At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Bramford

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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churches under lockdown: Bramford

Bramford Bramford and the Gipping five guardians
Bramford cherubic graffito on a buttress Bramford

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The urban sprawl of Ipswich reaches far beyond the official limits of the Borough, but there are still places within a few of miles of the Cornhill that feel like proper Suffolk villages. The River Gipping and its water meadows here form a lovely barrier to progress encroaching from the east, and on the far bank of the river is the pleasing village of Bramford and its church of St Mary. The church sits at the end of 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 large East Anglian medieval Perpendicular church that people expect to see when they come to Suffolk, from the outside at least.

But there is more to it than that. Along the battlements of the north aisles, statues on pinnacles stand like guardians. These are unusual in East Anglia. Some of them are allegorical, some theological, some perhaps mythical or heraldic. They are hard to photograph, or even to see clearly, on a sunny day because they are on the north side of the church, and in any case they are eroded by half a millennium of soft Suffolk rain and encrusted with lichen. One is clearly an ape in a monk's habit examining a urine flask. This can also be seen on the screen at Suffield in Norfolk. It is a satire on contemplative orders. The ape here is chained, suggesting that he is tied to his friary. Two others are evangelistic symbols of St Matthew and St Mark. One of the strangest is a woodwose, the wild man of the Suffolk woods. He is commonly found in late medieval carvings and as often he carries a club, but the one here also appears to be wearing a crown. There is a gryphon and a chained beast, and a curious animal that might be a hare or a sheep, though both are unusual in late medieval East Anglian stonework.

crowned woodwose a chained ape in a habit examining a urine flask sheep? hare? chained beast (heraldic?)
winged man of St Matthew seated figure - a cleric? gryphon winged lion of St Mark

The grand 15th Century tower, the pinnacled aisle battlements of the north aisle and the deep, imposing porch are so impressive and so splendidly late Perp that it comes as something of a surprise to step inside and see that they are an elaboration of what is actually an earlier church. The arcades of the wide, neat interior are of the early 14th Century (which is to say, before the Black Death) and the chancel is earlier still, and most striking of all as you face east is one of Suffolk's only two surviving medieval stone rood screens. 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 and the battlements added by the fanciful Frederick Barnes in the 1860s, when the chancel received its ritualist makeover. Suffolk's other stone screen is at Little Wenham, but it is more simple and functional than this one.

Barnes's work was completed by Ewan Christian, and much was done. A drawing from the 1840s shows a nave packed with box pews 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 three hundred years or so it was the pulpit which 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 box today.

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 late 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 from the time when it was simply Edward Packard & Co 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 memorial is organised as a triptych, the outer boards depicting a British soldier and St George, the central board listing first those who were killed and then those who served. Charmingly, there are portraits of the lost boys down the centre and along the bottom. It's recorded that it was 'created by the Misses Packard'.

font, font cover, Packard & Co war memorial Edward Packard & Sons war memorial Edward Packard & Sons war memorial

The parish war memorial is in the south aisle. Incidentally, 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.

Stepping into the chancel, the 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.

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, September 2021

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looking east stone screen

chancel looking west east window by Kempe open font cover
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

brick tombchest, 1803 classical tombchest, 1872 lunar module
Resting here, a baby boy, one of God's children


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