At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Andrew, Darmsden

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Darmsden: click to enlarge

in the fields west end

a walk to Darmsden   We decided that we ought to get out more as a family, and so I invested in a copy of a fine little volume called Suffolk Walks, published by Pathfinder books. This is an exquisitely detailed guide to about thirty walks in the county, varying in difficulty from the Sunday afternoon stroll to the surely-you-can't-be-serious level beloved of hearties with pointed sticks and expensive boots.

We decided to work ourselves up to the professional stuff by tackling a few from the easier end of the spectrum. One of the shortest walks was in and around Needham Market, with the added benefit of a short cut back into town if we got fed up or worn out half way round. Even so, the prospect of walking four and a half miles is a serious one, and not to be enterprised nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, and so I ensured that we timed it to arrive back in Needham while the pubs were still open. I also chose the walk because I had long wished to go back to Darmsden, remembering it from my first sweep across the county as a special place, and quite different from most.

Darmsden is one of those pretty villages in the rolling, wooded hills above the industrial end of the Gipping valley. Unlike the others, it is a private estate village; technically, there are no public roads leading to it, but the estate road from the B1113 is open to all. But that would be lazy; on foot, the walk starts above the Lion pub in Needham and takes you north of the quarry and out into the wide fields between there and Barking. Alternatively, you can do it in reverse from the main road (although there would be nowhere to park) up through Darmsden woods, which enclose you and have a feel of the Dordogne about them.

The village itself is small and pretty, but when I cycled this way in 2000 I soon made the acquaintance of one or two enthusiastic dogs. Perhaps they also thought they were in France. Mind you, I can outpace a Jack Russell any time I want. Or could then, anyway. Beyond the village, the lane curves around the hillside, and there is the pretty little church, with splendid views across to Shrublands Hall on the far side of the valley.

This is a Victorian church in the transitional style. It doesn't look particularly interesting, but a fine story is attached to it. There is something deep in most of us, if we are English, which loves to see the little man put one over on the big guys; that is pretty much what happened here at St Andrew.

St Andrew was declared redundant by the Anglican diocese in the 1970s, and, like most 19th century churches at that time, was not considered worth saving. It was offered for sale, under the condition that if an alternative use could not be found within three years, it would be demolished. However, this little community is very determined. They got together and formed the Friends of St Andrew; they raised a large sum of money, and bought the building off of the Church of England.

This wasn't unusual at the time; quite a few redundant churches were sold off for private use to be converted into homes, exhibition spaces, and the like. The thing that made this purchase a bit different was that the Friends promptly re-opened St Andrew as a church again. Thirty years on, they still maintain at least one service a month, about as many as some CofE churches in less remote locations, and the services are interdenominational. The other thing that makes this church different from most is that it is always open, 24 hours a day, and pilgrims and strangers are always welcome.

The entrance is through a south porch, which on my first visit was absolutely suffused with the fragrance of hyacinths. Coming back in 2007, family in tow, I found St Andrew still well-cared for, still so obviously loved. It is all of a piece, the work of Herbert Green. More of his work can be seen at nearby Willisham. The font is a little fat tub, and the reredos is a grand one. St Peter and St Andrew stand either side of Christ as the Good Shepherd. Bearing in mind that sheep farming was a mainstay around here during the agricultural depression in the 1880s, it is easy to imagine the power of this image for the farmworkers who used this church.

Little has changed since Green's rebuilding. This is still the church of the blacksmith and the ploughboy, the farrier and the shepherd. This must be put down to the love and care of the people of Darmsden, who have kept their church the way that they want it - would that the parishioners of many other Anglican churches could have the same opportunity.

I couldn't help thinking that the Churches Conservation Trust, given care of this dear little church, would have cleared it of clutter, and made it more tasteful. Instead, it is as cluttered and kitschy as a loved and used village church should be. It is sobering to think that, if the Anglican Diocese had had its way, this would be a private house by now.

  war memorials

Simon Knott, 2001, updated 2008

look east font look west
harmonium reredos D'Almaine & Co windows
notice book book window 
window war war window
St Peter Good Shepherd St Andrew

in this county died grave's end all in a row



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