At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Wordwell

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


Wordwell Wordwell south doorway

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

    We're out in the Breckland here, East Anglia's badlands, the wild heathland heavily forested and cut through by busy roads. Wordwell consists of the church, a few cottages and the Hall behind, and that's all. Despite its proximity to the horrible Bury to Brandon road this is a charming building, no longer used for worship and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. It seems inevitable that some of the churches in this area should become disused. I counted sixteen medieval churches within a five mile radius, and here, on the edge of the Elveden forest, one of the most densely populated areas of England in Saxon times, the population has fallen dramatically in the last couple of centuries.

The church is small, with plenty of evidence of its Norman origins, though some good things happened afterwards, especially in the late 15th Century, as we will see inside. The church had fallen into decay by the mid-19th Century and plans for a restoration were drawn up in 1857 by Samuel Teulon. Teulon was called in to preserve as much as was possible, while restoring a sense of its medieval past. However, it is not clear how much work was carried out to Teulon's design, for as James Bettley points out in his revision of the Buildings of England volume for West Suffolk, the gable bellcote is dated 1866 and does not appear on Teulon's plans. It is likely that the church as we see it today is essentially the work of the wealthy Reverend Edward Benyon of Culford, who owned all the land in the parish and was rebuilding the church at Culford at about the same time.

The rustic little south porch is Teulon's, and conceals an early 12th Century south doorway with a carved tympanum. This is a flourish of foliage, with two creatures, possibly dogs, at the base with raised heads howling. The branches seem to grow from their tails. The carving is relatively sophisticated, but below it to the right, at the capital of the door post, is something curious, a primitive carving of a man. A mason's mark, perhaps?

tympanum: beasts beneath a tree Wordwell St Edward the Confessor gives his ring to a beggar
chancel arch detail chancel arch detail corbel

You step into an interior that is full of charm, with no coloured glass and an intimate expanse of old woodwork and stone. An 11th Century tympanum comes into view above the north door, turned inwards although it must once have faced outwards. Here, two primitive figures stand. One holds what appears to be a ring, and the other's arms are open wide in surprise, or in a gesture of revelation. It might well depict the story of Edward the Confessor giving his ring to a beggar, who reveals himself as St John the Baptist. If this is the case, than the carving would be pretty much contemporary with the legend. James Bettley wondered if alternatively the figure on the right might be elevating a host and the figure on the left venerating it.

For such a small church, a remarkable amount of its past is preserved. The Norman tub font is raised on square legs with what appear to be primitively carved heads on them. The neo-Noman chancel is charming, and is likely to be Teulon's. The stone pulpit is unfortunate and dates from Benyon's later restoration. It replaced a Stuart pulpit that had arrived from elsewhere. But most memorable in the nave is a pretty much complete range of 15th Century benches with decoratively carved backs and figures on bench ends. These include a beast with the head of a bearded man, a collared lion, and what appears to be an ape in a monk's habit, a common late medieval satire on itinerant friars, but what is he holding? Most remarkable is the bench back nearest the door. Here, dragons and creatures with human heads chase and roar at each other, as if illustrating some long-forgotten children's tale.

bench back (15th Century) bench back (15th Century) bench back (15th Century)

The 12th Century Norman chancel arch with its intricately carved capitals is flanked by two impressive image niches of the 15th Century which presumably once had altars beneath them. It is curious to note that both south doorway and chancel arch postdate by perhaps half a century the tympanum now set above the north doorway. It may well be that the tympanum came from elsewhere, but it also suggests the intriguing possibility that there was a stone church on this site which predated the 12th Century one.

Wordwell and nearby West Stow became a joint benefice not long after the Reformation, and at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship they were in the care of the Reverend W Pridden, Rector of West Stow. Pridden received 380 a year for his joint incumbency, roughly 70,000 in today's money. However, he pointed out in the census return that of the more than five thousand acres in the two parishes, all but three acres were owned by the Reverend Edward Benyon of Culford. On the morning of the census Pridden had a congregation at Wordwell of twenty eight, along with the thirty four scholars of West Stow school, some of whom would have been Wordwell children. Given that the population of Wordwell was just fifty six, at a time when rural East Anglian populations were reaching a peak, this would have been well above the average in what was an enthusiastically non-conformist area, although no doubt the Reverend Benyon had an influence. There are certainly many fewer than that living in the parish today.


Simon Knott, January 2022

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


looking east chancel looking west
font image niche Wordwell
beast with the head of a cowled and bearded man dog with a centre parting collared lion ape in a monk's robes holding a ?
bench back lectern head


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making, in fact they are run at a loss. But if you enjoy using them and find them useful, a small contribution towards the costs of web space, train fares and the like would be most gratefully received. You can donate via Paypal.