At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Margaret, Whatfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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porch   Whatfield is a village I often cycle through on my way to or from Ipswich. The original entry for St Margaret on this site wasn't terribly exciting, as I had not seen inside it. I kept meaning to revisit, but most unusually for this part of Suffolk the church is kept locked. There is a keyholder notice, but on the couple of occasions that I'd tried for the key over the last few years I had found nobody in. It wasn't until I came this way with John Vigar in the summer of 2009 that the door was answered by the keyholder's daughter, barefoot and somewhat preoccupied, for she had just stood on a wasp. I took the key gratefully and sympathetically, and headed back down the High Street to the church.

Whatfield is comfy sort of village in the hills above Hadleigh. It is not unattractive, and it is big enough to have a life of its own, which out here means a pub and a school. There is a good mixture of local farmworkers and Ipswich commuters, giving the place a bit of vibrancy. The payoff for this is usually a large amount of undistinguished development, and there is certainly some of this. But St Margaret is in a delightful spot, just off the village high street in a cluster of old cottages, although the new tarmac path rather spoils the elegance and rusticity of the secretive graveyard. This church is well protected by the proximity of its neighbours from any incursions, and really there is no reason why it should not be open every day.

The little Church sprawls somewhat among the trees, a kink in the roofline giving it a slightly hump-backed look. The truncated tower is rather primitive; but it is not as old as it looks, being a 15th century perpendicular affair cut down to size and rendered in cement, probably by the early Victorians. An action like this is usually a sign that a place fell on hard times after medieval prosperity, and there was not enough money around during the 19th Century Anglican revival to rebuild it properly. The body of the church is slightly older than the tower; and, although the Victorians were busy here, Mortlock thought the 19th century windows were probably fairly accurate reproductions of what had been here before. The building is pleasingly irregular, and seems to slope up towards the east.

The red brick porch is early 16th century, and has the curiosity of two flanking niches at ground level. The upper part seems to be largely restored, but it would be interesting to know if there were once niches there as well. The modern copper sundial had weathered considerably since my first visit in the 1990s. It replaced a wooden 19th century one which is now inside the porch, above the south doorway. We unlocked the door and stepped inside. I must say that I found the interior rather gloomy, having come here from light-filled Elmsett. The west end of the nave feels rather crowded, thanks to a fine 18th century west gallery. The view to the east is slightly curious: there is no chancel arch, but the space is filled in above a roof beam to create a tympanum. Beyond, the chancel is filled with coloured light from the attractive east window with glass as jaunty as that in an ice cream parlour.

The roof is entirely rustic, the uneven ceiling rising above the roughly-hewn tie-beams. Perhaps the greatest treasure of the building is the elegant 13th Century holy water stoup by the south doorway. Did it come from here originally, I wonder? By contrast, the font of a century later is a plain, blockish thing. The benches are mostly Victorian, but one at least dates from 1589, when John Wilson, presumably the churchwarden, saw fit to have his name engraved upon it. Overall, the sense is of being in a plain and simple rustic building which speaks mostly of its post-Reformation history. William Vesey's memorial from the end of the 17th century appears rather grander than it would in a rather less humble setting, and I like St Margaret all the more for that.


Simon Knott, October 2009

looking east looking west GR
sanctuary William Vesey 1844

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