At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Santon Downham

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


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click to enlarge:

A tower in the forest.

Ghost on the north side of the chancel.

Priest door in south side of chancel.

Former chapel entrance in the north side of the nave.

Setting of the famous Santon Downham relief above a door on the south side of the nave.

That relief in full.

Looking east towards the screen.

Curious peephole in the south of the rood screen.

The sanctuary.

Looking west.


Brass of 1885.

The Church in the Forest.

Base of preaching cross.

650 Suffolk churches? A piece of cake.



St Mary the Virgin, Santon Downham. The last church in Suffolk.

Once, in a wood, there was a wolf; and a very good wolf he was too. Through the budding groves of spring, the green St Martin's land of summer, the golden bower of autumn and the long thin winter among the leafless boughs, he ran with the pack and he foraged alone.

Then the men came, and they hunted him; but before they caught him they saw him as a symbol, they raised him up as at once evil and mighty, and yet glorious and beyond their comprehension. And they loved him, and they killed him. And they hunted and killed all his companions, and drove them southwards, and slaughtered them. Until there were no wolves left, anywhere in England.

And yet they remembered him. He was still a mighty, lawless power, and since they didn't have the Word they made do with meaning, and kept him in their hearts and pondered on him, until he was transformed into something far beyond that which he had ever been.

And the men stayed, and they tore down the forests to build their villages and farmsteads, until the land was wide open under the eastern sky; and the men were the South Folk, and the land was the Breck, and when the wind blew it lifted the land. Until one day the men said there is nothing we can do with this land; and so they planted the forests again, and the forests stayed. But the wolves never came back.

I had dreamed of Santon Downham often. It sits on the border, hard against it, and so remote that hardly anyone who had never been there would know that it existed. About four years ago, when I started this site, I realised that it would be the last Suffolk church I would visit, the last one I should visit. Increasingly at night, I chased oblique phantoms through corridors that led to this place. Surreal encounters with figures of authority, ex-lovers, myself, my long dead grandmother, staggered from houses I've lived in and Brueghelesque landscapes into a clearing in a forest where this church stands. But I had never been there; on the contrary, I was working entirely from maps. Thanks to the Ordnance Survey I had an idea of Santon Downham, or should I say an ideal. It was to do with fulfillment, and moving on.

As the months turned, and I ticked off parish after parish, the numbers climbed, until I was well into the four hundreds. But I had run out of steam. I told Aidan that I would stop at five hundred, and call it a day. Complexities in my personal life interfered, and although cycling off into the Waveney Valley was a good way of escaping them, there was little room in my head to actually write anything down. At Mettingham in the spring of 2002, I almost gave up.

But I didn't. And, as if in affirmation, willing hands lifted me on the very final stages of the journey. It was in no small way thanks to them that I was here at all. Fifty remaining churches became twenty, and then suddenly five, and it was on a murky day in early November 2003 I set off around the very last to be visited.

Higham, Wangford, Brandon St Peter; and then, thundering now along the forest road towards Thetford, the landscape unravelling before us, there was a sense of achievement I had never thought to see.

Santon Downham is remarkable for an inundation of sand, which in 1668 threatened to overwhelm the whole parish. The sand was blown for several years by frequent strong winds of long continuance, from the hills of Lakenheath, distant about five miles from the south west. It buried and destroyed houses and cottages, and so choked the navigation of the river that a vessel with two loads weight found as much difficulty in passing as it had done with ten. Mr Wright, who occupied the largest farmhouse, had all his avenues blocked up, so that there was no access to his dwelling but over the tops of two walls, 8 or 9 feet high; and at one time, the sand filled his yard, and was blown up to the eaves of his out-buildings. For several years, he raised furze hedges, set upon one another as fast as they were levelled by the sand. By this experiment, he raised banks near twenty yards high, and brought the sand into the compass of 8 or 10 acres, then by laying upon it some hundred loads of earth and dung, he reduced it again to firm land. He then cleared away all his walls; and with the assistance of his neighbours carted away about 1500 loads, and cut a passage to his house through the main body of the sand.

The church sits at the far eastern end of the village green, hard against the Norfolk border. The forest encroaches right up to it, a golden wall dwarfing the tower. The church is a pretty little thing, and the graveyard was full of the smells and sounds and life.

It reminded me a bit of that morning in Mettingham. Not the place's fault; I could have chosen to end it all at any time. But it was on that long haul up into Mettingham from the abandoned churches of Shipmeadow that I did give up at last. And on that cold, bright, February morning in 2002, nature threw my weakness back in my face. I had imagined that finishing here would mean being out on the end of an event, looking back having survived it; but as all around the world renewed itself, I was the tired one lying back already dead. In that moment, I almost succumbed to despair, to abandonment, the distractions of a modern urban life, the drugs that didn't work.

I'd lain back against the iron-cold of an 18th century gravestone. Its chill burned into the back of my head, clearing it. I looked around at the hundreds of stones. How many people had been drawn to this place, their lives revolving around it, over how many centuries... And now, it was all being forgotten. Churches were closing; or, even worse, being slowly abandoned by dying congregations. In thirty years time, how much of all this would have been lost? Someone had to write it down, if only because so many had died. Death became life, and a resolve was reborn in me.

Now, in the dropping days of November, nature was busy here at Santon Downham putting itself to bed, and I was glad I had come so far. We rolled to a stop on the verge outside the church, a carpet of fallen gold. Everything was like a fairy tale here; the colours, the smells, the church wall slightly too low, the church beyond huddled and crouched as if Hansel and Gretel might be lost nearby.

Once, in a wood, there was a wood-cutter. And he had a wife and two children. And his wife died, so he laid her to rest in the damp earth, beneath the soft grass. This was in the days of the first King William, when all around the land was being tried and measured. Here in the wood there was already a Christian chapel, and perhaps a priest. Perhaps, when the priest arrived in this heathen place the woodcutter and his family were already living together, and so he sanctified their very existence. This was a way of taking power, but it was also a powerful magic, and the magic that surrounded their daily lives would resonate for nearly five hundred years.

Later, in the time of the sixth King Henry, all that would come to an end. The magic would be destroyed. The children's names? Hansel and Gretel, and they were surrounded by magic; magic touched everything they did. So when the woodcutter took a new wife, and her jealousy forced him to abandon the children, magic still surrounded them even then. But in the years to come the magic would be lost to us for centuries.

The name of the village differentiates it from Downham Market over the border and Little Downham a few miles off in Cambridgeshire. There is a suggestion that the word Santon is connected to the word sand; but the parish immediately over the border is Santon, and has been called so since pre-conquest times, so Santon Downham merely takes its forename from its proximity to its neighbour.

The outside of the church is fascinating. All about are filled in archways, windows, doorways. The base of the tower has a long inscription which is actually a litany of the names of the donors: John Watt, John Reve, John Dow, Margaret Reve, Patsy Styles, William Toller. The inscription is in exactly the same position and takes exactly the same form as the one at nearby West Tofts, now abandoned in the Norfolk battle zone area, so they were probably by the same masons. You can see images of it below; click on them to enlarge them.

Tower inscription I: the north. Tower insciption II: the west. Tower inscription roundel. Tower inscription III: the south.

You pass the base of an old preaching cross, and stand outside the north porch. This is very odd. Not only are the door and niche off centre, but the eastern wall of the porch is more than a metre thick. What on earth is going on here?

A few steps further east, and all is revealed. An archway has been infilled with a Victorian window and flushwork. The window matches those on the south side of the church. At one time, then, the entrance to a transept chapel stood here, and the east wall of the porch was the west wall of the chapel. To the east of the arch is a pretty exposed piscina, which once served the eastward-facing chapel altar. But when was it demolished? As I say, the infilling is 19th century, but in the graveyard where the chapel would have been there are early 18th century gravestones. Curious.

Further east, a Norman priest door has been filled in, and the doorway moved to the south side of the chancel. However, as we shall see inside, the dog-tooth moulding that once surmounted it is still in place on the north side. And further west there is the Norman south door, and above it the greatest mystery of all.

The wolf is a ravenous beast, and thirsts for blood. Its strength is in its chest and muzzle, not in its legs. It is said to live sometimes on prey, sometimes on earth, and occasionally on wind. The she-wolf only bears cubs in May, when it thunders. Its eyes shine in the dark like lanterns because many of the devil's works seem to blind and foolish men like beautiful and wholesome deeds. Just as the wolf gets its name from its rapacity, so we call whores 'she-wolves' because they destroy the wealth of their lovers.

It is a carving dating probably from the end of the 11th century. It shows, or appears to show, a wolf or some other creature with a tail that curls up and becomes a lily or a tree. Another lily or tree is beneath the creature, as though he might be trampling it, or is it lifting him up? It is rather oblique, but look at the way the creature lifts his head in triumph. To my 21st century Catholic eyes it looks like nothing so much as a symbol of rebirth and resurrection.

To enter the church, you return to the north door. Before entering, I sat in the porch and read the excellent church guide. Outside, the dampness was full of the sound of birdsong. An occasional car threaded past on the way into Norfolk, but otherwise it could have been any time.

I stood up, and stepped down into the dear little Victorianised interior. Along the north side, coloured glass glowed. Three gorgeous little lancets contain Faith, Hope and Charity by Kempe & co. In the south side of the chancel is a fine modern St Francis; he is surrounded by beautiful local birds, although the prey in their mouths don't appear to be having such a blissful experience of the Saint. There is a nice Good Shepherd by Heaton, Butler and Bayne to the south of the nave; the sheep are wonderful. Perhaps the best 19th century glass is the Kempe Annunciation beneath the tower, which is in the fullness of Victorian anglo-catholic piety. You can see images below; hover over them to read and click to enlarge them.

The Annunciation beneath the west tower. St Francis of the Birds.
Faith... ...Hope... ...and Charity. The Good Shepherd. The sheep are wonderful...

There are some fascinating medieval survivals inside here. As well as the dog-tooth moulding that you can see at the bottom of this page, you'll find a tiny remnant of wall painting uncovered by the Victorians in the south-east of the nave. The reason it is so interesting is that it is obviously in the splay of a window that was later filled in. Perhaps it had happened when the now-vanished north chapel was built; the window in the south wall had been moved westwards to light the chapel better. So this wall decoration is at least 13th century.

My favourite medieval remnant, however, is something I have never seen anywhere else in Suffolk. Cut into the south dado of the 14th century rood-screen is a simple Y-tracery window, about 15cm high. You can see it in the left-hand column. Small holes in roodscreens are not uncommon, particularly in big churches; you can see circular holes at Blythburgh and Southwold, for example. The reason for them has not been firmly established, but the mundane explanation that they were peepholes does not seem unreasonable.

If so, they were made by ordinary people kneeling and saying devotions, not for Priests celebrating Mass at other altars; we think special squints were always prepared for that purpose, and many survive. To find one so elaborately shaped is most unusual, although there is no reason to think the shaping is necessarily pre-Reformation - after all, the roodscreen post-dates the time when such shapes in windows were fashionable.

This is a church of the ordinary people, without the patronage of a great family or a landed estate. As if to remind us of this, the altar furnishings and processional cross are carved from wood by a local forester,, David Patterson. They are a delightful adornment.

Curiously, St Mary is one of two churches in the Parish. Even more oddly, the two churches are in different counties; All Saints, half a mile a way, is in Norfolk. They were combined into one parish in the 19th century, and for many years All Saints was the only Norfolk church in the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. But in the 1970s it was declared redundant, although it is still cared for by the parish and is always open. As it sits at one end of a forest trail, it receives a fair number of visitors, as does this one, which is also always accessible. And so it was with a friendly, open church that the journey came to an end.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do, and always end much at a loss like this, wondering what to look for; wondering, too, when churches fall completely out of use what we shall turn them into, if we shall keep a few cathedrals chronically on show, their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases, and let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep. Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

I collected my bits and pieces together. I thought of the trail of camera accessories I had left over the county's churches during the last four years. I also made sure I had Mortlock, who had been my friend and companion throughout almost the entire journey - it was thanks to him more than anyone that I, too, had come as far. He had been a great comfort, but a wise one; Cautley's entry for this church is useless. This particular volume I had only left behind in a church once; I had left volume two behind no less than three times, on each occasion having it rescued and returned by friendly churchwardens. Strange that I would no longer need him with me. Stranger still that I ever had.

After dark, will dubious women come to make their children touch a particular stone; pick simples for cancer, or on some advised night see walking a dead one? Power of some sort or other will go on in games, in riddles, seemingly at random; but superstition, like belief, must die.

I looked around, and wondered what it all meant, what the whole journey meant. There had been something trainspotterish about it, something promiscuous about visiting as many of them as possible. But perhaps there was also something spiritual about this, a pilgrimage of sorts, even if it wasn't religious; one of my favourite Vicars told me that that my site fills her with a sense of the numinous, which I loved. And after all, why do so many people visit churches?

And what remains when disbelief has gone? Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky. A shape less recognisable each week, a purpose more obscure. I wonder who will be the last, the very last to seek this place for what it was?

Outside the gate, I stopped. I emptied my pockets onto the golden ground. The churches spilled out and scattered like jewels, more than 600 of them. I knelt, and took a handful. Here was finely crafted Blythburgh, secretive Westhall, intricate Thornham Parva. I let them run through my fingers, these Suffolk diamonds, and took another handful. Sly facets blinked wierdly; Withersdale and Bungay St Mary where I had almost gone mad; neglected gems badly in need of repair, like Gazeley and so-sad Mickfield; the blousy trinkets of Eye, Lound and Kettlebaston, the brave, lucid treasures of Wenhaston and Ufford. All were here. Bury St Mary, Lavenham, Mildenhall and Long Melford, those largest of nuggets, stood proud among the leaves; tiny gems like Coldham Cottage and Ramsholt scattered wildly and were almost lost to sight.

A serious house on serious earth it is, in whose blent air all our compulsions meet, are recognised, and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete, since someone will be forever surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious, and gravitating to this ground which he once heard was proper to grow wise in, if only that so many dead lie round.

I stood looking for a moment, and then gathered them together again, put them in my pocket. We got back in the car and gunned wordlessly for the Norfolk border. There was work to be done.

Dog tooth moulding. Hmmm.....

The parts of the text above in italics are all taken from other sources. The first and third passages are adaptations of free translations of Italian fairy tales given me by my friend Sophie Fousse. The second passage is taken from the entry for Santon Downham in White's 1844 Directory of Suffolk. The fourth passage is from the 13th century Bestiary MS Bodley 764 held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The remaining passages are taken from Philip Larkin's poem Church Going. There are several other references to Larkin's work in this entry. The description of my experience at Mettingham is adapted from Carlos Casteneda's accounts of the psychedelic effects of peyote mushrooms (as is the whole entry for Mettingham). The idea of carrying memories as jewels was suggested to me years ago by Jeanette Winterson during a Saturday afternoon walk, and I've been waiting until now to use it.

St Mary, Santon Downham, is in a stunningly pretty little village just to the north of Brandon; follow signs for Thetford and at the edge of town take the road left for Santon Downham. The village has a wide green, and St Mary sits at the eastern end of it. It is always opened, every day.

All Saints, Santon, is found easily; take the road to the north of the church over the river into Norfolk. Turn immediately right before the railway crossing towards the picnic site. Park at the picnic site, and the church is about 200m further along the lane. It is kept open.


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