At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Petronilla, Whepstead

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Whepstead niches Whepstead

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          It was the end of the summer after the Great Coronavirus Panic, and I was exploring the churches of west Suffolk with John Vigar. The first two churches we visited, ordinarily open every day under normal circumstances, were both locked, with signs making it clear they had been so since late March, and suggesting that the parish had no plans to open them again any time soon. The weather wasn't great, the low grey skies just tipping into drizzle after two weeks of warm sunshine, and I began to think it was going to be a depressing kind of day if we had the same experience at every church. But the next place we stopped was Whepstead, and the church was open.

This is a sweet little church with a unique dedication. It is the only St Petronilla in England, but in fact that is an invention of the 1880s when this place began a High Tractarian-led restoration which would not be complete until the 1920s when James Hogan and FC Eden came along and finished the glass. The church sits in a tree-shaded churchyard on a rise not far from the Bury to Glemsford road. A steep hill drops away to the west of the church, and Rede, the next parish over, is the second highest point in East Anglia.

The south porch is on the sheltered side of the building, and to reach it you walk beneath the stumpy tower, its shape consolidated in the 19th Century to make good the loss of a spire in the 17th century. It fell in the same storm as the one at nearby Dalham, supposedly the night that Oliver Cromwell died. The tower retains its earlier image niches on the western side.

You step into a church which is bright and clean, benefiting from a careful 1990s refurbishment. The view to the east is a surprise, for the chancel arch isin the form of a Norman arch with zig-zag patterning. James Bettley in the revised Buildings of England explains that it dates from the 1920s, when Munro Cautley was restoring the chancel. Cautley was certainly no fan of neo-Norman, but the original Norman arch collapsed during the restoration and had to be completely replaced. Cautley's antiquarian rigour overcame his aesthetic sensibilities on this occasion, and he replaced like for like. It is certainly striking, although you wouldn't want to see it everywhere.

Perhaps the most memorable feature of the nave is the 15th Century rood-loft stairway in the south wall. Not only is it cut into a window bay, as at Barningham, but on one of the steps there is a piscina drain, presumably to serve an altar set against the wall here. I have seen them in window sills elsewhere, and there is one high on a column at Bures, but this is the only one I know in a rood-loft stair. On a sunny afternoon the heraldic glass set in the window above the stairway floods it with a kaleidoscope of coloured light. The glass is by Powell and Sons, as is that in the east and west windows. That to the west is a beautiful azure blue, supposedly based on motifs at Chartres Cathedral. The east window depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds and Magi, and mostly dates from 1908, although the lower part is James Hogan's addition of 1926, the same year that brought FC Eden's figures of St Peter and St Petronilla on the north side of the chancel.

Another oddity is the pulpit, more of a screened reading desk really, in the north-east corner of the nave. The frontage has carefully inlaid marquetry work, including two birds which are little more than ghosts now. James Bettley credits it to George Mingay, work of 1925 that incorporated Elizabethan panels from Plumpton House in the parish.

Simon Cotton describes a bequest of 1482 to the painting of the tabernacle of St Thomas. This was the medieval dedication of the church, and probably refered to St Thomas of Canterbury, as nearby at Great Whelnetham. There are few survivals of the church's medieval life, but two 15th Century angel heads have been reset high in the south chancel window, and two roundels are made up of shattered fragments of late medieval glass, possibly collected from the churchyard after the windows were smashed by 16th or 17th Century iconoclasts, a haunting remnant.


Simon Knott, September 2020

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looking east sanctuary tower arch
St Petronilla (FC Eden, 1926) St Peter and St Petronilla (FC Eden, 1926) Adoration of Shepherds and Magi (Powell & Sons, 1908 (top)/1926) Annunciation (James Hogan for Powell & Sons, 1926) steps to rood loft and heraldic glass (Powell & Sons, 1920s)
St Anthony (continental, 17th Century) angel head (15th Century) IHS
Grand Cross of the Royal Guelphic Order and of the Royal Order of Wurtemberg, Lt Governor of Edinburgh Castle font marquetry pulpit desk light
fragments (15th Century) in thankful remembrance of their Christian charity in visiting the sick and needy for a period of 35 years fragments (15th Century)

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