At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Bruisyard

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Bruisyard, early spring Bruisyard Bruisyard
Bruisyard, early spring 'seven white doves, now sentinel upon the tower top' (Sir Percival) 'he halted, gazing back  toward the portal where his patient steed waited' (Sir Percival)

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It was the second year of the Great Covid Pandemic. A year previously the Church of England had ordered all its churches closed in an ill-considered fit of panic, but now in March 2021 many were open again. Over the course of the pandemic I'd visited about 120 Suffolk churches, almost all of which were open daily before covid. Now, fewer than half of them were. But in this part of the county to the north of Framlingham they were mostly open, as I discovered as I reached my first church of a bike ride between Saxmundham railway station and my house in Ipswich.

It was a beautiful early spring day, unseasonably warm. In the freshly-sprung fields the hares were busy in ones and twos, and I do not think I had seen so many of them in a single bike ride before, a total of more than a dozen before the end of the day. The occasional group of roe deer mooched sullenly on ridges beyond. They are a common sight now, but when I first visited Bruisyard church back in the early 1990s it was a different world. I thought of this now as I stood under the lychgate looking up the avenue of limes to the church porch, the trees alive with spring birdsong and the cooing of Bruisyard's famous white doves who appear to live in the round tower. I remembered particularly a visit I had made here once in the middle of winter, on New Year's Eve 2009.

It had been the coldest winter in years. The frost lay thick and mysterious on the ground. The trees were ornate jewels fringed with delicate white lace as I headed out of Ipswich on the train and up the East Suffolk Line. It was like escaping into Narnia. As I cycled west from Saxmundham station it began to snow, powdery at first, and then large flakes billowing down out of the invisible sky. A gleaming jewelled dust coated the hedgerows and fields. It was exciting: I was heading into the narrow winding lanes and rolling hills of High Suffolk, with its secretive villages and pretty little churches.

Beyond Sweffling, the snow stopped, and a weak sun came out briefly, just for a moment. The lane curved around the long side of last year's corn stubble. As I cycled past, a great wave of rooks rose from the ground and formed a rolling canopy in the sky. I'll never forget it, the icy air filled with their monstrous noise. I freewheeled down into Bruisyard, the pretty village sign like a welcoming beacon, and I stopped beneath it, my breath clouding in the impossibly freezing air.

But my fondest memories of Bruisyard are all in summer. Some thirty years ago this village was well-known throughout Suffolk for its vineyard. We would come up here for picnics with friends who lived locally, and walk the lanes in the high heat, my baby son on my back, the world enticing and full of possibility. The high-hedged rolling lanes were like being in France in that heat, what with the vines, and the iconic village sign with its image of Saint Clare, and the ruin of a calvary beside the road. The vineyard was grubbed up many years ago, but whenever I cycle past that calvary I remember.

The tiny church sits on a rise in this hilly parish. The elegant round tower tapers slightly to its cap, and is probably Norman, possibly added to the Norman church which was once here from which the blocked north doorway survives. The round tower was nearly lost to us, because in 1544 Godfrey Lawter left five marks to the reparcon of the said church, towards the steeple and building of an yle there. But this bequest was perhaps offered in hope rather than in expectation, for the Reformation was already underway in English parish churches and the tower, which almost certainly would have been square, and the aisle would never be built. The surviving nave and chancel appear largely 13th Century if the fragmentary sedile and piscina in the chancel are anything to go by, but had probably been patched up at a fairly late date, probably the early years of the 16th Century. The south side is punctuated by a long transept built in the early 17th Century as a chapel for the Hare family. It now now forms the vestry.

You step into an interior which is neat and simple, and which feels all of its 19th Century restoration. In fact, there are a fair number of earlier survivals. The typical 15th Century East Anglian font is cracked and recut, and some contemporary poppy head bench ends have been reused. Michael Hare, whose 1609 will bankrolled the south transept, probably also paid for the communion rails and the screen which flanks his family chapel. His figure brass which was set in front of the font was lost long ago, but the figures of his two wives which are either side of him survive.

This is a church of space and silence. The war memorial shows that this small remote parish lost seven of its boys to the First World War. Beside it, a printed memorial card filled in by hand at the time lists the Dead of The European War 1914-1918. These things must once have been common, but were probably discarded as proper memorials replaced them. A curious decalogue set hangs on the wall. It was printed in the 18th Century, and then coloured in by hand. These must once also have been common, but I don't think I've ever seen another one in Suffolk. The royal arms is also an amateur effort of the same century, painted on canvas but now behind glass in a frame. Icons of St Francis and St Clare flank the cross on the rood beam. The early 20th Century glass at both ends of the church is by Jones & Willis, and we might not unreasonably wish for something better.

On a visit back in 2019 I'd been disappointed to find the church closed for repairs and redecoration. However, I was excited about coming back, because during the work fragments of a wall painting had been uncovered, and are now left exposed and preserved. They show parts of a typical East Anglian image of St Christopher carrying the Christ child across a river. St Christopher was one of the most important saints in the late medieval economy of grace. The Black Death of the mid-14th Century had concentrated everyone's minds, especially the speed with which it carried its victims off, many of them without being able to make a last confession or receive the Last Rites. Intercessionary prayers were made to St Christopher asking him to help guard against a sudden death, especially while away from home. The lower survival here shows part of the hermitage where the saint lived, part of his staff and what appears to be his foot in the water. The upper fragment shows part of the Christ child and the foliage of a tree on the far bank. St Christopher was often painted opposite the main entrance, as here at Bruisyard, so that parishioners could stand in the church doorway and make their pleas to him before setting out on their day's journey, for he is the patron saint of travellers.


Simon Knott, April 2021

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looking east looking west
font font chancel sanctuary light in remains of piscina and sedile St Peter's, Bruisyard
hermitage and St Christopher's staff and foot in the water Christchild on St Christopher's shoulder
roll of honour Good Shepherd (Jones & Willis) Blessed Virgin (Jones & Willis) St Peter (Jones & Willis) Royal arms of the House of Hanover
war memorial


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