At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Margaret, Whatfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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rood stairway Whatfield 1844

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It was the beautiful late spring of 2019, and I was out for a bike ride around the patchwork of little parishes to the west of Ipswich with my friend Aidan, and eventually we reached Whatfield, a comfy sort of village in the hills above Hadleigh, and St Margaret is in a delightful spot, set back from the village high street in a cluster of old cottages. The little church sprawls pleasingly among the trees, a kink in the roofline giving it a slightly hump-backed look. The truncated tower seems primitive, a 13th Century structure perhaps cut down to size and then later 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 later than the tower and, although the Victorians were busy here too, Mortlock thought the 19th century windows were probably fairly accurate reproductions of what had been here before. All in all 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 sundial has weathered considerably since my first visit in the 1990s, giving me a sense of my own mortality, which was one of the purposes of sundials in the early modern era. It replaced a wooden 19th century one which is now inside the porch, above the south doorway.

You step into a church which feels intimate and perhaps even a little crowded, especially if you have come here from the open light of neighbouring Elmsett. The west end of the nave huddles under a fine 18th century west gallery, and the roof above is entirely rustic, the uneven ceiling rising above the roughly-hewn tie-beams. The benches are a mixture, some Victorian, but one at least dates from 1589, when John Wilson, presumably the churchwarden, saw fit to have his name engraved upon it.

The view to the east is slightly curious. As is common in this part of Suffolk there is no chancel arch, but the space is filled 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 major restoration here was in the late 1860s, but the glass and some of the furnishing details have a feel of the later Art Nouveau movement to them, and obviously date from the first years of the 20th Century.

There are a number of other fascinating details. The elegant 13th Century holy water stoup by the south doorway is probably original to the rebuilding. By contrast, the font of a century later is a plain, blockish thing. The wagon roof of the chancel is punctuated by intriguing bosses of lions, kings and bishops. Below, William Vesey's memorial from the end of the 17th century appears grander than it would in a less humble setting. All in all the sense is of a plain and simple rustic building with a character all of its own, and I like St Margaret all the more for that.

Simon Knott, November 2019

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looking east sanctuary
font William Vesey 1699 east window M U St Margaret Whatfield art nouveau detail
chancel boss: lion with its tongue out chancel boss: king chancel boss: lion with its mouth tightly closed
agnus dei George I royal arms agnus dei
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