At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Botolph, Culpho

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk




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from the south-east

from the north-east

one of Suffolk's more distinctive south towers


piscina and remains of sedilia

south-east corner of the nave



Culpho: a delight

About twenty years ago, shortly after I'd moved to Suffolk, I was cycling out this way when a sudden storm blew up. As the thunder rolled and the rain crashed down, I took shelter in the porch under the south tower of St Botolph.

For ever after, I would set the storm scene from King Lear in this churchyard, replaying that day in my mind. A few years later, when I saw the English National Opera version of Aribert Reimann's Lear at the Collosseum, I was instantly transported back to Culpho.

When I visited Culpho for the Suffolk Churches site back in 1999, I found the porch firmly locked, and no keyholder listed. South towers are common around Ipswich, and this is one of the most striking. But it was also very dirty and run-down, and I wondered if St Botolph had been abandoned. It was a pleasant sunny afternoon, but I reported that the church was a primitive place, its exterior rugged and grim. The walls are built of flint rubble, the tower curiously truncated. Back in the 1990s I thought it looked defensive, as if it was meant to withstand attack. Even the churchyard gate didn't open easily.

And yet, I was looking forward to going back. St Botolph has a striking red pyramid-capped tower and nave roofed in red tiles; quite unusual in Suffolk, and to see it across the rape fields is to imagine yourself on the Loire. It is always a delight from a distance, and I knew that on a sunny spring day I would set off this way, looking out for it, and enjoying its sheer existence. And there was more. I had been contacted by people in the parish who assured me that things had changed, there had been much restoration work and the church was now welcoming. Would I please come back?

And so on Good Friday, 2006 I cycled out through Tuddenham on the first really beautiful day of the year. The sun shone from a sky that was almost clear of cloud, and all around the world was waking up again, bird song all around and the smell of green. When I arrived at St Botolph the doors were wide open, and the church was being prepared for Easter.

I am not an Anglican, and it always strikes me how, at a time when Catholic churches are at their most sombre in the days before Easter, Anglican churches are already being filled with flowers and brightness. But it made my visit a treat, for this is a gorgeous church inside, benefiting greatly from a major restoration in the early years of the 21st century. Light fills St Botolph; modern chairs, primrose-coloured walls and the unusual brick east wall of the nave create a feeling that is quite unexpected from the outside.

looking east looking west

The chancel arch is narrow and pointed, and rather hard to date unless you know that the east end of the church was rebuilt at the start of the 17th century, and the modern chancel is a complete rebuilding of the 1880s by Robert Gurdon, first Baron Cranworth. He restored St Botolph for the workers on his estates - as his memorial observes, he was always gracious and kind to all his tenants - and this church was intended for the virtuous poor of a remote and intensely rural parish.

As it happened, I had come across Baron Cranworth a few weeks earlier. The Gurdons lived at Letton Hall, to the east of Norwich, and had created at neighbouring Cranworth parish church an interior that is virtually a mausoeum, the aisles lined with their memorials which crowd and overbear the space in between. I had visited Cranworth, and hadn't really liked it much. But what a contrast, here at Culpho! Here is a simply delightful place, full of atmosphere and a feeling of spirituality. I was so glad I had gone back, and I know that I will want to stop off again before too long.

Robert Gurdon

Simon Knott April 2006



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