At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Acton

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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  2012: I've started taking down the oldest entries on the Suffolk Churches site, planning to revist them all this year. However, a couple of them are quite good, including this one, so I have reset it awaiting a revisit. I apologise for the quality of the photographs, which were taken long before I owned a digital camera. They will all be replaced.

2001: The first day of January, 2001, seemed an appropriate day as any to visit the parish that is the first in Suffolk, alphabetically speaking. I'd cycled down the Bury road; it was a pretty foul day, and I'd rather underestimated the distance, and how long Alpheton would detain me. So, arriving here at 3pm, I knew I had about an hour of daylight left. Taking photos of the outside first, I was struck by the ugly 18th century Jennens chapel that had been built as an extension to the south aisle. The tower is a 1920s creation, replacing one demolished as dangerous in the 1880s. An old avenue of yews stretches towards the recreation ground, no longer the main entrance to the churchyard. To the north west, you can see Long Melford's Holy Trinity, three miles away. I tried the door but it was locked. And there was no keyholder. But I was determined to get in, because All Saints contains the oldest brass in Suffolk, and it is generally considered to be the finest medieval military brass in existence. Also, there is the remarkable Jennens memorial, of which more in a moment. And, in any case, Acton is such a fascinating place, it would have been a great shame not to enter the historic heart of its community.

So I set off to find the churchwarden in the labyrinthine new estate. On the map, Acton may appear to be a dormitory village of Sudbury, a mile or so away across the fields. But in fact it is more than that, one of the largest villages in Suffolk, very much with a life of its own; it has shops, a pub, a school and so on. These things work well together, and it is a thriving, pleasant place. I headed up an avenue of limes, which seemed to line up with the yews in the churchyard. The churchwarden was most helpful; realising the lateness of the hour, the keenness of my task, and reasonably considering that I was unlikely to carry any of the furnishings off on the back of my bike, he let me have the key. I hightailed it back to All Saints, the light fading all the while.

I let myself into a large, square, Victorianised interior, the aisles and nave all of a piece. Everything was neat, and well cared for. Christmas decorations sparkled as I put on the lights. Turning to the east, I saw the extraordinary entrance to the Jennens memorial chapel, now a vestry. It is partitioned off from the rest of the church by a locked grill, set in a classical arcade. The effect is startling, to say the least. Work of this period and quality is rare in Suffolk; one thinks of Shotley and Boxted. Inside the chapel/vestry, the Jennens memorial is big. I mean, really big. I poked my wide angle lens through the grill, but then had to take a step back.

Robert Jennens lies swooning in the high camp fashion of the 1720s, wearing his own clothes. He's not dead, but he doesn't look very well. His wife sits at his feet. She doesn't look too happy, either. The memorial records their details, and that of their son, William - but there is more to this than meets the eye.The story of the Jennens family is an intriguing one. They were a vastly wealthy family; they had made their money in the Birmingham iron foundries of the early 17th century. In the Civil War, the family was split between the two sides, as so many were. Fascinatingly, this resulted in at least two separate sets of family records being kept, some of which were contradictory. This would have alarming consequences.

In 1708, Robert Jennens purchased Acton Place from the recusant Daniels family. He began to rebuild it into a Palladian mansion, but the work was cut short when he died in 1725. His son William inherited. William stopped all work on the mansion, and lived in the unfinished shell - to be exact, he lived in the basement, in an unfurnished room, never going into the rich tapestried wing his father had completed. He lived entirely alone with his servants and dogs, never having guests, and never visiting anybody else. Some of the year he spent in London, where he lent money to those gambling in the casinos of the day. It is said that he always carried an inventory of the other house when he was away from it. He became nationally famous as 'the Acton Miser', a role he played so successfully that, at his death, he was the richest man in England, and found to be worth well over two million pounds, the equivalent of about half a billion in today's money.

A chest in his shabby basement contained more than 20,000 in notes, the equivalent of about five million pounds today. He gave orders that Acton Place was to be destroyed, and the story is that he hoped to destroy any evidence of his ancestors. He died intestate, and here the fun begins. It turned out that his grandfather had been married twice, and that he had two sons called Robert. Because of the conflicting evidence of the different family records, it was never clear which Robert the Acton Miser was descended from. From all over the country, distant relatives appeared, chancing their arms on a share of the fortune, forging brth certificates, parish registers and so on. The case of Jennens v Jennens ran on in the London courts for more than eighty years, providing generations of lawyers with an income, and Charles Dickens with the basis of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the pivotal case in Bleak House. By the time the legal case was resolved, it had absorbed most of the estate.

One great mystery connected with the case concerns the Jennens memorial itself. At some point between the addition of William's name to it in 1805, and James Coleman's survey of it in 1859, an unrecorded inscription 182 letters long had been removed. Could it be that someone with an interest in the case was trying to tip the balance in their favour?

I wandered back down the south aisle, past the funeral bier and remains of the medieval font, which was dug up in the Rectory garden. Many fonts were removed from Suffolk churches during the Commonwealth of the mid-17th century, mainly because of the disapproval of infant baptism by local puritans.

From the other end of the theological spectrum, Arthur Daniels was born into a devoutly Catholic family at Acton Place in the 1620s. Catholics had suffered ferocious persecution under Elizabeth I, and for a time after her death there were hopes that such troubled times were past. But, it was not to be. Arthur left Acton in the early 1640s, to train as a Jesuit Priest in Spain. He returned to England to follow his ministry, but was quickly captured. On the 11th November, 1642, he was cruelly slaughtered before a large crowd at Tyburn Hill in London. Naked, and suspended by the neck until he started to lose consciousness, he was cut down.

He was slit open, and his bowels were wound out in front of him on a windlass, being burned before his eyes. His arms, legs and genitals were removed, and thrown into the fire; finally, in an act of mercy, he was beheaded. Some 300 Catholic priests suffered the same fate between the 1550s and the 1660s, and in the 1930s he was beatified as the Blessed Arthur Daniels. Although he was not among the representative sample of 40 Catholic martyrs canonised into sainthood in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as the Holy Martyrs of England and Wales, he is, nevertheless, the nearest thing that Suffolk has to a modern Saint.

I stepped into the nave, which is almost wholly Victorian. 19th century restorations can be good, bad or indifferent, and this is mostly a good one. It was probably also very necessary, if the state of the tower was anything to go by. But the mediocrity of the 19th century font and east window should not be underestimated.

It is the north aisle that brings us to the great treasure of the church. The brasses are of Robert de Bures, Henry de Bures and Lady Alice Bryan, and some later, little Bryans. Robert de Bures is the famous one. It dates from early in the 14th century - Sir Roger himself died in 1331, but it was certainly crafted before his death, and shows the fashionable armour of three decades earlier. The shield is actually cut out of a separate piece of latten, so it may originally have been designed for someone else. Whatever, it is the oldest brass in Suffolk, the third oldest in all England. It is about seven feet long, meticulously crafted, and in superb condition - so much so, I couldn't help wondering if it had been secretly replaced by a replica. Mortlock tells me that the church used to have a replica on display for the benefit of brass rubbers, and it would be the logical thing to do. Anyway, the parish is to be greatly congratulated on installing sensitive lighting to highlight it. To the south east of it lies Lady Alice, another outstanding brass that would be the pride and treasure of anywhere else. There are also two smaller brasses of later Bryans.

Between the north aisle chapel and the chancel is a huge open tomb recess, described as a founders tomb, and certainly an Easter sepulchre. Stepping into the chancel, you see that the detailing on it is quite superb, one of the best in the county.

A couple more accolades. The church guide is also one of Suffolk's best, up there with Worlingworth and Barningham. It is worth every penny of the 1.50 charge. Other books are on sale; I particularly recommend the Millennium souvenir booklet of old photographs of village life. The little display is not intrusive at all, none of the hideous craft shop clutter you find at Lavenham, Long Melford and Clare, but you can also buy reproductions of the brasses; you are even able, by arrangement with the churchwardens, to rub them yourself. All in all, the parish seems to have a proactive approach to fund raising; I am sipping coffee from a Robert de Bures mug as I write. A couple of interesting details under the tower; a Zeppelin bomb which fell on the parish in 1916 now sits in an alcove, probably the splay of a west window; there's another one at Somersham. Beneath it, a sign remembers that the bells were rehung as an act of thanksgiving for surviving the Tokyo earthquake of 1923.

This is a clean, bright, welcoming place, if lacking a little of the atmosphere many people love in a country church. I dropped the key back, my mind full of stories from the excellent guide book. I thought of the Rector's brother-in-law, a murderer (back in 1740, I hasten to add) who was hung at Bury St Edmunds, and then buried in the crypt here under cover of darkness. I thought of the so-called Acton ghost, a coach and four that sets out on dark nights from the former gatehouse of Acton Place; it features in many a compendium of East Anglian hauntings, except that no one seems to be on record as having seen it.

Mostly, I thought about Catherine Foster, because I was cycling past her former house at the time. She was a simple-minded woman who poisoned her husband in November 1846, just three weeks after their marriage at All Saints. She made no attempt to conceal the crime; she had married him to please her mother, and decided that she preferred her former life in service. In an attempt to get back there, she cooked his potatoes in arsenic. She was hanged before a crowd of 10,000 people on the Market Hill at Bury, the last woman to be executed in Suffolk. She was just 17 years old.

I set off in the dusk towards Sudbury, across bleak, open, winter fields. This was the old USAAF base; between May 1944 and the end of the War, more than four hundred American airmen lost their lives in missions flown from this field. If any ghosts haunt this parish now, they are here.


Simon Knott, 2001 (reset February 2012)

As mentioned above, I apologise for the quality of the photographs, which were taken long before I owned a digital camera. They will all be replaced.



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