St Peter, Culford Heath
I first heard about this church from Robin Lee, an enthusiast of ruined East Anglian churches. We had compared notes, and I had pointed him in the direction of Little Livermere, a magnificent derelict pile about two miles from here. Unfortunately, my directions were not clear; when he asked someone where the church was, he was directed here instead.
That this church is not as visually exciting as Little Livermere church may mean that he was short-changed. But not me; for here, on the edge of the King's Forest, and not a mile from the main Bury to Thetford road, stands a church that I did not know about. It is not listed in Cautley, Mortlock or Birch, nor any other guide to Suffolk churches I had come across. At first, I was working in the dark, with no giants' shoulders to stand upon. But with a little bit of detective work, St Peter began to give up its secrets.
Straight out of Hansel and Gretel, St Peter huddles at the edge of the King's Forest.
St Peter is marked on the OS map for this area, but the little cross merges into a forest trail, and you would not notice it unless you looked for it. You approach it via a dirt track from the Bury to Thetford road, just off to the left about a mile north of Ingham, just beyond the right turn to Little Livermere. The land here is flat and open, rather bleak in the winter light, and the dark line of the forest broods beyond you. You pass a cottage called 'Railway Halt', a reminder that you are about to cross the path of the now-vanished Bury to Thetford railway line.
|The style is early
Decorated, with Early English details, a style I
understand is called Transitional. This style was popular
with Victorian architects in the middle years of the 19th
century, and Suffolk has several examples. The church
sits in a tiny churchyard, surrounded by a ditch. I
counted six graves, mostly from the 1870s and 1880s, but
one as recent as 1955. Beside and beyond it is an
abandoned cottage, of which more in a moment.
"The church of St Peter IS NOT redundant and is still the House of God and stands on Consecrated Ground." No keyholder, but I presume that the Health and Safety Executive would have something to say about public access.
|The door is locked, of
course, with a hefty padlock on a strengthened bolt. But,
peeping through the keyhole, I could make out a vase of
flowers on a wooden altar at the east end. So, someone
still cares about this place. A reredos
of medallions and squares is behind it, reminding me of
that at the similarly abandoned church of Stratford
St Andrew. Pine
benches fill the nave. A mock Norman font
sits at the west end, and huddled near it are bags of
cement; although whether this is mere storage, or someone
intends some emergency repairs, I do not know.
The east window is in the style of three lancets with ogee arches, headed by decorative trefoils, all set within a wider arch. The knapped flint band arches over the window in a sequence of rectangles interspersed with stone. Below the window, five trefoiled squares are picked out in stone and flint. It wasn't possible for me to work out the subjects of the glass; an early morning visit on a sunny day might do the trick. A vestry sits on the south side; it has a chimney, but no door.
|Examining the graves,
which are all in fairly good condition, although clearly
untended for many years, I found the names were all
different; two of them have several members of the same
family. Names include a Fureman (1871), Brasnell, (a
fenced-in tombchest of 1867) and Careless (1912). The
1955 grave is to members of the Pattle family.
The most poignant is that to the north-west, which reads: In Memory of Joseph Cocksedge, upwards of 22 years the faithful servant of Thomas Meverick of Melville Farm, who was accidentally killed July 20th 1878, in his 38th year. Boast not thyself of tomorrow, for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth. One wonders what happened - a farm accident, perhaps?
The decorative east end - another clue to the architect?
The windows are renewed, probably 1960s. But could this be the original mission church?
|To the north of the
church stands the derelict cottage; on closer inspection,
it is two buildings joined together. The eastern half
(pictured) has rendered walls, and a plaque at the far
end reads Reverend Benyon 1840. The western half
is of yellow brick, and a plaque reads Erected by the
Reverend Benyon 1881.
The house has been lived in during these last twenty years; although the windows are all smashed, they are DIY double-glazed, and the wallpaper inside includes, incongruously, Dennis the Menace and James Bond as its subjects.
|Today, in the wind that whips across the open fields, it is a ghostly place. The doors hang off their hinges, their occasional bangs disturbing the silence of the forest. What was this building? It is safe to say, I think, that it was not intended to be lived in. The 1840 date seemed to me to be earlier than the date of the church. Why was the building extended in 1881? Why was the church built beside it? What happened here?|
|To understand the
story of St Peter, we need to turn our eyes three miles
to the south, and the grand pile of Culford Hall, home of the Earls of
In the 1840s, the Earl was one Edward Richard Benyon, who was also, fortuitously, the Vicar of St Mary, Culford.
In 1841, in the first fires of the Anglican revivial sparked by the Oxford Movement, he opened a chapel of ease to his church at Culford for his workers on this remote corner of the estate.
It was only a small hall, and survives today as the west end of the derelict cottage beside St Peter.
In the late 1850s, Benyon had St Mary at Culford completely rebuilt, by the little known architect William Harbershon.
Flushed with the success of this rebuilding, he had his new chapel of ease at Culford Heath designed by the great Arthur Blomfield. Blomfield is more familiar in Suffolk for his red-brick tractarian churches, most famously St John the Baptist at Felixstowe, immortalised by Sir John Betjeman; but also St John the Baptist, Ipswich. However, these were to come at the turn of the century. Forty years before, the young Blomfield was working in an early Decorated idiom, and the distinctive unknapped flint walls are plaintively Victorian rustic.
Ivy clambers the walls, curling into the lead and leaning inwards. Soon, it will break through, filling the nave with vegetation, and returning this building to nature.
|All the work at St
Mary was carried out by workers from the Culford estate,
using mainly local materials. Although St Peter is built
in a slightly different style to St Mary, and to the
designs of a more prominent architect, it was built by
the same workers.
About 50 yards from St Peter stand some cottages. We may presume, as is so often the case in Suffolk, that a hundred years ago there were more. There was also a railway halt near here. An ideal and typical place, therefore, for a young, energetic (and fabulously rich) clergyman to set up a mission church in the 1840s. At the time of the rebuilding of St Mary and St Peter, the little mission church became a village school, to be extended by a now aged Reverend Benyon in the 1880s. It survived as a school until 1945, when the remaining children were put on the train to Ingham school each day at the now vanished railway halt, a few hundred yards north of the church. I doubt that any children at all live in this settlement today.
The 1860s was a tremendous age of faith, and we shall not see its like again - at least, not in our lifetimes. So, it was inevitable that St Peter's church should be made the subject of a redundancy order in 1976, one of the first in Suffolk. So, I am afraid that the sign on the west door isn't true, except in a wider sense.
I tried to follow the trail of St Peter. I found the SAVE survey of 1980, which said that it was sold to a group of local Catholics. Now, my contacts with the Catholic diocese are rather stronger than with the Anglican one; but so far, I've found no one who can shed any light. My suspicions turned to Hengrave Hall, which is just 5 miles to the south. Could there have been some connection with the Ecumenical Centre there? Churches declared redundant in the 1970s were demolished within three years, unless an alternative use was found, or a historical preservation order was placed upon them. In Suffolk, this happened to two churches in Lowestoft, and would certainly have happened here at Culford Heath too.
As a Victorian church, St Peter is a grade II listed building (the architect, in my opinion, should force this to grade I).The 2000 Register of Listed Buildings At Risk in Suffolk records St Peter as being in a poor condition, due to lack of maintenance; it points out that the chimney above the vestry has lost its upper courses, and a considerable number of rooftiles are missing. It fails to mention the former spire - perhaps the planning officer didn't know about it? The owner is shown as being a Mrs D Kwasny, of Camberwell, in London. Intriguingly, the church is shown as currently being under offer of sale to the Suffolk Architectural Heritage Trust Ltd, an organisation I've not come across before. The local planning office at Bury is suggesting residential or domestic use.
And then, the real treasure. Most poignantly, I recently came across a collection of photographs in a book called The Culford Estate, published by the Lavenham Press in 1993, edited by local historian Clive Paine, and the fruits of a three year local history course by Cambridge University extra-mural studies department. These include a photograph of the church on the day it was dedicated in 1865, a photograph of the 1840 church-cum-school after it was converted to a house in 1968, and, most amazingly of all, a 1935 photograph of the school children, including several with surnames found on the surviving graves. These photographs, which are not copyright of this site, can be seen here. But I cannot resist placing the photograph of the children here as well.