At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Bildeston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Bildeston: click to enlarge

new tower south porch west doorway south doorway 
collapsed tower S F collapsed tower

May 8th, 1975   So often in Suffolk, we find a church remote from its village, and ask ourselves why. How has it happened? The reasons are complex and varied, of course, and it is not enough to blame the Black Death, for which perhaps only the isolation of Timworth presents a convincing case. The removal of Bildeston from its church is fairly well-documented and researched, and is an interesting case study.

Here, beside the church, are traces of a substantial manor house. Until 1960s hedge-removal and deep-ploughing destroyed them, there was also evidence of other dwellings; smallholdings, farmsteads and tenements.

They were much older than the church; but, of course, this church was built on the site of its predecessor, located for the convenience of the manor house. So, why are there no houses here now? Some time in the 13th century, people from this parish migrated down to the river valley, possibly to be near resources for the budding cloth industry.

Soon, this new community was active enough to merit a market, and here, on the main road between Stowmarket and Hadleigh, it became a busy one. Changing patterns of agriculture in the late medieval period meant the disappearance of the remaining community from around the church, and so now St Mary Magdalene stands grand, isolated, and half a mile or so from the large village (almost a small town) of Bildeston. This, conversely, makes Bildeston a rather curious village, since it has a typical Suffolk market place, except for the fact that there isn't a church on it.

At one time, St Mary Magdalene stood rather more grandly than it does now. On the morning of May 8th 1975, however, the villagers were startled by a tremendous roar. It was the sound of the tower of their church collapsing. Tower collapses were common enough in 18th century Suffolk, as 200 years of post-Reformation neglect took their toll. But the Victorian restorers had largely done away with this problem (although the unrestored tower at Stanton All Saints had collapsed as recently as 1906).

Here at Bildeston, ironically, the tower was undergoing radical surgery at the time, and the medieval bells had already been removed. The photograph inside the church of the morning after the collapse shows the rubble interlaced with scaffolding, which has splintered like so many matchsticks. The remains of the tower still lie in the graveyard, a heap of flint and freestone to the north of the new tower. The replacement tower is topped by a bare, functional box, with a slender little spire on top, which, try as I might, I could not find beautiful.

It does, to its credit, accentuate the height of the nave and chancel, the pretty clerestory of which is picked out in flint and brick. This is a typically grand Suffolk church, like near neighbours Hitcham and Rattlesden. The sloping churchyard is neat and trim, with large trees surrounding it. The whole piece rides the fields like a ship in a storm. The south porch is, also typically Suffolk, its grand flushwork a testimony to 15th century piety and Marian devotion. The doorway must be among the best in the county of its period.

This was the corner that the fall of the tower took out, and as part of the repair an excellent window of St Mary Magdalene and St Mary Salome at the empty tomb was installed at the west end of the south aisle. St Gabriel rises above them magnificently.

Mary Magdalene and Mary Salome two Marys at the tomb St Gabriel 

The arcades are glorious, some of the most triumphant in Suffolk, echoing Lavenham a few miles off. The capitals depict circles of tiny ngels, all of them slightly different. The south aisle is now rededicated as the chapel of St Nicholas, and retains the sanctuary furnishings of the now-redundant Wattisham parish church. The dado of the roodscreen, with restored saints, forms a reredos. Beneath it, and barely visible behind the plastic sheeting used to protect the furnishings against bat urine, is a beautifully lettered ledger stone. The chapel is still used for occasional services.

The most striking feature of the south aisle, and of the church as a whole, is the glorious window by the Kempe workshop. It depicts the Annunciation as the main subject, richly adorned with subsidiary scenes, as we would expect. It is stunning.

There is no chancel arch, and the clerestory continues right up to the east end, in the manner of the finest Perpendicular church architecture. However, here it is offset by the loveliest Decorated tracery in the east ends of chancel and aisles. The effect is countered by the bland 19th century sanctuary, but perhaps this only encourages us to raise our eyes to heaven. Looking westwards, the high clerestory, and repairs after the tower's collapse, create a rather severe austerity, the tiny sanctus bell window punctuating the vast wall.

A tremendous amount of careful restoration has gone into this building over the last quarter of a century, and it is not surprising that it has lost the patina of age that one might expect. However, a survival from the past can be seen up in the chancel. The stalls, with battered misericords, were, Mortlock says, removed from the now-vanished chapel of ease of St Leonard down in the village.

A survival that might have been, but wasn't is the roodscreen. Without a chancel arch, it must have been enormous. It survived the Reformation, it survived the Puritans, only to be destroyed in an 18th century reordering.

Simon Knott, 2000, updated 2008

looking east St Nicholas chapel arcades
lion south doorway angel and shepherds Zechariah and the angel
font Wattisham reredos St Nicholas chapel Wattisham reredos
Annunciation angels in the capital Beaumont Beaumont
missing Mother of God Wattisham memorials war memorials
charities Angel with Holy Trinity shield This durable volume
Wattisham dead Wattisham dead pelican misericord

escape in a row who passed away memory



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