At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Chillesford

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk




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Coralline Crag

above the cragpit

looking east

looking west

fast falls the evening

Agnes Clopton



Chillesford: glowing

We live in the middle of Ipswich, and we like to go to Orford. It's only half an hour a way, and it is like stepping back out of the 21st century. On the way into Orford, you pass through Chillesford, the church of St Peter above the road. In the late afternoon sun its tower glows with a rich honey colour as you head home. It isn't radiation from the nearby Sizewell reactor, it is coralline crag. There are only two churches in the whole of England that have towers built out of coralline crag, and Chillesford is one of them. Wantisden, a mile away, is the other; but the quarry that the crag might have come from is here, beside the church. The height of the church above the road is accentuated by the way the graveyard drops away suddenly towards what is now a roadside pond. Close up, the cragstone is reddish, with the fossils of tiny sea creatures in it. Several coralline crag quarries survive on the around here, including one close to Ramsholt church, and it can be seen in ancient walling in Sutton. It lends buildings a sturdy, primitive quality, quite unlike delicate but run-of-the-mill Suffolk flintwork.

As I say, Chillesford sits on the road to Orford, and so this church is quite well-known. But I wonder how many passers-by bother to climb the track to the top? The visitors book suggests that there aren't many, which is a pity. This quiet little church is as friendly as they come, as you'll be able to tell from the sign on the roadside. Welcome!, it says. The Church is Always Open!

At Wantisden, the church is remote and lonely enough to have retained an ancient interior as well, but Chillesford has been thoroughly renewed inside over the centuries. You step into a space full of light and colour, a typical 19th century country church, even smaller than it appears from the outside. I love small country churches which are essentially Victorian inside, perhaps because they are easy grasp, and give us a sense of the people who made it this way. They are people we can understand, for of course the world we live in to day was forged in the 19th century.

Standing at the back of the narrow nave looking east, you see one of the narrowest chancel arches in Suffolk; only Wantisden, Gedding and Chevington can compete. Like those churches, we can see clearly here that, historically, chancels and naves started out essentially as separate constructions; a wall with an opening divides them.

Back in the early centuries of the Church, church buildings were little more than covered altars, but it wasn't long before the gathering people were building their naves as a shelter for themselves as they witnessed the sacrifice of the Mass. Over the centuries, these buildings were completely renewed and rebuilt, until, in most cases, they became unified. But here, the chancel is still what is known as a 'weeping' chancel; that is to say, it is not directly in line with the nave, but at an angle.

Perhaps this is because lining them up exactly was not a great priority for the early-medieval Church; more likely, there wasn't the skill or technology to do so. Over the centuries, successive rebuildings have not corrected the error; and so, here they remain, evidence of the distant past, despite the 19th century restoration, and despite how energetic the Victorians were here. There are some large squints either side of the chancel arch (again, found elsewhere in Suffolk only at Wantisden, Gedding and Chevington), but one glance will tell you that they are new, dating from the 1860s. Mortlock thought that the squints might be renewals, replacing squints that already existed; this is certainly possible, especially with such a narrow chancel arch. But they might just as easily be modelled on those up the lane at Wantisden.

The most striking feature of St Peter is the glorious east window, and the matching hangings. They date from the early 1990s, after an unfortunate incident when an unhappy young man took an axe to Edward Frampton's 1860s Gospel scenes. The superb replacement glass is by Mellis-based artist Surinder Warboys, perhaps the best of her work, depicting a Christ in Majesty bestriding meadows and fields like those of East Suffolk.

Surinder Warboys risen Christ

The matching altar frontal and lectern hangings are designed by Isobel Clover, her work more familiar from Catholic churches like Kesgrave Holy Family. The one surviving Victorian window is to the west, an excellent depiction of Christ calming the storm while the disciples look on. Look at the individual faces of the disciples as they look on, the mixture of awe, wonder and fear. I think it must rank among the best renditions of the scene I know.

be not afraid west window fishers of men fishers of men
it is I be not afraid

There is a gorgeous medieval piscina in the south nave wall, still retaining much of its original colour. On the wall beside the vestry door is a floor brass, which presumably sat in the chancel floor before the 1860s. It tells us in Latin that, beneath it, lies Agnes Clopton of the ancient family of Cloptons of Kentwell in the County of Suffolk, along with her son. Hands at the bottom point to where mother and daughter lay.

As I say, the visitors book suggests that St Peter does not get as many visitors as it deserves, and it was while leafing back through it to find my previous visits, and trying to spot the names of people I knew, that I found an extraordinary entry. It was about ten years old, and written in a precise, determined hand under the name of someone calling themselves Carl Dreyer. It said Enough! You hypnotised fools. Does the stench of hypocrisy not fill your very nostrils? So you have a very nice blue window. If it's theatre you want.... go there. Open your eyes and ears. Who seduced you with the lie that the way to the Father is through immorality? Through hypocrisy, through religious ritual, through singing and chanting? Through 'celebrations'. Dare to stop losing yourself in religiosity, in 'pilgrimages', in music and windows. For Christ's sake, wake up to the evil at work in this once fine country today. And to the reality of a shamefully worthless religion that does nothing, NOTHING, nothing but grow rich by encouraging lost sinners to get high on 'very nice blue windows'. Yes, you haters of the truth. You have towers and carvings and windows and music and robes. And you have grinning perverts in your pulpits. Let it be said Ah! but the music... the shaking of hands... the window...

I suppose that my own feelings were best summed up by the subsequent entry Well, we liked it (Messrs Pecks, Dyer and Goldsmith of Anglia Polytechnic University in Chelmsford, God bless you!)

I wondered how unhappy someone would have to be to pour out such vitriol in such a harmless setting. And then I thought how lovely that the parish hadn't discreetly removed the page, which said oceans about the virtue of Christian patience and tolerance, and what a lovely church this is, nice blue window or not.

well, we liked it

Simon Knott, March 2007


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