At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Bramford

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Bramford Bramford and the River Gipping five guardians
cherubic graffito on a buttress brick tombchest, 1803 classical tombchest, 1872 lunar module

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The borough of Ipswich sprawls now far beyond its official limits, but there are still places within a couple of miles of the Cornhill that feel like proper Suffolk villages. The River Gipping and its water meadows form a lovely barrier to development encroaching from the east, and on the far bank is the pleasing village of Bramford and its church of St Mary.

St Mary sits down a little lane lined by 17th Century cottages, and you approach it from the north side. Of all the medieval parish churches in the Ipswich area, this one feels most like the traditional East Anglian medieval church that people expect to see when they come to Suffolk. First of all, there is the grandness, the great bulk of the 15th Century tower squatting like a bulldog, and then leavened by its elegant, recently restored spire (once a feature of many Suffolk churches). Along the battlements of the aisles, statues stand like guardians, mythical creatures, a bear, a monkey. Then there is the setting beside the river. And inside, this is a church full of the memories of the past of its community, and a sense of its use by that community today. St Mary has the feel of a classic country church, in a suburb that feels like a proper village.

You step in through the open north porch into a wide, neat interior. The first thing that strikes you is Suffolk's only medieval stone rood screen. It dates from about 1300. There are several of these across the border in Essex, but it seems so unusual to see it here in an otherwise familiar medieval space. As James Bettley points out in the new Buildings of England: Suffolk, it is part of the architecture rather than the furnishing. It gives an impression of the way medieval churches would unfold as a series of rooms before the 15th century passion for wide open congregational and processional spaces. You need a fairly vivid imagination to conjure up its medieval appearance, surmounted as it would be by a wooden loft and painted rood group. It would also have been clad in imagery, and buttressed by altars. The quatrefoil holes were punched through at the end of the 19th century, when the chancel received its ritualist makeover.

This was the second major Victorian restoration here; a drawing from the 1840s shows a nave full of box pews, all focused on a pulpit set in the middle of the south aisle. In the 1860s, this seating was replaced, and turned to face the altar at the east end. The pulpit was moved to its 'traditional' position. But the drawing reminds us that, for 200 years or so, it was the pulpit that was the focus of Anglican worship rather than the altar. It is also a reminder that the way our eyes are automatically drawn to the east end of a church would not have occured to our 18th century ancestors, who often blocked off the chancel for use as storage or a meeting room.

A delightful and rare reminder of one of the priorities of those years of ferment immediately after the Reformation survives inscribed and painted on the most westerly pillar in the south arcade. It reads:

Remember ye pore
The Scripture doth record
What to them is geven
Is lent unto the Lord

It would have been above a poorbox, and indeed, it is still above a 20th Century money box today.

The chancel reredos by W D Caroe is a good example of turn-of-the-last-century seriousness. It sits beneath a familiarly stodgy window by Kempe & Co, typical of their early 20th Century style. The bulky choir stalls, also by Caroe, have been removed from the chancel and placed in the south aisle. The chancel must have felt very cramped when they were still in situ. The most interesting stained glass is that in the west window of the north aisle, now hidden behind the organ. It depicts, rather curiously, various scenes of people being tempted to do bad things, and was the work of Samuel Evans of Smethwick, their only work in East Anglia. James Bettley notes that it was put together by Haggars of Ipswich.

During the 19th century, the font was moved into the space beneath the tower to create a baptistery. The font is chiefly remarkable for its 16th century cover, which, like the one at Boxford, has doors which open outwards to give access to the water. When the large local factory of Fison, Packard & Prentice closed, the firm's elegant war memorial was resited on the west wall of the tower behind the font, which provides a nice foil for the font but does make the war memorial difficult to photograph. However, if it had not been moved it would have been lost to us, for the factory was destroyed by a furious arson attack in early 2019. The parish war memorial is in the south aisle.

The Packards were a local family of some importance. A number of 19th and 20th Century memorials in the church remark on their activities both here in Suffolk and out in the empire. But best of all the memorials, I liked the little brass plaque to Eliza Mee, who died in 1912. It records that Blind from birth, she led the choir when it was placed in the old gallery, and for 35 years played the first organ used in this church.

A more recent, and I am afraid more traumatic, incident in Bramford's long history is remembered by a small gravemarker along the path to the south of the church. Resting here, a baby boy, one of God's children, reads the inscription. The area of woodland east of the church beside the river is known locally as the Marshes. On Sunday 11th March 1984 some teenagers were sheltering from the rain in the Marshes under a tree. Bored, one of them kicked over an old car petrol tank which had been dumped. Underneath, they found the body of a baby boy. The pathologist's report revealed that the child had been about a week old, and had not died of natural causes. The little boy was buried in Bramford churchyard. An exhaustive police investigation was unable to solve the mystery.

Simon Knott, July 2019

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looking east stone screen

chancel looking west east window by Kempe open font cover font, font cover, Packard & Co war memorial
Remember ye pore The Scripture doth record What to them is geven Is lent unto the Lord 1591 corbel monster font cover (detail, late 16th Century) Bramford M U
Get thee behind me, Satan (Samuel Evans, 1874) tempted by so-called friends to stop reading the bible (Samuel Evans, 1874) St Etheldreda and Ely Cathedral (Kempe & Co, 1904) Matronly Virgin and Portly Christ Child by Kempe wheat ready for harvest (Samuel Evans, 1874)
a barrister of Grey's Inn High Steward of Ipswich & Freeman of the Borough flos florum (Kempe & Co, 1904) Bramford Bramford
lost at sea on his way home from W Africa Puisne Judge who died at Warri, S Nigeria blind from birth she led the choir when it was placed in the old gallery
three angels

Resting here, a baby boy, one of God's children


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