At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Playford

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Playford Playford Clarkson memorial

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          Here we are in the charming Fynn valley, not five miles from the busy Cornhill in the middle of Ipswich, but with some surprisingly remote and lovely villages thanks to the sleight of hand of local authority planning. Playford hides in a dip of the river valley, its church on the rise to the north. Many of the houses and bungalows are modern, mixing with substantial 19th Century cottages in a wide circle which may once have been the village green. Playford Hall is nearby, an imposing 16th Century house on the way to Rushmere. Airy's Place opposite the church is also memorable. These two buildings were home to remarkable people who each in their own way would change the world forever.

Perhaps most people who visit Playford church come to see the tall obelisk memorial which stands to the south-west of the church overlooking the valley. It is to the memory of Thomas Clarkson, friend of slaves. Clarkson, who lived at Playford Hall in the latter years of his life, was instrumental with William Wilberforce in the abolition of slavery. Clarkson is said to have thought out his opposition to slavery while riding from Cambridge to London in the summer of 1785. He later described this as a spiritual revelation from God. Over the next ten years Clarkson rode more than 35,000 miles on horseback visiting ports and interviewing more than 20,000 people collecting evidence, sometimes in fear of his life from slaveship owners who hoped to derail his campaign. His health broken by exhaustion, he retired to Suffolk in 1796, but the work he had completed was instrumental in changing public opinion and eventually leading to the abolition of the trade in 1807. His retirement is perhaps why he is not so well-known as his colleague William Wilberforce, but Clarkson was rightly restored to popular memory as a result of the 2007 bicentenary of Abolition. There is also a collection of Clarkson graves to the south of the chancel, fenced off with iron railings bearing memorial medallions with inscriptions.

Another set of railed graves beside them are to the Biddell-Airy family. In 1814 the 13 year old nephew of Arthur Biddell, the owner of Hill House in Playford, came to stay. The boy's name was George Biddell-Airy, and his uncle, realising that his nephew had an interest in mathematics and astronomy, introduced him to his illustrious neighbour Thomas Clarkson, who as well as being an anti-slavery campaigner was also a prominent mathematician. Clarkson prepared the young man for entry to Cambridge University. He met with success, and in 1835 George Biddell-Airy was appointed Astronomer Royal, a post which he served for almost half a century. His greatest legacy is probably the invention of Greenwich Mean Time and the positioning of Greenwich at the centre of world time measurement. The adult Biddell-Airy obviously had fond memories of Playford, for in the 1840s he had built the 'gothick' cottage opposite the church. Both Clarkson and Biddell-Airy also have memorials inside the church.

Thomas Clarkson Clarkson graves
Sir George Biddell Airy, Astronomer Royal Biddle Airy graves

St Mary sits on the other side of the village to the Hall, dramatic and high above the lane that has cut down beside it. It is likely an ancient site. A lychgate sits beside the road and steep steps rise from it to the churchyard above. As you climb, St Mary unfolds before you. The church has one of East Anglia's thirty-odd south towers, twenty-one of which are in Suffolk. The base of it as usual forms the entrance porch into the nave beyond. A 1419 bequest by Margery Felbrigg of five marks to the building of the tower probably dates the start of its construction. The Felbrigg shields are in the spandrels of the entrance. There is another entrance to the churchyard to the north for those unable to climb the steps. James Bettley, in the revised Buildings of England volume for East Suffolk, notes that the church still contains the two bells installed on its completion in the 15th Century.

You enter a wide nave with a tall chancel arch to the east, with a feel almost entirely of its 1873 restoration at the hands of diocesan architect Richard Phipson, who rebuilt the chancel. The nave roof came at the ends of the century, and not much survives from earlier days apart from a spectacular brass of about 1400 to Sir George Felbrigg now set into the north wall of the chancel, and his heraldic shield in glass.

Sir George Felbrigg, c1400 Sir George Felbrigg, c1400

The glass in Phipson's chancel is by Powell & Sons in their familiar triumphalist style of the early 20th Century, and the interior of the church is generally the story of what happened to it in those years afterwards. A brass plaque at the west end remembers that the nave was reroofed to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 in grateful recognition of the manifold blessings vouchsafed to the people of this realm. The plaque goes on to say that the expense incurred was defrayed by voluntary contributions from every household in the parish.

There are a number of other Airy memorials from the early 20th Century including one to a Captain killed in Ireland in 1920, and the elegant parish war memorial contains nine names as a token in thanksgiving for preservation, victory and peace,which must have made quite an impact in this valley. I've come across several memorials to brothers killed on the same day in the First World War, and there is one here. It remembers Frederick and Harold Sherwood, who were killed in action whilst serving with the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment at Anzac, Gallipoli, Aug 7th 1915. Aged 29 & 25 years. England had need of them. Nearby are two sweet Art Nouveau memorials to Dudley and Gilbert West who both died in 1918. They win or die who wear the Red Rose of Lancaster, the second one reminds us.


Simon Knott, September 2021

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looking east chancel looking west
thanksgiving for preservation, victory and peace sanctuary They win or die who wear the Red Rose of Lancaster They being bury'd in this church, desirous to be layd here with my parents have erected this memorial as wel for them as my selff (1657)
after 4 years continuous service in the fighting line during the Great War was killed in Ireland two brothers killed the same day at Gallipoli


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