At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Blaxhall

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Blaxhall Blaxhall blaxhall
west doorway west doorway: angel west doorway: green man

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          The countryside of the east of Suffolk is quieter and more rambling than much of the rest of the county, and you never have to cycle more than a couple of miles before you come across another little village with its medieval church. Seen on a map, you might think that this area is hemmed in between the A12 and the sea, but the gently rolling heathland seems wilder and more remote than just about anywhere else in East Anglia. Take Blaxhall, for example, a sprawling parish with a small village centre, no more than a few houses and a pub, really. The church is off on its own in the fields, and the sandy soil of the parish is cut across by narrow, ancient lanes which seem to lead nowhere in particular. One of them heads off from near what is now the world famous Snape Maltings concert hall, which is actually on the Blaxhall side of the river in Tunstall parish, but Tunstall village is miles from it, and you would never know.

As you might expect, Blaxhall church dominates its landscape, first seen from far off looming over the trees, a focus for the sandy lanes that cut across the heathland. An avenue of chestnuts leads up to the east of the church, clusters and scatterings of 19th Century headstones on either side. Off to the south, the modern churchyard is trim, but to the north the ancient headstones are a glorious wilderness of wild flowers and grasses in high summer, the tomb tops peeping above the tufts as if they were going down for the third time.

As often in East Suffolk the tower is late medieval against an older church. An angel holds the Ufford arms in one of the spandrels of the west doorway (which is very oddly filled in) with what appears to be a malevolent green man in the other. The AMR monogram and shield of the Aldryche family are on the contemporary south porch. Red brick infills the flintwork walls of the tower, and you can see that something happened here. Either a collapse, or the neglect common to medieval churches before the Victorians found them and rescued them. Perhaps, the red brick was a patch-up job of the early 18th Century, and evidence inside seems to suggest this. James Bettley, revising the Buildings of England volumes for Suffolk, pointed to the windows of about 1300 as the date for the nave and chancel with some later Perpendicular additions. There was a major restoration at the hands of JP St Aubyn in the 1860s and further work towards the end of that century.

In normal times the church is open to pilgrims and strangers all day, every day. A sign on the door tells you that This is God's House! Be welcome whoever you are, whether of this household or another way. Be welcome! And St Peter is a church of great interest, and perhaps little known. A hint of this is to be found when you step into the porch, for Blaxhall was the home parish of the Ropes, that remarkable creative family of farmers, artists, engineers and religious. The two best known are the cousins Margaret Agnes and Margaret Edith Rope, stained glass artists whose work can be found in churches and cathedrals all over the world, but there is also work here by their aunt Ellen Rope, and Margaret Edith Rope's sister Dorothy. The decorated gable end of the 1890s organ chamber roof is by another member of the family, Edwin James Rope, brother of Ellen and uncle to the other previously mentioned Rope artists. This church forms a little shrine to their work, and the first sign of this is Ellen Rope's sentimental side window in the porch, depicting the parish's Sunday School children.

sing we merrily! sing we merrily! Sunday School children (Ellen Mary Rope, 1920s)

Arthur Rope, Margaret Edith Rope's nephew, tells me that it is unlikely that Ellen actually made this window herself, for it is her only known stained glass work. It is more likely that one of the Margarets made it up at their workshop in the Glass House in Fulham to their aunt's design.

You step into a cool interior. Blaxhall has what at first sight appears to be one of those typical 15th Century East Anglian fonts, familiar from many other churches, a large octagonal bowl with supporting figures on the stem. However, instead of the more familiar lions and sometimes woodwoses, the bowl here is supported by the symbols of the four Evangelists, and the bowl itself has panels with stars and shields where you might expect to find more lions and the Evangelists. it does appear to be largely recut, and it isn't clear how much replicates what was here before, but it is hard to see that it could have been very different when first carved.

Otherwise, the overwhelming sense is of JP St Aubyn's restoration, everything neat and crisp but with a rural sensitivity. Among other things he removed the west gallery and exposed the medieval hammerbeam roof from behind its plaster ceiling. The angels on the corbels have all lost their wings, but their features are so primitive that you can't help thinking that they might have been carved by local carpenters.

The nave below is a gallery of Rope family work. The bronze war memorial is by Ellen Rope, as is the angel and child bas-relief with its delicately coloured background. The Ropes sometimes used real people as models for their work, for example the child in this bas-relief is a local boy, David Savage, who lived in Blaxhall all his life and is now buried in the churchyard. The angel leading a child and the lettering below it on the 1904 memorial for seven year old Alfred Bates are also by Ellen. The other bas-relief memorial of 1936 to Marjorie Wilson, daughter of the Rector of Blaxhall, with an angel comforting mourning children, is by Dorothy Rope.

Angel and child (Ellen Rope, 1890s) The Dear Memory of Marjorie Wilson (Dorothy Rope) In Memory of Alfred Aldrich Bates (Ellen Rope)
war memorial (Ellen Rope) Even there also shall thy right hand lead me (detail, Ellen Rope)

The glory of Blaxhall is the 1912 east window. It remembers George and Anne Rope and their sons and daughters, and is the work of their grand-daughter Margaret Agnes Rope, in collaboration with her younger cousin and another grand-daughter Margaret Edith, and made in the Fulham Glass House. Margaret Agnes Rope's signature is at the bottom right, an MAR monogram, and it's believed to be the only time she signed one of her windows. The glass is arranged on three levels. At the centre sit the Blessed Virgin with the Christchild within a thatched stable, a dove with a cruciform nimbus perched above and cherubs hovering. Behind her you can see a windmill and a farmer, probably intended as George Rope, and to the left of her kneels St Stephen holding his symbol of stones, a shepherd looking on. To the right of her sits St Luke attended by a small child holding flowers and his winged calf behind him. he writes the Nativity story in his Gospel. In the range below are St John the Evangelist with his eagle, St Joseph busy in his workshop while an angel looks on, and then in the last panel are two figures, St Michael and St Peter. Other rural figures are scattered behind, a man riding on a horse behind St Philip and a horse-drawn plough behind St Luke.

The figure of St Michael is based on Margaret Agnes Rope's brother Michael. This was not the last time she used him to represent this saint, for nearly two decades later Michael Rope was an engineer with the Air Ministry and was on the ill-fated flight of the R101 airship, which crashed near Beauvais in 1930 with no survivors. The church of Holy Family and St Michael at Kesgrave on the outskirts of Ipswich was built in his memory, with him depicted again in his sister's glass there. His widow was still alive at the time of my first visit to Kesgrave in the 1990s, a wonderful old lady with many memories of her sister-in-law and the other Rope artists.

Blessed Virgin and child with saints (Margaret Agnes Rope, 1913) Dove of the Holy Spirit by Margaret Agnes Rope, 1912
St Stephen and a shepherd (Margaret Agnes Rope, 1913) Blessed Virgin and child (Margaret Agnes Rope, 1913) St Luke and Blaxhall scenes (Margaret Agnes Rope, 1913)
St John (Margaret Agnes Rope, 1913) St Joseph and an angel (Margaret Agnes Rope, 1913) St Michael and St Peter (Margaret Agnes Rope, 1913)
Rope family inscription (Margaret Agnes Rope, 1913) Rope family inscription and MAR signature (Margaret Agnes Rope, 1913)

You step out of the chancel, back out of the 20th Century. A monument of 1621 on the nave wall has some of its dates missing. Presumably, it was prepared before the death of one of the intended parties, and then never filled in. It reads: Here lye the bodyes of Frauncis Saunders of Blaxhall in the County of Suffolke, Gentleman, whoe dyed the 21 daye of Janu. in the 69th yeare of his age, Ao Dni 1618. & of Katherin his wife daughter of John Soone of Wanesden (Wantisden) Wthin the same Countye, Esquire, who when shee had lived maried with the sayed Frauncis her husband 42 years and after his decease BLANK yeares widdow, dyed in the BLANK yeare of her age Ao Dni BLANK.

By them also lyeth here interred Frauncis Saunders sonne of Valentine Saunders Esq one of the sixe clarks of his Mties High Court of Chauncery, who died in the 19th yeare of his age Ao Dni 1604. In memory of wch three (his brother, sister in awe & eldest sonne) the sayed Valentine Saunders Esq erected this monument Ao Dni 1621.
Perhaps it is safe to assume that the chaos of the Civil War years intervened, separating Katherin Saunders from her home and family. She must lie elsewhere now. Perhaps she remarried, and was known by a different name.

John Ropper was churchwarden here as the 17th Century became the 18th, and his name, inscribed in 1711 in a roundel on the west wall of a nave, was put there most likely to mark the repairs to the tower. This was often the case, affording churchwardens a kind of immortality after all that hard work. Romantically, a modern twin to this inscription, dated 1998, remembers Frank Shaw, who had been churchwarden for 38 years.

The Ropes are not the only brush that this parish has had with artistic fame. The parish is also central to the books of George Ewart Evans. Evans was a Welshman who moved to Suffolk after the Second World War. His wife was the village schoolmistress here, and he spent his days talking to the 'rum old boys' of Blaxhall and writing down their memories. The first of his books about Blaxhall, Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay, was published in 1956. There would be ten more.

There is a strong feeling of nostalgia in Evans' writing. Even in the 1950s, he knew that his books were essentially elegiac and valedictory. He was out on the end of an event, having survived it, and he said of the ordinary villager that his knowledge is not a personal knowledge but has been available to him through oral tradition which is the unselfconscious medium of transmission. It is in his bones, you could say, and nonetheless valuable for that.... It was here at this time, and with the dressing and elaborating on it later, that I transposed the Blaxhall community in my own mind into its true place in an ancient historical sequence, keeping the continuity that was for ever changing, and for ever remaining the same, until an irreparable break substituted the machines for animal power, and put an end to a period that had lasted well over two thousand years.


Simon Knott, December 2021

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looking east east window (Margaret Agnes Rope, 1913) font and view east
font Churchwarden (1771) Churchwarden for 38 years (1998) poppy head and tracery
Angel and child (Ellen Rope) Late captain in the West Suffolk Militia Fraunces and Katherin Saunders, 1618


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