At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Mettingham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Norman north doorway ribboned crown flanked by cherubs

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St Cecilia by Christopher Webb, 1929   This gorgeous little church sits hidden in the woods above the busy Bungay to Beccles road. I have had a strange relationship with it. I'd visited it half a dozen times over the last twenty or so years, and I'd never found it open, never found a notice telling me where I might find the key. And yet, there is something so special about this place, about the church and its setting, so magical about this ancient clearing, that my feelings were torn between frustration and annoyance on the one hand and a sense of wonder and delight on the other. For here I felt sure, was something magical and numinous, worth waiting for, worth being frustrated by.

And then, on a cloudless day in the high summer of 2016, my mother died. I won't go in to the succeeding fortnight of grief, sadness and paperwork, because anyone who has experienced the death of a parent will have undergone the same journey through the same tunnel. But a few days after the funeral, on the hottest Saturday of the year so far, I slipped those surly bonds and headed out into the quietly winding lanes of north Suffolk.

I had not been to the Waveney Valley in years. I had spent too much time bogged down in exploring churches in the outer reaches of Cambridgeshire and Essex, in Kent and Lincolnshire, in the City of London. And so, nearer to home, I escaped. Here, less than an hour from my house, I cycled through familiar ancient parishes that slept like lazy cats in the unaccustomed heat. I sped through them, freed by the air that rushed past me. The harvest was underway, barley dust drifting from the fields, the occasional urgent tractor and trailer barrelling up the lanes.

I visited the new Orthodox church of the Mother of God, Joy of All who Sorrow, down on the bottom road towards Ellingham. It was my first new Suffolk church for almost a year. And then I came here, joining the top road and flirting with the mad traffic for a few moments before turning off with an excitement in my heart. At the bottom of the track to the church was a sign which read Church Open.

Mettingham was home to a college of priests in the late middle ages. John of Norwich, owner of Mettingham Castle, had founded it at Raveningham in Norfolk in 1350, and it moved to the castle in 1394. It had its own chapel, and although it may have provided priests for the church there's no evidence that All Saints was ever used for collegiate purposes. In any case, the college was dissolved in 1542, and was already recorded as a ruin twenty years later.

All Saints had already been around a fair while before the college turned up. You see this immediately as you climb the rough track that opens out into the sheltered churchyard. This must be an ancient site, raised as it is above a river route, and although the tower is 12th Century the current church probably replaced something that was there before. The lovely north doorway shows that a new church was built contemporarily with the tower, but there was much more to come in the medieval period. And then there was a late restoration here, just before the turn of the 20th Century, and so it escaped the worst excesses and enthusiasms of half a century earlier.

You step through that north doorway into the high-pitched nave, the south aisle beyond. It is a simple, seemly interior, slightly old-fashioned and a bit dusty, but none the worse for that. The font is a typical late medieval East Anglian font, lions supporting a bowl with angels and lions on the panels. I instantly recognised a bronze plaque in the south aisle from my recent explorations of City of London churches - it is a Boer War memorial to a local who fought with the City of London Imperial Volunteers. The regiment supplied an identical form of memorial for every member who didn't come back from South Africa. The most striking things about the church are the Christopher Webb window of St Cecilia in the north side of the nave, and another 20th Century window in the south aisle depicting Christ in Majesty with the Angels and Saints. Pevsner doesn't mention it, Mortlock does but wonders who it is by, and so do I.

As so often in a country church, you get the impression that it was once a bit busier here, that this place was once more central to the life of its community. Now the tide has receded, and churches like All Saints are left high and dry. The only possible way back from this, of course, is to have the church open every day as an act of witness and hospitality to passing pilgrims and strangers, but the sign on the noticeboard told me that All Saints is only open on Saturdays, and only in summer. Still, that's a start.

  O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him by Christopher Webb, 1929

Simon Knott, August 2016

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looking east font Blessed Virgin, John the Baptist, Saints and Martyrs
Blessed Virgin, John the Baptist, Saints and Martyrs Christ in Majesty St Cecilia by Christopher Webb, 1929 Suffer Little Children and Charity (Jones & Willis)
Pelican in her Piety Nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection All Saints Mettingham Sunday School


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