At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Chediston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Chediston: austere and beautiful on a feathered cushion
south side the storm descends

St George and St Felix   I love this part of Suffolk. The area west of Halesworth is among the most rural parts of East Anglia, and Chediston is one of its least known villages. It was a pleasure to be back in the saddle, cycling around the parishes I had originally visited for the Suffolk Churches site back in the 1990s.

I came down the long, straight lane from Wissett, and as the road dipped into Chediston, I could see St Mary on the rise ahead. The site suggests ancient origins. Small houses bound the churchyard on all sides, and the driveway to some of them actually goes through the churchyard. This is a church thoroughly integrated into its surroundings.

I had left Halesworth in full sunshine, but the clouds had begun to appear at Spexhall, becoming a blanket over Wissett graveyard. Now, the sky was threateningly lower. The birds were uncertain, a quietness descending with the clouds on the cushion of the graveyard. This was a few weeks before the spring mowing, and you could hear the tall grasses threshing in the disturbed breeze.

I hauled my bike off the path and up through the graveyard. The sparsely tower and cemented walls of the nave and chancel make it austere and a little bleak, a feeling accentuated on this day by the cloud cover. The base of the tower is 13th century; the top was rebuilt towards the end of the 15th century, but its unbuttressed sides still look rather primitive. There is some evidence of Norman work in the nave walls, but the overwhelming feeling is of the decorated period. When I had come this way in 1999, I had found the graveyard freshly mown, the dry grass stubble looking like a blasted heath around the church. Today, it was like somewhere even wilder, as if I had stepped into a Bronte novel. Pausing to notice the 18th century gravestone to the singularly named Methuselah Balls beside the south porch, I stepped inside.

With one important exception, the nave windows are set with clear, 19th century quarries, and so this part of the church is full of light. The fine East Anglian font is in excellent condition, its lions and woodwoses standing proudly. It is very like the one across the valley at Wissett, and they were probably carved by the same hand.

When the church was restored 1890s, the head of a large St Christopher was revealed by the removal of some plaster. Unfortunately, one of the windows was punched through him before this exposure happened. This is interesting, because the window was probably inserted in the 15th century. This suggests, as elsewhere, that wallpaintings were not victims of the Reformation, but were in many places covered over perhaps a century earlier. The Victorian restoration here was roughly contemporary with the lunatic restoration at nearby Cookley, from which the beautiful pulpit here was rescued. It has a fine stairway, with the date 1631 on it. Mortlock observed that it was probably produced by the same person as that at Rumburgh.

The nave has two striking furnishings, each of which are worth the visit here alone. The first is one of the windows produced by the workshop of the Rope cousins, two female Suffolk stained glass artists who were working in the early and middle years of the twentieth century. This is a war memorial window of 1949 by Margaret Edith Rope. It depicts St George and St Felix above the seals of the RAF Bomber Squadron and, interestingly, the Borough of Dunwich - in 1949, it was still believed by historians that Felix's see, Dummoc, had been at Dunwich rather than Walton Castle. Perhaps the loveliest feature of the window is that it contains rural Suffolk scenes in the background: Ploughing behind St George and Harvesting behind St Felix.

St George and St Felix St George for England St Felix of East Anglia St Felix Suffolk Punches
St George ploughing harvesting medallions
for England Bomber squadron Dunwich St George
Bomber Suffolk harvest leading the horkey speed the plow

East Anglia has a number of surviving decalogue boards from the 17th century, and Chediston's is probably the best. Moses and Aaron flank the Ten Commandments from the Book of Exodus. They both look very serious. Moses wears his horns of light, while Aaron wears what might be taken as either eucharistic vestments or masonic regalia. The sixth commandment exhorts us to do no Murther, while the seventh presents Adultery in a flowery script as if to remind us of its potentially attractive possibilites.

Decalogue board Decalogue board: Moses Decalogue board: Aaron Decalogue board: Aaron
Decalogue board: Exodus Decalogue board: Murther... Adultery... Decalogue board: Honour thy Father and thy Mother Decalogue board: Remember

Stepping into the chancel, there are the famous Chediston communion rails, acorns suspended above spikes that look as if they might impale the fruits as they fall. They are properly Laudian, designed to guard the altar and keep out dogs. They date from the 1630s. The Puritans hated this kind of thing, perceiving, in the way that they cordoned off the sanctuary, a movement within the Church of England to take the nation back to Popery. They are exactly the kind of thing that led to the English Civil War.

Of all the Suffolk churches I revisited in May 2007, this was the one that I thought had changed the least, both inside and out. Of course, eight years are nothing to the long centuries that this church and its parish have endured, but it struck me again and again as I cycled around north Suffolk that I was seeing the Church of England reinventing itself; either reborn, or transformed or, at a small number of churches, beginning to die.

What I felt at Chediston was something much more steadfast, a sense of confidence rooted, not in theology, but in being a touchstone to the village and its people down the long generations, past and present, and still being there to be so for the future, too.

  Decalogue board: Moses

Simon Knott, 2007


looking east looking west font font
the pulpit, formerly at Cookley looking west sanctuary Baxter Denis Cox

Methuselah Balls quarries and graves William Pretty




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