At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Nicholas, Bedfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Bedfield: full of life
from the gate tower west door and image niches north doorway south side  

war memorial   When I first visited St Nicholas, it was at the time of the 1998 harvest festival. For users of this site who might not have come across them, I should explain that harvest festivals are one of those curious Anglican inventions; like many such ancient traditions, they actually only date back to the 1840s or so. As a Catholic, I find them fascinating. Most Suffolk village churches have them, and do them very well. For some churches, it seems the only time apart from Christmas that the building comes alive.

On this occasion, half a dozen people were busy arranging apples, and marrows, and pumpkins, and leeks. There is a unique smell to a medieval church filled with fruit and vegetables. Once experienced, it is never forgotten, and instantly draws your imagination back to ancient walls, soft wood and cool tiles. For me, it recalls the beautiful late medieval roodscreen at Bedfield, lined with apples and onions.

I had come here along the track from Tannington. Once this leaves the farmyard behind, it becomes the kind of track you'd have found all over Suffolk before the 1920s and 1930s. When you look at an old road map of Suffolk, you find many more byways marked than there are today. Some of them were surfaced; many have disappeared completely.

Once, about six years ago, I passed a real gipsy caravan on this track. It was late winter, and the cold afternoon light was fading. The brightly coloured caravan had come to a halt, the little horse pulling miserably at the coarse tussocks on the field side. Behind, a man was working at a makeshift forge, the coals flaring suddenly in the uncertain dusk. He nodded once as I passed. I still don't know if it was real.

Coming back, on the 2001 Historic Churches bike ride, Bedfield church was bathed in the honeyed warmth of late summer. A giant puffball grew by the churchyard gate, and would have made a fine meal if the rats hadn't got to it first. Again the church was busy, a smiling lady at a table signing the forms of a couple of teenage girls with their dad. On this occasion, I could examine the roodscreen without having to negotiate fruit and vegetables. The panels contain what appear to be Old Testament prophets, and some of them had been recently cleaned, revealing gorgeous reds and greens. The faces of the prophets have been viciously attacked with a knife. This was probably the work of mid-16th century reformers, but it appears as though the same thing done at Brundish, a couple of miles off, was actually the work of William Dowsing, a century later. Dowsing never came to Bedfield, though. We stood together, the smiling lady and me, imagining the past.

I mention these occasions partly because they have stuck in my mind, but also to reassure you that St Nicholas is home to a community of real people. This might be necessary, for you may be one of the many who have arrived here to find it is just about the only Anglican parish church in the middle part of Suffolk which is kept locked without a keyholder. It is hard to know for sure the reason for this. It may simply be that the parish here don't know that it is generally considered a Christian duty, a sensible security practice, and good manners even, to make your church accessible to strangers and pilgrims. Or it may be that Bedfield has a startlingly higher crime rate than most other places in Suffolk. Probably, it is just laziness.

St Nicholas sits on the edge of another farmyard, although a proper road connects it to the fine pub and the village beyond. The tower dates from the 14th century, when the entire church seems to have been rebuilt, although there's quite a lot of evidence of the earlier church, including a fine Norman north doorway. There are three niches on the west face of the tower. From their relationship with each other, we can deduce that they probably contained a rood group. Peter and I came this way in June 2007, as part of my plan to revisit the 650-odd Suffolk churches I had explored more than six years earlier. Quite honestly, we didn't expect to get in. However, as with several other places in the area on this beautiful day, St Nicholas was undergoing its spring clean. The grass was being cut, the benches polished, the floors mopped. In fact, they were just finishing, cars pulling off. As we walked up the graveyard path, we met the keyholder coming the other way.

She was very kind, and very helpful. She went and checked with her husband that it would be okay for us to see inside, and then let us into the Priest door, and we stepped inside to the trim interior.

The church is smaller than it looks from outside. There was a major restoration in 1870, which left St Nicholas looking the very model of a rural parish church. The brick floor is an organic setting for some lovely rustic woodwork. It seems that the village had an enthusiastic carpenter in the late 17th century, for the group of benches by the door, the font cover and the pulpit all date from this time The benches are haunting; it doesn't take much to imagine our ancestors tight-packed on them, shuffling their bottoms awkwardly at the preaching of the Word. I assume that most churches once had benches like this, and that they were destroyed at the time of 19th century restorations. The font cover is intricate; it opens up without the need to remove it, as at Bramford and Boxford.

This was all well and good, but something was nagging me as we poked around. And then I was startled to notice that the rood screen had gone. Now, this isn't the kind of thing you usually expect. Surely it couldn't have been stolen? It turns out that it has been removed to a house in the village to be cleaned, leaving the mouth of the chancel looking rather gap-toothed. I assume it will be back in place as soon as possible*. Beyond, the wholly Victorian chancel was the work of J.K. Colling. The sanctuary is a riot of tiles and gothic lettering. Decoration of this type was deeply unfashionable for most of the twentieth century, and it has done well to survive. I think it is safe now. I hope it is.

A poignant ledger stone to Thomas Dunston bears a simple skull and the inscription Hodie Mihi, Cras Tibi ('Mine today, yours tomorrow'). It is dated December 25th 1657, which is Christmas Day to us; but not then, for this was during Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, and the celebration of Christmas, like so much else, was illegal.

We went back outside to chat to the kindly keyholder and her husband. They sympathised with our plight, and the plight of other church visitors, but the church is always kept locked. She didn't feel she could interfere, because she was not a regular churchgoer, she said, which took me by surprise. However, there is a ray of hope. The parish, and others in the Worlingworth group, have recently been taken on by a new Priest-in-Charge. His induction was the following week. It seems that he is in his eighties, but his first question on being offered the position was to ask if the area had broadband coverage. Surely such a go-ahead Priest will know that more churches are open today than ever before, and that there is a real hunger in today's society for a sense of the spiritual, quite unknown thirty years ago? Well, we will see.   mine today, yours tomorrow

*2013: The panels were cleaned (though not restored) by the artist Christine Easton, who lives in the village, and have now been returned to the church. I am also told that these days Bedfield church is open every day, so I'll try and get up there to take a photograph soon.

Simon Knott, 2001 (updated 2007, 2013)

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looking west font and cover sanctuary benches
nave gap-toothed chancel banner and board
IHS commandments commandments Alpha and Omega

Norman doorway (detail) 1853