At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Walsham-le-Willows

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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north porch

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The north of Suffolk has several notably large villages. Walsham-le-Willows is one, and nearby are Rickinghall, Botesdale and Stanton. So often in the east of the county, you cycle for miles through parish after parish, the village centres fleeting and ephemeral. You are more conscious of the pattern beneath the plough. Up here, villages are more substantial, with shops and pubs, schools and even factories. To all intents and purposes, the village is the parish.

The church sits in a huge graveyard at a junction, you couldn't possibly miss it, or think of anything else as being the heart of the village. Longways to the street, St Mary looks like a great ship. Barmy old Arthur Mee called the exterior 'full of dignity', and in this case he is about right. Few Suffolk clerestories are more impressive, with flushwork picked out between the windows. The size of the church is probably, as Mortlock explains, because it was gifted to Ixworth Priory, who rebuilt it at the same time, and in pretty much the same style, as Ixworth. The chequerwork porch is dated by internal inscriptions on the wood panelling at a fascinating moment in the fever of the Reformation. One one side, the inscription reads Gods wyll be done in Hevyn also Erthe, while on the other is eius ne fueris curiosus MCCCCCXLI ('in his works be not curious, 1541').

Gods Wyll Be Done (1541) curiosus MCCCCCXLI (1541) eius ne fueris (1541)

As you might expect, the interior was lavishly restored by the Victorians, and St Mary would not be out of place as a town church in Norwich or Ipswich, but it was a happy restoration, because much that is medieval has survived. Walsham-le-Willows' most famous treasure, however, is not medieval at all. this is the medallion from a maiden's crants, a flower garland, which once hung above it from the south arcade. It remembers Mary Boyce, who, they will still tell you here, died of a broken heart on the 15th November 1685. The garland was a symbol of her virginity. Such things are more common in the West Country than here, but perhaps East Anglia did not have so many virgins.

I ? Mary Boyce 15 November 1685 medallion to a maiden's crants

The greatest medieval survival at Walsham is the roof. It is unusual in that it is supported by alternating tie-beams and hammer-beams, and the original paint is still visible. It must have been quite something when it was new. The contemporary screen also survives, restored and regilded sympathetically. Human and animal faces grin out of foliage in the spandrels. Most of the medieval glass which would have colourfully illuminated the roof and the screen has been lost, but fragments have been collected into octagonal lozenges in the east window, and there are angels at the top of the tracery leaning over the now-lost subjects, as at Salle and on the screen at Ranworth. They are a tiny part of what must have been a vast scheme in such a large church. The 14th century font which saw all this come and go remains today, set in a sea of Victorian tiles, but still calling the children of the parish to baptism.

There is some decent 1880s glass by WG Taylor, who had recently taken over the O'Connors' workshop, in the north aisle. But perhaps the most memorable glass at Walsham-le-Willows is much more recent. In the 1950s and 1960s, one of the best-loved stained glass artists of the 20th century lived in this parish, and worshipped in this church. Rosemary Rutherford was the sister of the rector, and in her studio here she created her familiar swirling, graceful designs which continue to fill naves and chancels with kaleidoscopic light. Some of her best work can be seen at Boxford and Hinderclay in Suffolk, and at Tendring and Bradfield St Lawrence in Essex, but there is a memorial window to her here, on the north side of the chancel. Although it is her design, she did not live to see it completed, dying suddenly in 1972. In her memorial, a simple St Dorothy stands in unashamedly vivid pinks and greens, garlanded with flowers.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east font looking west
St Dorothy (Rosemary Rutherford, 1972) Rosemary Rutherford (detail, 1972) 20 June 1972 (detail, 1972)
angel (15th Century) angel hands holding garments (15th Century) angel (15th Century)
G R royal arms Ascension (Lavers, Barraud & Westlake, 1877) Of such is the Kingdom (WG Taylor, 1885) Return of the Prodigal Son (WG Taylor, 1885)
screen detail

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