At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter and St Paul, Clare

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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St Peter and St Paul, Clare St Peter and St Paul, Clare St Peter and St Paul, Clare St Peter and St Paul, Clare St Peter and St Paul, Clare  

angel playing hide and seek by FC Eden   The Essex and Suffolk borderlands are home to East Anglia's loveliest landscapes, albeit mostly on the Essex side, and the loveliest villages, on both sides of the border. Much is made of Finchingfield and Castle Hedingham a few miles across the Stour, but I prefer Clare. It is a proper old-fashioned English village, a little town really, and always seems busy. Its attractive buildings, pubs, shops and setting on the busy Sudbury to Haverhill road mean that it has become something of a martyr to traffic, but it does feel as if life goes on here.

The traffic is also a consequence of the short-sighted decision to close the Colchester to Cambridge railway line in the 1960s. Clare used to have a busy railway station, built slap in the middle of the castle precincts by enthusiastic Victorians. John Appleby remembered it fondly in his splendid A Suffolk Summer, written just after the War. As I say, the railway has gone now, but you can still visit the station. The castle mound is little more than it sounds, but Clare has a long and turbulent history.

St Peter and St Paul is a big church, and if it does not stand in the first rank of Suffolk churches it is because history has been so vigorously rewritten within its walls, that it is hard to see it as anything other than the rather pleasant Church of England parish church that it has become. Externally, however, it is as grand as any. It sits to the north of the little square, and is surrounded on three sides by roads, giving it a suitably urban feel. Much of it has been rebuilt over the years; most of the chancel in 1617, most of the nave in the 1440s, the tower at the end of the 19th century, mainly with the old materials. Other survivals from medieval times include the base of the tower, the aisles, the south chapel-cum-porch, part of the east window, and the lovely rood stair turrets either side of the east end of the nave. There is something similar at Lavenham, and you can see them on a smaller scale at nearby Stansfield; but the ones here have little spires on them.

You enter through a little porch set into the south aisle. Above it, the 18th century sundial says Go about your business. However, this should not be taken as a rebuff. It refers to the parish business normally undertaken in the porch, and the church itself is always open every day. You step into a cool, light space, the thrust of the arcaes pushing the roof space up and making the church seem higher than it is, a neat trick. The east and west windows, although containing coloured glass, allow light to sweep the nave. The east window is wide and flattened, an unusual survival of the early 17th century, when the Laudians were making their ill-fated attempt to restore the liturgical integrity of English parish churches by repairing the chancel and restoring it to use after half a century or more of neglect.

The window containing glass heraldic shields of the families who paid for the rebuilding is worth a glance, since it contains scatterings of medieval glass collected after the destruction of January 6th 1644, of which more in a minute. The unusually high chancel arch is rebuilt, but must have contained a very high rood, given the extreme height of the upper roodloft stairway entrance. The church is light because, famously, the puritan iconoclast William Dowsing went on one of his greatest wrecking sprees here. He claims to have destroyed 1000 images in stained glass. Clearly, as Dr John Blatchly points out in his commentary to the latest edition of Dowsing's Journal, this is not possible, and the true figure is probably nearer 185, and certainly no more than 200. Perhaps what Dowsing is trying to tell us is that he arrived to find the church filled with coloured glass, and destroyed the lot. In fact, a few panels survived, including the sun and moon specifically mentioned by Dowsing.

16th Century sun 16th Century moon

They are extraordinary survivals, on a scale unknown elsewhere in East Anglia, and the heart breaks to wonder what the accompanying crucifixion must have been like. Perhaps they were rescued from the floor by someone, and replaced in a later, more sympathetic age; although, as late as the 1870s, the Reverend White, in his introduction to his edition of the journal, congratulates Dowsing for destroying pagan imagery, and also for destroying images of the Holy Trinity. Actually Dowsing was rather careless here, since John Blatchly and Mortlock report that he missed the head in the porch and Marian monograms elsewhere.

Inevitably in a church of this scale, the quality of the later glass is variable. The Ward & Hughes and Powell & Sons workshops are not at their best here, but there is an excellent window in the north aisle by FC Eden depicting the crucifixion flanked by St John and the Blessed Virgin, the whole piece flanked by St Michael and St George. Splendid angels weep in grief on either side of the cross, and the sun and the moon familiar from the east window are replicated here. In the highest light sits God the Father with the dove of the Holy Spirit, creating a Trinity group with the crucified Son below. I wonder what Dowsing would have made of that. Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot of the cross. Perhaps Eden was interpreting what might once have been in the east window.

St Michael (FC Eden) Crucified (FC Eden) St George (FC Eden)
Crucifixion (FC Eden) God in heaven (FC Eden) Mary Magdalene (FC Eden)

The high side chapel extends southwards from the south aisle, a part of the same structure as the porch. It was probably a chantry chapel for the gild of St John the Baptist. In more recent times, it was converted to the needs of the preaching-house the church had become, by the addition of a gallery. Other features of interest to the church visitor include the remains of a parclose screen to a chantry chapel in the south aisle, a beer jug similar to the ones at Hadleigh and Hinderclay, and a surviving section of the roodscreen in front of the organ. There a fine brass eagle lectern, so beloved of, and copied by, the Victorians. There's another one at nearby Cavendish.

As in any large village which knew prosperity in the 18th and 19th Centuries, there are a number of interesting memorials to the rising middle classes. Walter Gunton was the Founder, Vice-President and Treasurer of the Commercial Travellers' Benevolent Institution. Further along the wall, Benjamin Pratt was master of the free school and vestry clerk of this parish.

Outside in the neat churchyard, which is sliced in two by the length of the church so that you have to go out onto the road or through the church to get from one part to the other, John Jarvis was late carrier of this parish, hardly a recommendation to business one would have thought. At the foot of the tower is Dorothy Reynolds Ray, who died in 1824 after an illness of only three days, leaving ten children. She was 45 years old. As if this were not bleak testament enough, her memorial reminds us Be ye ALSO ready, for ye know not the hour.

  skull and cobwebs

Simon Knott, November 2012


looking west south doorway looking east looking east
font north aisle chapel Georgian stalls
Blessed Virgin and Child (Ward & Hughes) master of the free school Commercial Travellers' Benevolent Institution Mothers Union angel (Powell & Sons)
dead important royal arms this window is dedicated Faith, Hope and Charity
no one can be recalled by tears war memorial churchwardens

late carrier dead important died after an illness of only three days leaving ten children go about your business

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