At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Andrew, Great Finborough

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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



Thunderbird One

draped head laurelled head
west doors spire Phipson's spire Thunderbird from the east 

Annunciation   Anyone who has travelled in the hills to the south of Stowmarket will be familiar with the exotic tower of Great Finborough church. The buttresses are a clue to the architect, since they might remind you of his tower at St Mary in nearby Woolpit. He was Richard Phipson, who did a lot of lighthearted and enthusiastic work in Suffolk. This is one of his three Suffolk spires, although neither this, nor Woolpit, are anything like his more determinedly masculine St Mary le Tower, Ipswich.

Apart from the 15th century porch, the church had been entirely rebuilt by Phipson, and on the first entry for this church I imagined him, if he was still alive today, which he isn't of course, bemoaning the fact that these exotic buildings which he had fitted up for shadowy, incense-led, High Church ceremony did not lend themselves quite so fittingly to modern Anglican worship. Coming to Great Finborough on a dull day back in the 1990s I had found the interior depressing, and the dusty clutter inside the building only made things worse, and I said so. In my defence, it did not feel like a loved church, and the graveyard was in a similarly poor state.

And then, over the next couple of years, things changed. I received e-mails telling me that Great Finborough church had been transformed, and was being looked after and loved. I must come back and see it again! And so I did. It was a bright sunny day, and I started off by seeing the tower at its most splendid, from the Buxhall road. Here, it rises up dramatically above the rolling fields, and it is not surprising that some people wonder if it is a great gothic monument of some kind, and not a church at all.

Phipson was at work here in the middle years of the 1870s. Many anecdotal stories attach themselves to churches, and every county has a church where, supposedly, the local squire demanded a striking spire so that he could find his way home when out hunting. This church is Suffolk's. The family in the Big House here were the Wollastons, who became Pettiwards, and this must once have felt very much the Hall church. The last of the Pettiwards was killed in the Second World War. After some years as the headquarters of Eastern Electricity, the Hall became a school in the 1970s. But most likely, it was the Rector who wanted the tower built this way, and allowed Phipson a full run at his Tractarian principles. The banding is reminiscent of All Saints Margaret Street in London, which had been built a decade earlier.

Inside, the most significant feature is the north transept, which Phipson intended to hold the Wollaston and Pettiward memorials which had lined the walls of the old church. The kind lady who was at work inside the church recognised me, but had the grace not to hit me about the head for my earlier remarks, and even made me a cup of tea. She explained the history of the Wollaston family, and knew a great deal about the memorials themselves.

face to face defiant cherub Good Samaritan triumphant cherub
cherubs enchained backlit cherubs
face to face elegant cherub

On the south side of the nave is a sequence of windows by Clayton & Bell,depicting scenes leading up to the Crucifixion beneath quatrefoils of Faith, Hope and Charity. In the best of these, Mary Magdalene kneels at Christ's feet in Bethany while Martha and Lazarus look on.

There is a stunning Annunciation scene up in the chancel - is this also by Clayton & Bell? - and overall there is a sense of a typical 19th century rural High Church atmosphere, still today as Phipson must have imagined it. And today, the dust and the mess have gone, and Great Finborough church is obviously loved. I decided I liked it a lot after all.

Mary at the Annunciation Gabriel at the Annunciation deposition noli me tangere he took her into his own home Martha
they loved not their lives unto the death Suffolk Regiment Royal Berkshire Regiment Royal Arms of George V
Christ and angels St George Christ washes Peter's feet Annunciation Visitation St John the Baptist
Precious Faith Glorious Hope here is a lad with five loaves and two fishes

I said goodbye to the nice lady, and stepped outside into the winter sunshine. I wandered around to the west side of the tower, and looked out across the valley to Buxhall. There are number of 19th century gravestones here, and one modern one. This is to the radio presenter John Peel, who lived in Great Finborough, and died of a heart attack while on holiday in Peru in 2004. For someone of my generation, a teenager at the end of the 1970s, Peel assumed almost a Messiah status. He was like a touchstone for the emerging alternative culture, at a time when it was simply very difficult to hear any music which was not part of the bland mainstream.

Listening to his late night show on Radio One, we heard the exciting punk and new wave bands for the first time, and were introduced to the reggae, folk and electronic music that would otherwise have passed us by. But more than that, we made a connection, and were rescued because of it. To listen to Peel playing music was to hear him discovering it for himself; a clever trick perhaps, but it meant something to a fifteen year old. He was the still point of a turning world which would have been quite different without him. He was a catalyst.

Part of the rock culture of the late seventies was the enthusiasm with which young people, although often unable to play a note, would form bands and try to release records. By the early 1980s, his role as the mediator for the left field of popular music was being taken on by others away at Radio One and elsewhere, but still he was the first port of call for these undiscovered bands. I remember talking to him once at a show he did in Sheffield, when I was working for the student newspaper. We chatted about the emerging scene in the city. He showed me a box which was full of cassette tapes. "See these?" he said. "These are just the ones I've been given since I got to Sheffield this morning."

I can't honestly say I listened to him much after about 1990, and I only ever heard his Radio 4 programme once or twice (what was it called?) but by then his work was done. No doubt the tapes and CDs kept coming.

  John Peel

Simon Knott, January 2008, updated July 2015

font look east sanctuary look west Annunciation    

Amazon commission helps cover the running costs of this site