At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Uggeshall

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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St Mary is a little church in one of the tiny villages north-east of Halesworth. Even in Suffolk, few will have heard of it. Half a dozen houses edge the churchyard, but that's about all there is to the village. And yet on a summer day there's nowhere like these little lanes for aimless cycling and church visiting. It's a special place.

The church itself is rather squat, with an unusual roofline, the chancel rising higher than the nave. The roof is a reminder of the difference that building materials can make, for just imagine St Mary without its beautiful thatched roof. A 19th century clapboard belfry surmounts the base of a tower which was planned and paid for but never built, because the Reformation happened first. The Norman arch to the blocked north door is still visible. The softness, the combination of thatch, flint, whitewash and wood make this, for me, one of the loveliest buildings in north-east Suffolk. There's nothing else quite like it.

Because I've visited this church so many times, memories of different moments come thick and fast. Coming here in the late summer of 2008, I encountered a thoughtful woman who was wandering around the graveyard with a long cane in her hand. "Have you seen any wasps?" she wondered of me. It turned out that they had been causing a nuisance, and she was looking for their nest by pushing the stick into the soft earth. Goodness knows what would have happened if she had found them. On another occasion in January 2009, the previous day's snow still clung along the long thatched roof, reminding me of the little china cottage my grandmother would put on top of the Christmas cake she baked each year. As I headed on towards Halesworth it began to snow again.

Internally, the hand of the Victorians has fallen hard. And yet, they did a fine job here. The east end is High Victorian in intention and design, and yet restrained, as if respectful of its watching elders like the 14th century sedilia sitting by quietly in one corner. The east wall features eight apostles on a gold background. It was restored to its original state after being blown out in the great storm of October 1987, as at Newbourn. The east window also dates from that time, but there is a lovely lancet glass of Dorcas, and Mortlock credits all the 19th century work to work to William Hudson, who did a similarly fine job at nearby Sotherton. The window opposite remembers Laura Whiting, a local girl who died young in 1873. It shows her teaching in the village school. The pipe organ was given by her parents in her memory.

An even finer window sits at the west end of the south wall. It is a Madonna and child, surrounded by imagery from the parish. It is by Rachel Thomas, a Somerset artist. It was installed in 2001, and so is one of the first examples of 21st century stained glass work.

Our Lady of Uggeshall: the Blessed Virgin and the Christ child (Rachel Thomas, 2001) Christ child (Rachel Thomas, 2001) Our Lady of Uggeshall: the Blessed Virgin and the Christ child (Rachel Thomas, 2001)
This window was given by the people of Uggeshall to celebrate Anno Domini 2000 (Rachel Thomas, 2001)

Recent repairs have exposed a fragment of wallpainting facing the south entrance. It is probably part of a St Christopher. Above it, a wingless angel gazes down mournfully, looking a bit fed up with the heating plug and socket that hems him in. In the walls of the nave, some image niches were uncovered at the same time.

There are two survivals of the medieval life of this church that might easily be missed. The first is above where the nave becomes the chancel. You can still make out the colours of the canopy of honour to the rood. There are several others of these surviving in Suffolk, but none in such a little church. The second is outside at the west end, below where the tower would have been. Here is the dedicatory inscription to its donors. It says Orate pro animabus, Joh'is Jewle et Marione ux' ejus ('Pray for (our) souls, John Jewel and his wife Marion'). They were probably a local couple, from the village, certainly not nobility. The inscription is punctuated by the symbols of a stonemason.

Fragments, certainly. But in surviving at all they make this whole church a testimony to the liturgy and practice of late-medieval Catholicism as it was experienced in a typically tiny east Suffolk village.

Simon Knott, April 2020

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looking east looking east uggeshall (18)
Dorcas (William Hudson? 1870s) Laura Whiting as Charity and teaching in the village school  (William Hudson? 1870s) Laura Whiting as Charity (William Hudson? 1870s) Village school children (William Hudson? 1870s) Baptism of Christ, 1890s
Uggeshall church prayer book with St Paul and St James the Less Those in Uggeshall and Sotherton parishes who gave their lives in the Great War font pelican in her piety
LAURA in the year of grace 1873

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