At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Horham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Horham Norman doorway west door

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Whichever way you come, you cross the wide open spaces of agricultural high Suffolk. The hedgerows are mostly laid low, the fields ripple with barley and rapeseed, and if you come from the direction of Denham St John you find yourself passing a long concrete expanse which stretches away from the road at an angle. It seems to have some kind of agri-industrial purpose, but in fact it is the former runway of RAF Horham, a Second World War American airbase. It was the home of the 95th Bomb Group, and from here the cities of Germany were bombed. Armaments were transported here on the now-vanished Middy, the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, which had a station here. St Mary is one of several Suffolk churches that have become shrines to the memory of the former American presence here. Apart from that, you'd never know today, for this lovely church sits peaceably at a turn in the road of its pretty village, and if you come here in late spring or early summer few churchyards are lovelier.

Benjamin Britten spent the last five years of his life living quietly here. When I first visited in the 1990s I suggested that anyone interested in exploring the graveyard should beware of Horham's famous beehives, which stand among the headstones. Coming back in more recent years to a riot of waist high wildflowers, at first I couldn't spot them. I wandered out to the south-east corner. The weatherbeaten hives were still there, crumbling quietly. I didn't see any bees, and the only local honey sold at the shop across the road came from far off Cockfield. Incidentally, Horham is pronounced Horrum, the first syllable as in 'horror', rather than to rhyme with 'quorum'. They're very insistent about this.

Despite being some way off the pulse of medieval industrial Suffolk, there was plenty of money here late in the day for the building of the tower. Simon Cotton and Peter Northeast unearthed a surprising number of bequests to the new stepill, but the earliest is as late as 1489, when half a noble was left by Thomas Garling to the makyng of a new stepill ther when it is begunn, which seems to suggest not only that work had not yet started but perhaps that it was being built to replace a predecessor. At least seven further bequests to the tower followed in the last decade of the 15th Century and the first decade of the 16th Century, until at last in 1514 there was a bequest to the bells, suggesting that work on the tower was complete. Interestingly, this date may fit the earliest of the current bells, of which more in a moment.

After the grandeur of the tower this is a humble building. As you might expect it is Norman in origin and a blocked north doorway confirms this. The windows were replaced in the 14th Century and the walls heightened, perhaps merely to accommodate them. I assume that at one time the nave and chancel ran together under a continuous roof, but in the 1870s the chancel was rebuilt on a relatively grander scale. The white rendering of the nave gives it an air of being a cottage with a tower and chancel attached.

The porch is placed towards the middle of the south wall of the nave, and If you step inside on a sunny day it can take your eyes a moment or two to adjust to the interior. And then it reveals itself not only as small, but charming, an entirely rustic space where not a lot of changes have happened in the last hundred and fifty years. A typical East Anglian font of the 15th Century sits in an expanse of pamment stones opposite the door. The bowl appears to be unrestored, the angel faces still as they were when the 16th Century reformers smashed them, but the stem has been recut, the lions restored but the presumed vandalised woodwoses recut as buttresses as is common.

A quantity of 15th Century glass was restored and reset in 1963. It consists mostly of heraldic shields and Fleur-de-Lys roundels. It is tempting to connect some of it with William Stuntele's bequest of 1486 to glaze the window on the N side of the church. There appears to have been a significant refurbishment in the early 17th Century. The former backboard of the pulpit, now incorporated into the reader's desk, is dated precisely Nov 29 1631, shortly before William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury, an appointment that would have great repercussions for the Church of England. The benches also appear to be 17th Century in origin, although perhaps later in the century. A great curiosity is the fourth bench from the front on the south side It has a linenfold back, and appears to have been the churchwarden's bench. If you look underneath you will find a long tray which slides out. The church guide says that it is for candles, and although candles were prohibited at the time for liturgical uses, tapers were used for lighting (hence the prickholes in the bench ends) and were therefore a necessity. However, it seems unlikely that the churchwarden would need to keep them under his seat. I think that Sam Mortlock may have come nearer the truth when he suggested that it was for the churchwarden's clay pipe, which would explain the small hole to allow ash to be cleaned out. It would also perhaps explain why such an idiosyncrasy is not found elsewhere.

clay pipe drawer churchwarden's clay pipe drawer

Horham is famous with bellringers, because it has the oldest ring of eight bells in the whole world. A graffito on the tower arch instructs be it knowne unto all ringers which doe assemble to this place, bestowe somthing on the sixton to keeping them in order. It may very well date from the 1670s when five new bells by John Darbye of Ipswich were added to the existing three. It is easy to imagine a frustrated sexton incising it to remind the constant stream of ringers coming to try out the new bells.

A modern wooden roundel on the north wall depicts the Annunciation, and St Dunstan, the patron saint of bellfounders. It remembers the American donations which paid for the restoration of the bells, and is made of local oak. Another American touch is the straw eagle set in a glass case, two flags in its mouth. The 95th Bomb Group memorial is across the road from the church, in the shape of a plane tail. It stands on a pedestal marked with the runway layout, like that at Knettishall. It is quietly impressive, remembering not only the hundreds of young American lads lost on bombing sorties but also those lost in the terrible accident on the airfield here during the war, when two planes collided on the ground, resulting in more than thirty deaths. All hard to imagine now, in this peaceful place.


Simon Knott, January 2021

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looking east looking west
font (15th Century) sanctuary font
Madonna and child graffiti: be it knowne unto all ringers which doe assemble to this place, bestowe somthing on the sixton 15th Century heraldic shields (reset 1963)
Mary of Bethany watches the raising of Lazarus (Ward & Hughes? 1860s?) died in a Siamese P.O.W. camp November 29 1631 leg (15th Century fragment)
The men of Horham who in the cause of true right gave their lives Annunciation these fragments


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