At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Cratfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

 

www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

 


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A fine tower, thanks to those sneaky churchwardens, bless 'em

West doorway, no longer in use.

Looking east - mostly Phipson beyond...

Looking west, to the font and the screen.

Continental glass of the late 18th century.

Curious - the memorial appears to use the aumbry of 300 years earlier.

 

Cratfield: treasures recollected in tranquillity

What a quiet village this is! There can be few Suffolk villages more remote from towns and dual-carriageways. And Cratfield is not just remote from towns; it seems far from other villages as well. To arrive here on the winding road from Metfield is to have crossed the windy sugar-beet plain, its hedgerows all denuded, with Laxfield's mighty tower forever on the horizon. On another occasion I have come by car from Laxfield, on a road so narrow we wondered what would happen if we met another vehicle; but we never did. Some surprise, then, to find the road descending into a green valley, and this pretty church in its bosky glade.

The most striking thing at first sight are what must be the county's best preserved wild man and wyvern. There is something similar, although rather eroded, at nearby Badingham, and almost as good on the porch of the otherwise entirely rebuilt church at Peasenhall. But the wild man with his club and shield here seems more intent and dangerous than the wyvern. You can see them below.

One of the county's best wild men. And one of the best dragons.

The church is not large, but rather elaborate; however, it is rather more interesting than some of its compatriots because it retains much Decorated detail, and we know that the castellation on the tower happened during the turmoil of the Reformation; Cratfield has one of the most complete sets of vestry minutes in England, and they tell us that, when the gloves came off in 1547 under Edward VI, the parish sold all its silver rather than let it fall into government hands. They spent the proceeds on decorating the tower, for which they are to be commended and remembered.

My two visits here were nearly five years apart, and during that time there appears to have been considerable damage to the west window and the window at the west end of the south aisle. I'm assuming that it is storm damage of some kind, as it is rather hard to imagine vandalism in such an out of the way place. Also, vandalism kills the will of parishes to remain open; and I did not find this church locked.

A tour of the outside will tell you straight away that the hand of the Victorians fell heavily here. If you have explored the churches of the Waveney Valley or the Stowmarket area to any extent, you may be depressed to learn that this one also fell victim to diocesan architect Richard Phipson in the late 1870s; however, I think this is one of his best, from his 'see, even I can do it if I really try' phase.

The Victorians in general, and even mediocre architects like Phipson in particular, should not be blamed too much for what they did. In places like Suffolk, many of the churches were derelict by the early 19th century. It is not clear that Cratfield retained anything we would be amazed by beyond the one thing that it does - and that may not have survived at all if it were not for the Victorians.

For what we find in this church is one of the most staggering medieval art objects in the county; the glorious seven-sacrament font. Cautley thought it the finest, and it is certainly the most intricate and delicate. Myself, I prefer Westhall for its mystery, and Badingham for its sheer charm. But both these are rather primitive, compared with the sophistication of this one. The intricacy can be matched by the font at Little Walsingham in Norfolk; but there, the reliefs were cracked and calcified by the terrible fire of 1961. Here, these are remarkable survivals. Sadly, two of the panels have been entirely destroyed, presumably by the Anglican reformers of the 1540s and 1550s, but the rest, once made flush with a hammer, spent several centuries behind plaster. Not only have six of the designs survived in something like their original integrity, but they even retain large traces of colour.

The setting of the font is quite different from that of nearby Laxfield, where the bowl sits on a stubby stem at the centre of a great cross. Here, the bowl and stem are slender, like an opening flower. The pedestal seems almost too large.

The shaft is home to eight seated figures, evangelists and apostles all, interspersed with symbols of the evangelists. Above the supporting angels, more figures stand at the corners, including Suffolk favourites St Dorothy and St Edmund.

The south-eastern panel shows the crucifixion. Then in a clockwise direction, we find baptism, confirmation, a blank, a blank, ordination, marriage, last rites. The blanks are Mass and Confession, perhaps a sign of early Anglican anger. The odd-panel-out is often eastward or westward, so possibly this font has been moved at some time, probably by Phipson. Since mass and confession have both been completely destroyed, this font doesn't have the harmony of some others despite its delicacy. However, the font and its six surviving panels are below; hover on them to read, and click to enlarge them.

Elegant, beautiful
Baptism Confirmation Crucifixion
Last Rites Matrimony Ordination
Awesome

Beside the font, against the west wall, is part of the screen, which Phipson placed here when engaged on his 1879 restoration. He was fresh from his triumph at St Mary le Tower in Ipswich, and turned a kindly eye to this remote outpost. As I say, it is one of his most successful restorations.

There are plenty of survivals here for you to turn an interested eye to (in the meantime, thanking Mr Phipson). The St Edmund chapel, now a vestry, the furnishings, and the rood loft stairs all still bear witness to their origins beyond the gulf of the 1540s, and this country's cultural revolution. Also of interest is the 18th century memorial to Sarah Mynne which appears to intentionally overlay a medieval aumbry; was it intended to serve as a dole cupboard of some kind? There is a fine panel of glass set in the south of the sanctuary; Mortlock thought it collected late 18th century European glass. It shows Christ carrying his cross, and was perhaps part of a series of stations from a continental monastery.

More mundanely, this church has the workings of an 18th century clock. Not as exciting as nearby Metfield's, but isn't it curious how often this happens? Almost a conscious rivalry.

All in all, a neat, bright, tidy little place. Treasures to be contemplated in tranquility - what more could one ask?

I said that the first time I ever came here, full of excitement, I had arrived on my bike from Metfield. After viewing St Mary, I headed on to Laxfield. I did not see a single other human being between leaving Metfield and arriving in Laxfield. It was like an episode of The Twilight Zone. The somnolent green valley, the birds singing in the churchyard, the cool interior of Cratfield church; for me, the qualities of peace will always be measured against these.

 

A fine, small, rural church.

 

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