At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Andrew, Sapiston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Sapiston Sapiston Sapiston

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This lonely church sits not half a mile from its neighbouring church of All Saints, Honington, although you will have to go rather a long way round if you are not on foot and able to take advantage of the footbridge over the River Blackbourne. St Andrew is set in rolling meadows, with the fields of the Euston estate beyond. It is not entirely alone, for nearby company consists of a huge farmhouse and a restored barn.

I have a very vivid memory of visiting this church in the early weeks of the new Millennium. At the time, I was doing a job I did not like, having been moved sideways by a manager whom I did not find it easy to work with. This made me depressed, and on a bright morning in early spring I got up and decided that I did not want to go to work.

Instead, I set off with my wife and our infant daughter into the countryside, and we ended up here. I remember sitting in the porch that day in the bright, low sunlight, listening to the small birds weaving around the graveyard. The sun warmed me, the birdsong lifted my heart, and I knew, if I had not known before, that there is more to life than getting and spending, and times would change, and the world would move on. And so it did.

St Andrew is an old building, and it looks its age. It was hardly touched by the enthusiasms of the late medieval period, and the 19th century restoration was early and light. It retains all the character of an intensely rural parish church. This is helped by the fact that it has been redundant for more than a quarter of a century, and the Churches Conservation Trust looks after it. They have cleared it of clutter and left it as an ancient space should be, peaceful and purposeful.

It's usually the chancel door that's left unlocked, but if you head straight there you will miss the great glory of Sapiston church, which is within the south porch, quite the best Norman doorway in Suffolk, elaborate and beautiful. The extent of the convoluted arches is accentuated by the smallness of the doorway. It takes the breath away. There is nothing like a Norman doorway for restoring ones sense of proportion. It has stood there for nearly 800 years, which kind of puts your own troubles into perspective, don't you think? The blocks are set together in pairs, each one reflecting the scoop of its partner. Those in the inner arch are slightly larger than those in the outer arch, and the illusion is of a peacock displaying its tail feathers. A medieval head looks down from above it. At either end is a mass dial, from the days before the 14th century porch was built.

Norman south doorway south doorway mass dial

You step in to a gorgeous, rustic little interior, narrow, crowded, rough and ready. There is a transparent coolness in the stone, intensified by the thick Norman walls. The stone blocks on the floor, the spaced benches, create a sense of a different time, outside the loss of nerve and limited imagination of the modern world. The walls are whitewashed, except for where wall paintings remain. There are several large consecration crosses, and above the alcove of a former tomb recess in the north wall, a wall painting can just about be discerned as showing the martyrdom of St Edmund as at Troston across the fields. Beside it, a perfect rood loft stairway entrance.

An interesting feature is the set of Royal Arms. It is that of the House of Hanover, but again as at Troston this is a reused Stuart set, this time the floriated lettering and hastily inserted 2 giving the game away if the crudely repainted fourth quarter doesn't.

PH Ditchburn, in his enchanting 1913 celebration The Parish Clerk, recalls an incident at Sapiston church in the middle years of the 19th Century. The Duke of Grafton, on whose estates surrounded the church, was passing it on a Sunday while a service was on. He entered the vestry, motioned to the parish clerk to come out, and presented a large hare for the parson's kitchen, asking the clerk to put it quietly into his trap and inform him of the Duke's compliments at the end of the service. But the clerk, knowing his master would be pleased at the little attention, could not refrain from delivering both hare and message at once before the whole congregation. At the close of the hymn before the sermon he marched into a prominent position holding up the gift, and shouted out "His Grace's compliments, and please sir, he's sent ye a hare."

Twenty years ago I wrote that Sapiston church is a place to come to if you want to feel serene and human again, and to have your heart lifted. I've been back here now half a dozen times I suppose, but visiting in the late spring of 2019 I still felt this. It is always salutary to recall less secure and comfortable times from the vantage point of happier days. There is a pleasure in knowing that you have survived them.

I wandered around the lonely graveyard. In the middle of the day the sky had clouded over in the heat, the boilings of cumulus clouds that had accompanied me from Bury St Edmunds merging and dropping to form a blanket that swept in from the northern horizon. It would rain later, but for this perfect moment under the low sky I was alone with the gravestones, some dating back into the 17th century, their skulls and cherubs and hour glasses a warning of mortality, but also a reminder of the preciousness of life, as precious for me as it was for these, now resting forever in the birdsong on the bank of the River Blackbourne.

Simon Knott, July 2019

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looking east sanctuary looking west
font funeral bier with bicycle wheels tomb recess and wall painting
piscina with squint Sapiston G R 2 royal arms (overpainted Stuart set)

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