At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Michael, Woolverstone

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


Woolverstone Laid by Hugh Berners RN to the Glory of God, Feast of St Michael and All Angels 1888

a view from the church   It was a crisp, bright morning towards the end of November 2016, a perfect day for a bike ride. I'd had my eye on the weather forecast all week, and first fog and then cloud had been predicted, but Saturday dawned to a crystal clear blue sky. I headed out of town onto the Shotley Peninsula, the first stretch of my journey necessarily along the horrid main road which runs along the south bank of the Orwell. I soon came to Woolverstone, which you can see at once was rebuilt as a late 19th Century estate village. A narrow lane runs between fields and copses northwards to the church of St Michael sitting on its mound above the river.

The setting is idyllic. The great pile of Woolverstone Hall, today home to Ipswich Girls High School, stands beside it, and above me the jackdaws chattered in the skeletal trees, the fields were full of sheep, the damp woods full of the cries of pheasants. Woolverstone Hall was built in the 1770s by John Johnson for William Berners. Johnson had been the main architect of the Berners Estate, an area of London known more commonly today as Fitzrovia, and the fabulously wealthy Berners family took up residence in this remote Suffolk spot above the Orwell. They paid for George Gilbert Scott's restoration of the 1860s, which is pretty much all that can be seen of the church from the south apart from the tower, but in the 1880s they did rather more.

James Piers St Aubyn, one of the most famous architects of the day, was brought in to expand the church massively towards the north, and when you enter you see that the effect is really that of two churches side by side, separated by a fairly low and rounded arcade. The new part was designed to be used for shadowy, incense-led worship, and although that tradition has long gone it is still the main part of the church today.

The wealth of the Berners family means that the restoration was overwhelming, but the quality of it is high. And in any case, there are few medieval survivals anywhere on the Shotley Peninsula. The only old object here is the font, and it is a curiosity. On the face of it, the style is that of a typical East Anglian font bowl, lions alternating with angels, but the carving is quite unlike anything I've seen elsewhere, the crouching lions shown in profile. Pevsner calls the carving 'crude', which is not untrue. Was it done by a local hand, perhaps? It has been reset on a modern stem with upright, alert little lions, 19th Century but much more in the East Anglian medieval style.

The glass is also generally of high quality, or at least expensive, and to various members of the Berners family. Heaton Butler & Bayne's rather alarmingly yellow Saints Martin, Agnes, Margaret and Augustine, installed as a memorial to Archdeacon Henry Berners and his wife, stand proudly in an overwhelmingly wide south nave window which works externally as a kind of optical illusion, making Scott's nave appear wider than his chancel, which it isn't.

St Martin by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1889 St Agnes by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1889 St Margaret by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1889 St Augustine by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1889

The same firm provided the east window in St Aubyn's north aisle to John and Henrietta Berners, which depicts the crucifixion flanked by Joseph of Arimathea, the Blessed Virgin, St John and St Mary Magdalene. It is interesting to note, given the not uncommon conflation of their imagery in medieval times, the similarity between the figures of St John and St Mary Magdalene. The studio might almost have been working from the same cartoon. Both the windows were installed in the 1880s under St Aubyn's direction.

Joseph of Arimathea by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1889 Blessed Virgin by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1889 St John and St Mary Magdalene by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1889

There was once an earler 19th Century window at Gilbert Scott's east end, of which the upper tracery survives, but the main lights were destroyed by blast damage during the Second World War, a not uncommon fate for church windows on the Shotley Peninsula - indeed, the church in the neighbouring village, Chelmondiston, was completely ruined. The 1947 replacement, by AL Wilkinson, depicts Christ the Saviour of the World flanked by St Michael and St Gabriel.

St Michael by AL Wilkinson, 1947 Christ the Saviour of the World by AL Wilkinson, 1947 St Gabriel by AL Wilkinson, 1947

The High Church, even Anglo-catholic, enthusiasms of the Berners family may be judged by Woolverstone House back in the village, which was built for a community of Anglican nuns based at St Peter, Kilburn. It was intended as their retreat house and school, and the architect was Edwin Lutyens. Today it is a private house, but the church is now open every day. When I'd first visited every Suffolk church in the late 1990s I had found it locked. Coming back in 2006, the interior was full of scaffolding, and I couldn't go in. Curiously, the avenue of yew trees which lined the path up to the south porch at that time have now been reduced to stumps. Despite St Michael being barely five miles from my house, it had taken until this idyllic crisp, sunny day in late November 2016 for me to get back there, discover this, and explore the inside for the first time.

It was time to head on to Harkstead. The view from the south porch back up the hilly lane was breathtaking in the low winter sunshine. I stepped out, wandering down to the east to look across to the Hall.

The Berners family sold it as part of the Estate in 1937, assuming that it would be demolished for farming land, but after a period of requisition by the army during the War the Hall was bought by the London County Council for use as a boarding school. It was intended both for children taken into care and also for those whose parents were working overseas, an odd combination, but people seem to have happy memories of it. The writer Ian McEwan is a famous ex-pupil. The school closed in the 1980s; its massive library was broken up, and you still regularly come across items from it in Suffolk's second-hand bookshops. In a grand sale in the Ipswich Corn Exchange shortly after the closure, I bought the school's copies of McEwan's books for 50p each. The Hall lay empty for several years, until the Girls High School moved out here from central Ipswich, and restored it to something like its former glory. The jackdaws which inhabit the great 19th Century water tower, which stands beside it, wheeled above my head as I cycled back to the Shotley road.   destroyed by enemy action

Simon Knott, November 2016

looking east font font
upright lions Crucifixion flanked by Joseph of Arimathea, the Blessed Virgin, St John and St Mary Magdalene by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1889 Christ the Saviour of the World flanked by St Michael and St Gabriel by AL Wilkinson, 1947
killed on the Gallipolli Peninsula while leading his company in an attack on a Turkish trench three angels killed in action at Soupir near Vailly-sur-Aisne
here lies Master Thomas Runthing

skull and fronds The Woolverstone dead

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