At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Wetheringsett

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Wetheringsett Wetheringsett Wetheringsett
Wetheringsett Wetheringsett Wetheringsett
Wetheringsett Wetheringsett

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While parts of Suffolk are certainly remote and far off the beaten track, it is ironic that some of the county's loveliest villages are just a stone's throw from the busiest roads, and yet still maintain a deep peace, as if the modern world was happening far away. The A140 Ipswich to Norwich road in particular guts and fillets the little villages unfortunate enough to sit on it, but you don't have to travel far from it to leave all that behind. Wetheringsett, for example, is a beautiful little village sunk in wooded lanes, its old houses looking very agreeable. For several centuries it has formed a joint parish with neighbouring Brockford, home to the famous Mid-Suffolk Light Railway Museum. The church is set on the High Street, but screened from it by trees and a wide ditch. You reach the churchyard across a wooden bridge, and the churchyard is worth the journey on its own, for in late spring and early summer it is a riot of wild flowers. Set amongst them is pretty much a perfect example of a late-Medieval East Anglian church.

This is a large church, with a substantial 14th Century tower. The church against which it is set was rebuilt during the 15th Century, hence the full confidence of the clerestory which is almost entirely glass. Indeed, in 1440 John Bronewyn gave money to repair a window with glass, and three years later John Shirburne left the large sum of 13 marks to the reparation. If they were glazing the windows at this time then perhaps it suggests a likely date for the completion of the church. The western face of the tower is wide open, as at Cotton. A lion and a crown greet you at the entrance to the south porch, and you step through the little wicket door into the clear light of a wide, beautiful Perpendicular building. Intriguingly, the arcades are much earlier, in the Early English style of the 13th Century, showing that there was a large church here even before the late medieval rebuilding. The long lines of the arcades draw the eye to the contemporary chancel arch which also survives, and then on to the later east window, also in proportion, beyond. The effect is technically brilliant.

The lack of coloured glass in the nave enhances the sense of space and openness. James Bettley, revising the Buildings of England volume for East Suffolk, notes that the 1850s restorations here were carried out by Henry Ringham under the supervision of the rector Reverend Robert Moore following plans supplied by SS Teulon. Ringham was a technically gifted carver whose work can be found in dozens of Suffolk churches. His busy workshop on St John's Road, Ipswich employed more than fifty people, and it must have been responsible for work on many domestic buildings too that has gone unrecorded. However, it is unusual to find it credited with an entire restoration of a church - or, more precisely, two restorations, for work on the chancel was completed six years before that on the nave. The nave roof appears to be mostly Ringham's work, although the south aisle roof is 15th Century.

The font is a curiosity. It is octagonal, set on an earlier stem and colonnade, and the panels of its squat bowl are carved with simple shield and lozenge shapes and one set of arms. In Pevsner's opinion it is of the 1660s, which is to say when the Church of England was being put back into order after the disruption of the Civil War and Commonwealth. During this time the structure of the Church had been suppressed and a chaotic approach to appointing ministers ensued, with some congregations turning away from Prayer Book teaching altogether to embrace dissenting and even bizarre paths. It was not uncommon for parishes to get rid of their font on the grounds that infant baptism was superstitious, and instead turning to adult believers' baptism which might be carried out in a nearby river or pond. Or perhaps simply the old font had been damaged by puritan hotheads, and needed replacing.

The glass in the east window is a strikingly sombre depiction of the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps by Heaton, Butler & Bayne right at the end of the 19th Century. On the north side of the sanctuary beside it is a new addition since my previous visit, a memorial set here on the four hundredth anniversary of the death of a former rector, for remarkably, towards the end of the 1500s, the Rector of Wetheringsett-cum-Brockford for what would be the last quarter century of his life was the writer and adventurer Richard Haklyut. He had spent most of his life in the busy centres of Paris and Bristol. Generally considered today to be the first travel writer of significance, Haklyut was responsible for drawing together accounts of the first encounters and explorations of North America by Europeans. He argued persuasively that it would be possible for Europeans not only to bring back the fruits of their explorations, but actually to establish communities in these new lands. It was the beginning of the British Empire, and it heralded half a millennium of conflict as the European nations raced to conquer the New World. His suggestion that the part of the North American coast which might best support the pioneering colonialists be claimed for England won favour with Queen Elizabeth, as did his naming of it as Virginia, which referred to both its virgin state and to the Virgin Queen.

The war memorial on the north wall has a remarkably large number of names on it for such a small, rural parish, including four members of the Stannard family. I did wonder if it was actually a roll of honour, although the heading suggests not. Nearby is the parish charity board of 1715, relettered in 1960. John Sheppard must have been a fairly jolly type, for he left in his will of 1707 twenty shillings part thereof to provide Meat and Drink for XX Poor Persons of Wetheringset cum Brockford to entertain them at a dinner in the steeple of the church. A peal of bells would accompany the feast, and it would take place always on the Festival of the Annunciation of Our Blessed Lady, which is to say March 25th, which was New Year's Day at the time. Sheppard was also responsible for commissioning and paying for the memorial to his friend John Simpson in nearby Debenham church, one of the best examples of its date in Suffolk.

I was disappointed to find the church locked when I arrived, the only one that day, but the churchwarden was very happy to come and open up and told me that the church is usually open on Wednesdays and at weekends. He also told me that the church is about to install new glass in two windows at the east end of the north aisle, both to the design of Helen Whittaker, to my mind one of the finest artists working in stained glass today. One is a memorial to a local family, the other to the story of Richard Haklyut. They will be worth going back to see, I think.

Among the headstones outside in the churchyard is a fine example of the late 18th Century to three sisters of the Peck family. A grinning skeleton sits on an open coffin pointing to a book with a dart. The meaning is clear: As you are now so once was I, therefore you must prepare to die. As I am now so you will be, therefore prepare to follow me. There is another headstone to the exact same design in the churchyard at St Nicholas, right in the middle of Ipswich.

Simon Knott, April 2022

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looking east chancel looking west
Richard Hakluyt rector of this parish 1590 - 1616 font south doorway Wetheringsett
aisle roof boss 1715

skeleton pointing to scroll with dart old bones


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