At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Gazeley

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Gazeley dog daisies dog daisies
dog daisies dog daisies Gazeley

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    All Saints is a large, remarkably good church in one of the sleepy, fat villages along the Cambridgeshire border, the sort of place you cycle through and imagine wistfully that you've won the lottery and could move there. The wide churchyard on both sides is a perfect setting for the church, which rises to heaven out of a perpendicular splendour of aisles, clerestories and battlements. The tower was complete by the 1470s when money was being left for a bell. The earlier chancel steadies the ship, anchoring it to earth quietly, although the tall east window has its spectacular moment too. And you step into a deliciously well-kept interior, full of interest.

One of the most significant medieval survivals here is not easily noticed. This is the range of 15th Century glass, which was reset by the Victorians high in the clerestory. This seems a curious thing to have done, since it defeats the purpose of a clerestory, but if they had not done so then we might have lost it. The glass matches the tracery in the north aisle windows, so that is probably where they came from. There are angels, three Saints and some shields, most of which are heraldic but two show the instruments of the passion and the Holy Trinity. I would not be surprised to learn that some of the shields are 19th century, but the figures are all original late 15th or early 16th century. The Saints are an unidentified Bishop, the hacksaw-wielding St Faith and one of my favourites, St Apollonia. She it was who was invoked by medieval people against toothache.

St Faith and St Apollonia (15th Century) bishop and angel (15th Century) two East Anglian angels (15th Century)
St Apollonia and shield of the Holy Trinity (15th Century) Shield of Arma Christi and an angel (15th Century) Angel (15th Century) and shield of the Holy Trinity (19th Century)

Waling from the nave up into the chancel, the space created by the clearing of clutter makes it at once mysterious and beautiful. Above, the early 16th century waggon roof is Suffolk's best of its kind. Mortlock points out the little angels bearing scrolls, the wheat ears and the vine sprays, and the surviving traces of colour. The low side window on the south side still has its hinges, for here it was that updraught to the rood would have sent the candles flickering in the mystical church of the 14th century. On the south side of the sanctuary is an exquisitely carved arched recess, that doesn't appear to have ever had a door, and may have been a very rare purpose-built Easter sepulchre at the time of the 1330s rebuilding. Opposite is a huge and stunningly beautiful piscina, and beside it are sedilia that end in an arm rest carved in the shape of a beast. It is one of the most significant Decorated moments in Suffolk.

On the floor of the chancel there is a tiny, perfect chalice brass, one of only two surviving in Suffolk. The other is at Rendham. Not far away is the indent of another chalice brass - or perhaps it was for the same one, and the brass has been moved for some reason. There are two chalice indents at Westhall, but nowhere else in Suffolk. Chalice brasses were popular memorials for Priests in the 15th and early 16th centuries, and thus were fair game for reformers. Heigham memorials of the late 16th century are on the walls. Back in the south aisle there is a splendid tombchest in Purbeck marble. It has lost its brasses, but the indents show us where they were, as do other indents in the aisle floors. Some heraldic brass shields survive, and show that Heighams were buried here. Brass inscriptions survive in the nave and the chancel, dating from the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

chalice brass (early 16th Century) font, organ, tower arch

The 14th century font is a good example of the tracery pattern series that appeared in the decades before the Black Death. They may have been intended to spread ideas at that time of great artistic and intellectual flowering before it was so cruelly snatched away. The cover is 17th Century. At this end of the nave are two good ranges of medieval benches, one, rare in East Anglia, is a group of 14th Century benches with pierced tracery backs. Some of them appear to spell out words, and Mortlock thought one might say Salaman Sayet. The block of benches to the north appears to be 15th Century or possibly early 16th Century. Further north, the early 17th Century benches are simpler, even cruder, and were likely the work of the village carpenter.

14th Century benches early 16th Century benches early 16th Century benches

All rather lovely then. And yet, it hasn't always been that way. All Saints at Gazeley, near Newmarket, was the first church that I visited after an international team of scientists conclusively proved that God did not exist began the first page for this church that I wrote in 2003, in a satirical mood after finding the church locked and at a very low ebb. At a time when congregations were generally falling, I'd been thinking about the future of medieval churches beyond a time when they would have people to use them in the traditional way. I wondered if the buildings might find new uses, or could adapt themselves to changing patterns and emphases in Christianity, or even changing spiritual needs of their parishes. Even if science could somehow prove that God did not exist, I suggested, there were parishes which would rise to the challenge and reinvent themselves, as churches have always done over the two millennia of Christianity. Coming to Gazeley I felt that here was a church which felt as if it had been abandoned. And yet, it seemed to me a church of such significance, such historical and spiritual importance, that its loss would be a disaster. If it had been clean, tidy and open at the time he was visiting, Simon Jenkins England's Thousand Best Churches would not have been able to resist it. Should the survival of such a treasure store depend upon the existence of God or the continued practice of the Christian faith? Or might there be other reasons to keep this extraordinary building in something like its present integrity?

In the first decade of the 21st Century, Gazeley church went on a tremendous journey, from being moribund to being the wonderful church you can visit today. If you want to read the slightly adapted 2006 entry for Gazeley, recounting this journey, you can do so here. Coming back here today always fills me with optimism for what can be achieved. On one occasion I mentioned my experiences of Gazeley church to a Catholic Priest friend of mine, and he said he hoped I knew I'd seen the power of the Holy Spirit at work. And perhaps that is so. Certainly, the energy and imagination of the people here have been fired by something. On that occasion I had wanted to find someone to ask about it, to find out how things stood now. But there was no one, and so the building spoke for them.

Back outside in the graveyard, the dog daisies clustered and waved their sun-kissed faces in the light breeze. The ancient building must have known many late-May days like this over the centuries, but think of all the changes that it has known inside! The general buffeting of the winds of history still leaves room for local squalls and lightning strikes. All Saints has known these, but for now a blessed calm reigns here. Long may it remain so.

Simon Knott, June 2019

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looking east rood screen (1520s) awe
Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise (Burlison & Grylls, 1886) Annunciation (Burlison & Grylls, 1886) Moses and the serpent (Burlison & Grylls, 1886) crucified (Burlison & Grylls, 1886) Christ in Majesty flanked by angels (Charles Clutterbuck, 1867)
north aisle window (Lavers & Barraud, 1859) Get thee behind me, Satan (Lavers & Barraud, 1859) The kiss of Judas (Lavers & Barraud, 1859) Adoration of the Shepherds (Lavers & Barraud, 1865) Peter raises Dorcas from the dead (Lavers & Barraud, 1865) He is not here, he is risen (Lavers & Barraud, 1859)
to perpetuate the glorious self-sacrifice of their fellow parishioners lost at sea by the wreck of HMS Wasp off Tory Island, Ireland (1884) Edmund and Alice Heigham, 1604 Unfortunate she was, yet here she lies, at rest (secure) from all her enemies (1717)
Here lieth Mary the wyfe of William Heigham Gentleman by whom he had issue 6 sonnes and 4 daughters she died the 18 day of Februarie Anno Domini 1618 Robert Taylour, sometymes farmour of Desninge Hall, who departed owt of this mortall lyfe the XVIIth of Febr ADni 1586 and of the Reigne of Q Eliz: 29
piscina and sedilia


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