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St Clare, Bradfield St Clare

  Antiquarians and ecclesiologists have not been very kind to our parish church, begins Terence Smith's guidebook to this church. A little harsh on Mortlock, perhaps, who greatly enjoyed the setting, but Cautley was certainly dismissive. Maybe I don't count as an antiquarian or ecclesiologist, but I am going to go against the grain and say that I think this is a delightful church. It is full of interest; if you can, for one moment, abandon your quest for the medieval.

Delightful little St Clare - or is it All Saints?

You come to it from Bradfield Combust, along high tree-lined lanes that recall the memory of Arthur Young senior, of Bradfield Hall, who first planted them more than 200 years ago. The Youngs are one of two remarkable families in this area, but probably they would admit to second place behind the St Cleres, who were Lords of the Manor here throughout most of the Medieval period.

They were great crusaders, and the image of St George in crusading armour at Bradfield Combust, despite postdating the crusades by two centuries, may be based on a St Clere family portrait.

  Much has been made of the fact that this church bears a unique dedication in England for a medieval church. St Clare was a companion of St Francis, and lived in the 13th century, by which time the Parish system and its churches in England was already well-established (there aren't many St Francis dedications, either). Sadly, and as you may have already guessed, it isn't actually the case.

As you often find over the border in Essex, the village here is named not after a Saint at all, but after the St Clere family. (Although less common in Suffolk, this type of village naming does occur in several places, notably Ashbocking and Stonham Aspal).

The medieval dedication here was to All Saints, not to St Clare. The modern dedication was adopted as recently as the 19th century, and although it would be possible to blame 18th century antiquarians for making the mistake that led to it (as is often the case) it seems an entirely reasonable mistake to make. After the Puritan era, and before the Oxford Movement revival, Parish churches were usually named after their villages.

It seems natural that 'Bradfield St Clere Church' could easily become 'St Clare's Church'. However, the modern Parish has happily adopted its new dedication, and why not?

You cross a steep railway bridge over the now-vanished Sudbury to Bury line, part of which is a footpath to the south of here. You enter a hamlet of pleasant cottages, and the church is away in the fields, with an incongruously large water tower for company.

The graveyard is beautifully sheltered, if a little overneat. The church itself also looks well cared for, its exterior bearing witness to the fact that the tower collapsed in a storm in 1873, and during the rebuilding the opportunity was taken to completely refurbish the rest of the structure. All except the chancel and nave walls dates from this time and later.

I was delighted to find the church open, a rare occurence in the Bury area. I stepped into a gorgeously warm interior, all limewash and polish. The church is full of light, the whiteness of the walls reflecting the sunshine pouring in through the high windows.

The Victorian restoration was a good one, high quality work that has aged well. In any case, research has found little evidence that anything of any value or interest was destroyed by it; antiquarians in the late 18th and early 19th centuries had found it, to quote David Davy, little in any way interesting.

Offsetting the modern nave is the ancient chancel, rebuilt in the late 15th century. The roof is a delight, and again, light pours in through the seriously perpendicular windows. They give a sense that the church is bigger than it actually is.

Here you'll find a feel of the medieval, but don't neglect the extraordinarily good modern needlework of the communion rail cushion, which was worked locally and features buildings in the parish.

I liked this church a lot. I liked above all its sense of continuity, that here was a fairly simple parish church that had been buffeted and shaken by the winds of history, and had responded by reflecting the changing aesthetics, theologies and emotions of its parishioners.

 

Arms of the St Clere family above a door set in the filled-in tower arch - a vestry beyond it, perhaps?

Terence Smith puts it better than me: To look into this church today is to look into a mirror of the Church of England. Here are almost the last vestiges of the Old Faith cleared away, and the depredations of the Puritans made good - decent at least. It is like looking into the face of the Elizabethan settlement.

Finally, I will also go on record as saying that, after visiting well over 500 churches in Suffolk, the guidebook for Bradfield St Clare is the best of all of them.

St Clare, Bradfield St Clare, is located just to the east of the A134 Bury to Sudbury road. Follow the signposts from Bradfield Combust, and turn right at the junction. I found it open.