At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Michael, Cookley

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


Cookley view from the porch


Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

I remember the first time I came this way, one hot summer afternoon towards the end of the 20th Century. I'd set off from Halesworth railway station on my bike, and taken  a mazy, stopping route around the churches of Spexhall, Wissett, Chediston and Linstead. As I travelled, the villages got smaller, the lanes narrower and lonelier. And, at last, I came to Cookley - the church, and a few houses, for that was all there was. A hamlet really, with a second small settlement on the other side of a wide common, and a few other cottages and farmhouses scattered over the wide parish. St Michael is the only building of note, and is rather oddly set, because it is at the back of the garden of one of the cottages. You have to walk through the garden to reach the church. Elsewhere in Suffolk something similar exists at Chelsworth and Kettleburgh, and must once have been more common, a survival of what many villages were like in the days before public highways and tarmac roads.

A small church, it sits at the top of a gentle rise looking rather perky above the rooftops. The tower has some evidence of its Norman origins, and we will see more of this period inside. A bequest of 1472 left money for the emendation of the tower, giving it the appearance it has today. Overall there is a crisp feel to the exterior, and you step into a well-kept interior. The 1890s restoration here was overwhelming, but simple, with a lack of grandeur that suits a small rural church, and one in which the blacksmith and ploughman of the time would have felt quite at home. However, there is no doubt that much was lost. The architect and historian Munro Cautley, later diocesan surveyor for St Edmundsbury and Ipswich and generally a genial old buffer, really went to town when he wrote about it in the 1930s. This church is chiefly remarkable as the scene of a shocking restoration so late as 1894! he wrote. The rood screen was demolished and carted to the Rector's stable at Huntingfield and most of it probably burnt, the box pews were distributed in the village to mend hen houses and probably the Stuart pulpit, dated 1637, which was ejected as being 'inharmonious with its surroundings', would have shared the same fate if it had not been that Chediston gave it a home in its church. By contrast, James Bettley in his revision of the Buildings of England volume for East Suffolk points out that the Ipswich Journal of the time noted the utmost care taken in preserving the old work. Pevsner himself criticised the very ugly vestry built on to the north side of the church, perhaps gleefully noting that it had been designed by none other than Munro Cautley.

The patron of the church at the time of the 1890s restoration was Thomas Day Turner, vicar of Flixton St Mary, but perhaps he found himself here without the money to achieve anything as dramatic as happened at that church. However, there is still much of interest. Stepping through the curtain into Cautley's very ugly vestry you can turn back and see the original Norman north doorway of the church. At the west end of the nave is a good example of a typical 15th Century East Anglian font, angels holding shields alternating with lions around the bowl. Some of the bench ends at this end of the nave are old, and there are some survivals from a Seven Deadly Sins sequence. A man falls asleep while praying the rosary, and a devil writes his sin on a scroll.

Bolted to the wall on the south side of the chancel arch is an upright from the 15th Century roodscreen. Cautley had identified it in the structure of a chicken-shed at Huntingfield and had it removed and brought back to the church. You can imagine the great man red-faced and blustering at reluctant farm-hands. When I first came here in the 1990s the upright was leaning up against the wall, an ancient typewritten slip of paper sellotaped to it as a label, explaining what it was. The label fell off when I lifted the upright to test its weight. I pressed it back on, but on a visit soon afterwards noticed that it was no longer there, having been swept up by an enthusiastic cleaner I shouldn't wonder. It occured to me later that Cautley had probably typed it out and stuck it on himself.

I was struck by the decorative leading in the windows, the glass clear apart from simple outlining in light purple. I wondered if it might be the work of Emily Owles & Son of nearby Halesworth. It is not as elaborate as their decorative glass at Bramfield and South Elmham All Saints, but it is reminiscent of it. It contributes to a lovely church. This needs saying, because it has been ill-served by the literature and had also had a bad press at the start of the century when it was kept locked and access was denied even to local residents. But it has survived, and now prospers. It is open every day, and is well deserved of our visits and prayers.

Simon Knott, March 2022

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


looking east chancel looking west
Norman north doorway font: angel holding the shield of the Holy Trinity between lions St Michael Elizabethan lady
peasant praying the rosary (15th Century) devil writing on scroll (15th Century)
decorative glass (Emily Owles & Son of Halesworth?) This church of St Michael Cookley was restored in the year of Our Lord 1894


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making, in fact they are run at a loss. But if you enjoy using them and find them useful, a small contribution towards the costs of web space, train fares and the like would be most gratefully received. You can donate via Paypal.