At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Great Bradley

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Great Bradley in early morning mist

Great Bradley in early morning mist south porch (16th Century) south doorway (12th Century) Norman doorway

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    We're in the rolling landscape by the Cambridgeshire border here, a part of Suffolk that looks towards Cambridge more than it does to Ipswich or Bury St Edmunds. The wide churchyard rises above a narrow lane beside the Hall, away from the Newmarket to Haverhill road which winds along the border. I remember being here ten years ago and getting excited by a mewing buzzard floating over the church, and I wrote on an earlier version of this page that it was a mark of how far west I had come. In the years since then, buzzards have spread across the whole of East Anglia and it would be an unusual bike ride now for me not see a few of them.

At first sight the church appears pretty much all of an early 14th Century piece, but as you get closer things get more interesting. The north doorway, which faces the lane but which is no longer in use, is a simple late Norman construction, two slender columns rising to a plain tympanum, squaring the door beneath with a lintel. Coming round to the south side, you find two memorable features, one earlier and one later than the 14th Century nave. The south porch is a spectacular red brick affair of the early 16th Century with a crow-stepped gable, and its position away from the road and the village is because it faces the Hall. The porch has no fewer than eight niches, six of them at least intended for images. The central three are likely to have been for a rood group. Within is another Norman doorway, rather grander than its companion across the church, with those corbel heads facing inwards that you find across the Cambridgeshire border at Chippenham and Kirtling.

You step through this doorway into a light, white interior. The elegant early 15th Century font has designs on its bowl of fleurons set in quatrefoils, with more fleurons around the base. To the east of it, nineteenth century benches face through the narrow pointed chancel arch, which is the first development here out of the Norman period, and behind it the organ fills the tower arch. If you peep behind the organ you will see something unusual, for set in the south side of the tower is a fireplace. It has a chimney, which comes out about five metres up on the outside. The church guide suggested that it might once have been used for baking the bread used at the Mass, although as Eamon Duffy has explained, only the priest consumed the wafer at Mass in the Middle Ages. The parishioners would take it in turns to bake the bread which would be placed on the altar and blessed before being distributed to the congregation.

Up in the chancel, what at first sight appear to be four early 19th Century tablets are actually later, and remember four brothers, Charles, John, Bernard and Percival Wilder. As a brass plate below explains, they were successively Rector here at Great Bradley over the course of seventy four years from 1868 to 1942. The glass in the east window remembers Burnard's son Reginald who was killed during the first few months of the First World War. The design is based on The Great Sacrifice, a painting by James Clark. There are several churches in this area that use it as a subject for a window. Whimsical glass of half a century later by Powell & Son on the south side of the nave depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds, and includes thatched cottages and what looks like a castle behind the Blessed Virgin and Christchild.

Although nothing at all survives of the roodscreen or rood, there is ample evidence here of how it was placed. In both south and north walls alcoves survive, and clearly outline where the stairs were, where the rood beam was, and how deep the rood loft must have been. It is a simple matter to recreate it in your head. Another fragmentary survival is on the south side of the sanctuary. Hard up against the east wall is part of what must have been a fine sedila, just one of the three seats which once were used by priest, deacon and sub-deacon in a High Mass. The surviving seat is the sub-deacon's, which is to say, the most westerly. At some point the chancel has been truncated, and the two upper seats and the piscina have been lost.

Great Bradley underwent a restoration in the 1890s at the hands of Francis Smith, an architect with local connections. He is buried under a cross just beside the south porch. Looking him up later, I discovered that he had designed Caxton Hall in Westminster, a building where I worked in the early 1980s, which seemed a strange connection.


Simon Knott, September 2021

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looking east chancel looking west
Great Bradley lamb and flag Great Bradley
Adoration of the Shepherds (Powell & Sons, 1950s) Adoration of the Shepherds (detail, Powell & Sons, 1950s) Great Bradley Roll of Honour
74 successive years

Francis James Smith FRIBA gargoyle


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