic spots than this churchyard in the heat of a summer afternoon

Having said that, Suffolk is a county of exciting and beautiful churches, but Athelington is a small, plain building which is put in the shade by its neighbours. There was a 1463 bequest for a new tower here, but either it was never built, or the addition was demolished later, for what survives here is very much earlier, and is capped at a low level. Externally and internally the church is largely the work of Edward Blackburne who was busy here in the early 1870s. His is the bare-faced flintwork porch and the perky finial atop the stair tower roof and, I'm afraid, the frosted quarries of glass in all the windows. Generally, it isn't a memorable exterior.

And I hate to moan, but I'm afraid to say that under normal circumstances this is the only locked church for miles around, and I don't suppose it is likely to be more accessible in the future (I write this as the Covid pandemic is at its height). Be that as it may, if you can get in you'll find yourself stepping into a church which is rather dark inside, and as your eyes accustom to the light you can see that it is severely plain. The traceried 14th Century font is similar to the one across the meadows at Bedingfield, albeit set differently. But despite the undistinguished appearance of the church it is perhaps a good setting for the collection of 15th Century bench ends. Some of the figures on the ends appear to also be 15th Century, but in the main they are mostly the work of the 19th or early 20th Century, and among them are some of Suffolk's favourite female saints, including St Margaret, St Barbara, St Agatha, St Catherine and St Agnes, suggestive of a High church enthusiasm here at the time.

St Barbara St Agatha and St Margaret Madonna and child
a 15th century woman and a 19th century deacon St Barbara and St Catherine St Agnes and the Blessed Virgin
St Barbara St Agnes woman with a rosary St Catherine

Blackburne reset some medieval roof bosses around the bell opening beneath the tower, a nice detail. Standing here and looking east, the swaying trees outside beyond the east window create a more numinous effect than any coloured glass. It seems sad that more people can't see it.

An interesting insight into the life of this parish in the last days before the late 19th Century revival took it by the scruff of the neck comes in the pages of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship. At the time the parish had a population of 117, but only twelve people made it to church on the Sunday morning of the census. Francis Baldry, the churchwarden, claimed that the average number was fifteen, but even so this is barely one in eight of the people of the parish and thus one of the lowest rates of church attendance in the whole of Suffolk. In fact, the great majority of the people of the parish were Baptists, and were heading up the road to Horham Baptist Chapel each Sunday, which claimed a remarkable attendance of four hundred in the morning and little short of five hundred in the afternoon.

There are a couple of intriguing details in the 1851 Census of Religious Worship as far as Athelington is concerned. Firstly, Baldry's return is dated 18th October, which is to say fully six months after the day of the census! There may be a reason for this. The rector of Athelington was one Reverend R B Exton JP, but he did not live here because he was also vicar of Cretingham, some eight miles off, where he had his vicarage. This was the kind of plurality that the Oxford Movement helped do away with. Turning to the census return for Cretingham we can see that as late as the 28th October Edward Gross, the registrar at Earl Soham, recorded that when the census was taken, vicar refused to fill up this return. There is a contemporary reference to a godless churchwarden at Cretingham, and all in all it seems a curious state of affairs.

And there is one more thing. It was common at the 1851 census to record the number of Sunday School scholars in attendance separately so that it could be added to the congregation as required to give a total but was also there for comparison on its own. When Francis Baldry was finally forced to fill in the return for Athelington he added plus 30 scholars to his total of 12. However, this was later rubbed out. Was this done by the returning officer? Or did Baldry do it himself? Perhaps he had an attack of conscience and felt guilty for lying, for in 1851 Athelington had no Sunday School.


Simon Knott, January 2021

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looking west sanctuary font

bell floor roof


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