At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Augustine, Harleston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Harleston: click to enlarge

up the path exquisite gingerbread

hiding his face   I was horrified to discover that it was nearly ten years since I had last visited Harleston church. As I always count it among my favourites of the smaller churches, I felt I had to remedy this at once, so on one of those gorgeous, bright days at the start of February 2008 I cycled once more out of Stowmarket into the hills.

When I had last come this way in 1999 I had reported on this site that this beautiful little jewel of a church is one of Suffolk's best kept secrets, and I wanted it to stay that way, so I wasn't going to tell anyone about it.

Of course, I then went on to do so. Although Harleston isn't far from either Stowmarket or the A14, it is a deeply peaceful place. There is something organic about a thatched church in the fields, at one and at peace with the landscape around it.

From the road, you need to walk down to it, set below on the edge of the ploughed fields. I could help noticing that the thatching is beginning to show its age, but for a moment there is an echo of Thornham Parva. However, this is a jewel of a different kind, not a historically or artistically significant place, but being merely exquisite. The church looks as though it might be made out of gingerbread. Although the exterior facing must have been largely redone in the 19th century, and I think the tracery in most of the windows is also from this time, this was a typical Norman church once. There is the bare ghost of a doorway on the north side.

The interior is also apparently entirely Victorian. But as you wander in this little space, other periods in the life of the building become apparent. Best of all is the rood screen , which I think must be 14th century judging by the circular tracery in the upper lights. Beyond, in the chancel, the woodwork is also apparently late Victorian. But I couldn't help noticing that the building underwent a reordering in the 1930s, and so I wondered if the beautiful return stalls with their carved angels might actually be to the design of the Diocesan Architect of the time, who happened to be H Munro Cautley.

four little Armstrongs four little Armstrongs

On the edge of the graveyard is a series of iron markers which suggest a heartrending story. In a neat little row are memorials to four children of the Armstrong family, who died within a few weeks of each other in 1891. The simple cast inscriptions, each beginning In loving Memory, read:

Beatrice Armstrong, who died October 20th 1891, aged 8 years.
Spencer Armstrong, who died October 26th 1891, aged 12 years.
Percy Armstrong, who died November 8th 1891, aged 14 years.
Frank Armstrong, who died December 9th 1891, aged six months.

What on earth could have happened to carry off four members of the same family, the daughter first, and then the sons, one by one, the baby the last to die? 1891 is not so very long ago, and people who knew the story must have survived long into my time. Has the story been lost to us now, I wonder?

The markers face out across the rolling hills, ploughed now for the spring sowing. Rooks cawed, wheeling away from the graveyard trees and northwards across the fields, in the direction of Haughley and Wetherden.

Harleston church, and its graveyard, feel intimate and loved. Having revealed their existence to you, you can hardly expect me to also reveal that neighbouring Shelland and Onehouse are similarly lovely. Because they, like Harleston, are not historically or architecturally significant, most church explorers pass them by. Long may it remain so.

  ghost of a doorway

Simon Knott, 1999, revised 2008

looking east chancel Minton tile tiles
crucified weeping angel hiding his face oil lamp font image niche candles tracery screen open



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