At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John the Baptist, Butley

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Butley Norman coralline crag

with Christ which is far better   Butley is a fascinating village. The familiar part sits on the top road, and runs more or less on into Chillesford. Part of the village here is actually in Wantisden parish. On the creek below is the less well-known Butley Mills, a collection of 19th century buildings that now houses a bed and breakfast. A road leading off the high street is lined with rural council houses, a reminder that this is a working village. It climbs into the woods, where you'll find the remarkable Butley Priory Gatehouse, probably the finest surviving medieval gatehouse in England. It looks like the west end of a cathedral dropped off, its remarkable flushwork the setting for a bewildering array of shields. It is now a private house, but open sometimes for concerts and the like.

In comparison with such richness, St John the Baptist is rather homely, a simple Suffolk parish church not so very different from a hundred others. Like many, the nave was more or less the original Norman church. The chancel was added and the tower done up in the 14th century. From the south, it is a lovely sight, mainly because of the way its thatched roof and elegant porch combine. A path leads through from the south-west corner of the wild graveyard, and you step through an ancient, beautiful doorway. The porch itself is a fine Tudor red brick one, and you then step through another, even older doorway, the Norman doorway of about 1150. The door is at least as old as the porch, and may even be as old as the doorway.

On the inside of this door is a curious and fascinating piece of social history. The date 1571, and the name Augustine Brooke, are carved at about 4 feet from the floor. This name can apparently be traced in the records of Butley Priory as a child taught there in 1538. It is fascinating to think that this man grew up on both sides of the Reformation divide, perhaps to become a churchwarden and set his name against a repair.

Turning east, there is no chancel arch, and a screen runs across from north to south. The south wall shows its great age, especially towards the west. It is not a wall you'd want to have to hang a picture on. Right at the west end is the stairway to a former gallery, perhaps, although churchwarden Malcolm Mcbride tells me the fascinating story that a historical architect has recently suggested that the flight of stairs which is built inside of the south wall of the church did not, as was previously thought, lead to a musicians gallery, but in fact had a different purpose altogether. Malcolm points out that when looking at the outside of the west wall from the graveyard, the faint outline of a doorway can be seen in the brickwork. If this is true we are not yet sure, but if so, then what purpose had a doorway at a height of about 25ft leading to the outside? I did wonder myself it t had led to a wooden stage which would give acces to the tower - although, of course, it may well be even older than the tower. Interestingly, the exterior of this part of the nave is built of coralline crag, an unusual building material dug from local pits, and used to construct the towers of neighbouring Chillesford and Wantisden churches.

The rood screen itself is original 15th century work, but totally tamed by the sanding and varnishing of the centuries. The font is very well preserved, suspiciously so, and I think that the bowl, at least, has been recut. One of the shieldsbears the symbol of the Holy Trinity. This symbol seems to have often survived the iconoclasts of the 16th and 17th centuries, perhaps because they didn't understand it, and thought it heraldic. The Anglican reformers in particular left heraldic imagery alone, realising the role it played in keeping the local ordinary people in their place.

Coming back here in 2008, I remembered a previous visit some eight years before, when the dark clouds of a thunderstorm had followed me up the road from Orford, and the storm had broken as I had entered this church. It had been made even darker inside on that occasion, because the east window had been removed for repair. Today, the sanctuary is elegant and beautiful, but I remembered sitting in the gloom as the rain thundered on the chancel roof. As I'd waited for the storm to pass, I was grateful for the amusement of being the very last person to write an entry in the visitors book. I squeezed my name and the address of this site in at the end, adding by hook or by crook I'll be last in your book, thus consigning myself rather crassly to the same posterity as Augustine Brooke on the door. Coming back in 2008, I was delighted to discover that the replacement visitors' book was also now nearly full - this little church must get hundreds of visitors each year.

Stepping out into the sunshine of a bright July afternoon, I remembered that earlier occasion when I headed south through the clearing rain, entering the strange land of marshes, heaths and woodlands, looking for the ghost of the long-disappeared church of Capel St Andrew. On I went, to see if I could find it again.

  Blessed are the dead

Simon Knott, August 2008

looking east sanctuary looking west war memorial rolls of honour
font Augustine Brooke 



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