At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Battisford

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Battisford: click to enlarge 

Battisford buttressed buttressed looking up

Exodus   I remember the first time I came to Battisford, late one afternoon towards the end of the last summer of the 20th Century. I found a lost, lovely place above the Gipping valley, and I had come here through narrow lanes from Badley, where the little church is lost in the fields, a mile from the nearest road.

Sheep roamed the lonely hills, and there were views from the road to Barking across the valley to Haughley and Mendlesham, nearly ten miles away. In the other direction, the sun was low in the sky, suffusing the hills towards Hitcham with crimson and gold. It was like being in a hymn.

The parishes around here tend to have scattered villages, and some have more than one village centre. Battisford church is in the settlement of Battisford Tye, on one of the little lanes between Barking and Combs, with a few houses and a little cemetery across the road for company. At once, you can see this an unusual building. There's no other church in Suffolk quite like it. Although the nave and chancel are all of a 13th century piece, the tower fell shortly after the Reformation, and the west wall was buttressed in an unusual and attractive way. The buttress is stepped, up to a little bell gable at the top. In Mortlock's words, it looks as if the builder made it up as he went along, which he probably did.

On the south side is an ancient porch, with a very uneven step. If you look closely, you will see that it is made up of two gargoyles, which used to be on the tower, and survived its fall. This porch has not been used for some time - indeed, the door has no opening mechanism. The first time I came here, I feared that St Mary had been summarily abandoned. But this is not the case; you go around to the north door, and you step into a neat, bright, clean interior, that has obviously had a great deal of care lavished on it.

The chancel is bright and devotional, and there is a beautiful painted 18th century gallery at the west end. A former chantry chapel is on the north side of the nave, although anything of interest in it was probably lost on its conversion to a squire's pew in the 18th century. If you climb the stairs to the gallery (but mind your head, because people were shorter in those days) you will see at least three things of interest. Firstly, you get a tremendous view of the roof, with the tie beams and king posts spreading away to the east. Secondly, you can see the way that the benches can be extended across the gangway to provide more seating, as at Thornham Parva.

Thirdly, there's the Queen Anne coat of arms on the west wall. Queen Anne sets of arms are easily identifiable even when they have been altered, because uniquely they are charged with the legend Semper Eadem, 'always the same'. Except, in this case, it isn't; for the heraldic symbols for England and Scotland are the wrong way round. Perhaps the painter, probably a local, did it from memory, having seen it elsewhere.

Another unusual feature of St Mary is the fine set of decalogue boards behind the altar. They are engraved on slate, and have been recut in a modern style after their discovery behind the old reredos in the 1970s. They are charming, and very unusual. I can't think of another modern set in East Anglia.The serpent that was used in the church band here, before the Oxford Movement overthrew such things, is now on display at Christchurch Mansion Museum in Ipswich.

A curtain covers the unused south door, but if you look behind it you can see the great wooden stopbar still in place. So often in churches, you see the stopholes where it would fit; but to see it in postion for its defensive purpose is very unusual. Presumably, most stopbars were lifted out when not in use; but the one here will slide completely into the eastern stophole, probably accounting for its survival.

To the north of the church is a beautiful little cottage, with a rather curious square 19th century building attached. Was it the original village school? Coming back some seven years after my previous visit, I remembered it. Partly, this was because it is so lovely. It had recently been bought by a new owner (the sold sign outside the church gate gave me pause for thought for a moment before I realised it refered to the cottage) and was standing empty. It is a super little building, and the setting is lovely. I felt slightly envious of the new owner, I don't mind admitting.

But that wasn't the main reason I remembered the cottage from my previous visit. On that occasion, the elderly lady who lived there had watched me the whole time I was in the churchyard, through a little glass panel in her front door. I was obviously the most exciting thing to happen in Battisford for a long time. I pottered about, taking photographs, examining stonework, and generally trying to put a bit of excitement into her Saturday afternoon. Then it occured to me that she might get so excited that she'd call the police, and I was in enough trouble with the Anglican diocese already. So I gave her a cheery wave, and cycled off into the sunset. I was sad to find she was no longer with us, but I would probably never forget her.   semper eadem

Simon Knott, April 2008

looking east giddy heights font Queen Anne
churchwarden looking west window
war memorial organ font




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