At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary and St Lawrence, Great Bricett

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Great Bricett

Great Bricett Great Bricett
Great Bricett south doorway inscription Mass Dial

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          Great Bricett must once have been a sleepy hamlet lost in the gentle misty valleys between Stowmarket and Hadleigh, but the 20th Century brought great change to this area in the form of the Wattisham airfield, one of the country's busiest army helicopter bases. The village sits barely half a mile from it, the mundane estate of base housing spilling over the hill and merging into the village. A row of old houses conceals its approach, and also concealed is Great Bricett's church, set back from the road up a narrow lane, in a pretty square of fine houses.

A first sight of this church inevitably elicits a reaction of what's going on here, then? for St Mary and St Lawrence is nothing if not unusual. It is extremely long and towerless, and has a nave and chancel all under the one roof. A 16th century house is built into the west end of it. The south side is like an encyclopedia of early medieval windows - few styles are unrepresented - and a curious arch at the east end reveals the site of a former transept chapel. The porch and the little bellcote are both modern.

A huge Mass dial is set to the east of the porch - it must be fully 40cm across, and easily the county's biggest. It is above a blocked doorway, and the arch stones beneath it give it a sense of scale.The porch itself also contains scratchings of interest. The Norman doorway has an incised inscription on its columns. At some time it has been rebuilt, and the letters are no longer in the right order. You can just about make out the word Leonardus. Now, why on earth should it say that? You step through into a splendidly atmospheric space; long, low and full of coloured light reflecting in the polished floor. Again, you are struck by the strangeness of it, of something not being quite normal, and you would be right, for St Mary and St Lawrence was not built as a parish church at all.

What we have here is the conventual church of a Benedictine priory. It was an alien cell - that is to say, it was a daughter community of a French priory, St Leonard near Limoges. Such things were not unusual of course. In the Middle Ages, the Church in England was far more international than it is today, but such communities were vulnerable in times of war, and inevitably this priory was separated from its mother, and given its independence in the 15th century.

Eventually, it was suppressed, and the church became a parish church. There is a plan of the Priory on display inside, and it was very big, the current church forming the south side of a large square. The dedication of the church is a modern one, the St Lawrence bit coming from the long-vanished church of the long-vanished village of Little Bricett, a mile or so away.

Most Priory churches did not survive. Ironically, those that had been attached to alien cells sometimes did, because they had been removed from their foreign influence during the 14th century, and the church would have assumed a community purpose before the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. This may also explain the survival here of some 14th Century glass, unusual in Suffolk, depicting the four evangelists. Their shape shows that they were once in the upper tracery of the great east window.

St Matthew the Evangelist (14th century) St Mark the Evangelist (14th century) St John the Evangelist (14th century) St Luke the Evangelist (14th century)

Further east on this side of the church is a quite different window, with 1970s glass by the Maile Studio of Canterbury showing the two current patrons of the church. And this is a church with good and interesting work from just about every century, for at the west end is one of Suffolk's best 12th Century fonts. The interlocking arches, jaunty and cartoonish, are so different from the elegant Decorated and serious Perpendicular tracery that future centuries would bring. They are survivals, not just of a craftsman's work, but of his imagination. When we see the artwork of the later medieval period it is as if we are able to understand what they were getting at. But Norman artwork like this is mysterious, as if produced by a culture with a quite different mindset.

The sanctuary is simple and pleasing, its furnishings set against the plain whitewash of the walls. The light plays across the serious 1680s memorial to John Bright in the north wall, teasing it with a sense of the numinous. Despite the beginnings of a baroque fancy, the overall effect of the memorial is sombre, as if the shackles of puritanism had yet still to be fully shaken off. The gloomy little cherubs glow in the light. Across the church are the strikingly unusual pulpit and reading desk. The former is probably 19th Century, a grand staircase leading straight up into what is a far from conventional octagonal space, the forms undoubtedly gothic but in a different language. The reading desk beside it is bullishly baroque, the contrast between the two pieces adding to the thrill of both.

Blind arches in the walls mark the locations of former chapels, and the east window upper tracery is filled with coloured glass, a balance to the white light beneath, the white walls around. All in all, a splendid atmosphere in a church quite unlike any other in Suffolk. What a contrast with the army base housing over the hill.


Simon Knott, September 2020

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looking east font and screen looking east
John Bright, 1680 the men of Great Bricet who fell in the Great War four evangelists (14th Century, restored) St Mary and St Lawrence St Mary and St Lawrence
pulpit and reading desk font lamps and lights
Norman doorway

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