At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Dalham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Dalham Dalham Reverence my Sanctuary Dalham
Abraham Spencer consecration cross Affleck monument Affleck monument Hannah Goody Abraham Spencer

Affleck mourners   It was years since I had last been to Dalham. And yet, I remembered how lovely it was, and in fact it was lovelier than I remembered. Maybe it helped that it was the hottest day of the year so far, and the village street was idyllic in the dappled stillness. Beside the little river which runs its length, the Affleck Arms pub looked thoroughly inviting. A few people sat at tables beside the water, and it was all I could do to resist crossing the bridge to join them. But instead, I diverted off of the Newmarket to Clare road and headed up towards the church.

I have said elsewhere on this site that south-west Suffolk, especially along the Cambridgeshire border, is quite the loveliest part of East Anglia, but it seems little known. Dalham and Hartest should make the finals of any competition to find the region's prettiest village, but no doubt the likes of Kersey, Heydon and the other tourist hotspots would, in reality, take the honours.

And Dalham's St Mary has one of the loveliest settings of any English village church that I know. From the beehive-like 18th century malt kiln on the village street, you turn up past a couple of impossibly pretty thatched cottages, and then up and up the narrow lane, threading steeply through woods full of birdsong and bursting with life, to reach the top of the ridge, where the church sits beside the Hall, the lord of all it surveys. The view is spectacular, stretching away across the wide valley into south Cambridgeshire. In the fields below the church, lazy cattle swung their tails and regarded me curiously over the fence. I was obviously the most interesting thing which had happened to them all day.

I remembered my previous visit vividly. It was one of the first really warm days of 1999, and 'the trees were coming into leaf like something almost being said'; so I did the only thing a man can do on such a day. I cycled from Newmarket to Ipswich. On the way, I visited 24 churches, a 'slow, stopping curve' down through the underbelly of the county, with a break at Lavenham for a late lunch. Dalham was one of the first; criss-crossing the border, I encountered absurdly attractive and wealthy villages like Moulton, Gazeley, and then this one.

The Hall was home to the Rhodes family; the famous Cecil Rhodes, fanatical African empire builder and pirate, was brother to the Lord of the Manor. Their Hall is still a fine sight, and you can sense still its patronage of the church. Villagers must always have been conscious of coming 'up' the hill to the Master's church. On my first visit I do not recall any cows, but the quietness was broken by a couple of oddjob men fixing up some stonework, under the supervision of a churchwarden. I had a good look at the tower, which is curiosity. It is a 17th century rebuilding, and these are always idiosyncratic, and this one more than most. It comes from before the Commonwealth, but even so the style is rather a surprise, aping as it does the 14th/15th century Decorated to Perpendicular transitional style. This extends to flushwork on the buttresses, albeit without the usual devotional imagery. The jarring note is struck by the unusual texts along the parapet. The one facing the path reads Keep my Sabbaths, then there is Deo Trin Unum Sacrum, Reverence my Sanctuary and lastly the date, 1625. There is a Laudian piety about the whole piece, which I really liked.

Below stands the tall, striking monument to General Sir James Affleck, who died in 1833. Nine years ago, the churchwarden had told me that they were in the process of contacting current members of the family, to come to some arrangement about essential repairs. What the outcome of this was I do not know, but the monument is still there today, looking spruce and chipper. Walking around the church, you come to a very strange extension east of the north aisle. It is now roofless, but was once the Affleck mausoleum, constructed in the 18th century. In about 1900 the coffins were removed and buried, and the memorials placed in the north churchyard wall; where, not surprisingly, they have quickly become illegible.

There is much of interest inside this church. Most striking and unusual is the commemoration above the tower arch, which records the rebuilding of the tower. The font below was replaced at the same time; another suggestion of Laudian influence? Or that the fall of the former tower had destroyed the font?

Along the north arcade are some faded, but still interesting wall paintings. The most complete is of the Seven Deadly Sins, as at Hessett, and that beside it the Seven Works of Mercy, as at Hoxne. There are also traces of paintings above the chancel arch Pevsner thought it scenes from the Passion, but I think it is more likely to be a doom in the style of that at nearby Cowlinge. The two figures visible in the extremes of the gable appear to be the Blessed Virgin and St Michael.

Blessed Virgin St Michael devil and sins works of mercy

The late 19th and early 20th century glass is very good indeed, particularly the east window by the Kempe workshop. The square, open nave, with its aisles and clerestory, allows plenty of light to fill it. The roodscreen dado survives beneath the chancel arch, and is prettily painted in an arabesque style. The carvings in the spandrels are lovely - lions that look as if they might have come from a Chinese circus, a unicorn, and old lady and a bearded man in a hat stared back at me.

The name most obvious in the chancel is that of the Affleck family, who have a number of good memorials. But Sir Martin Stuteville, who paid for the rebuilding of the tower and is remembered in the inscription above the tower arch, has the best. His bust, and that of his two wives, gaze imperiousuly out, while below their children kneel and grieve impeccably.

Stuteville imperious
Stuteville mourners Stuteville mourners Stuteville mourners Stuteville mourners Stuteville mourners 

Back in 1999, I had not really appreciated what a wonderful church this is, and I knew now that it really should be in my top thirty, if I ever chose to compile a new one. I took one last look, and the wandered outside to the sunshine. Some late 18th and 19th century gravestones had fresh flowers laid in front of them. On closer inspection, they were all to members of the Spencer family. Presumably, the flowers had been placed there as a tribute by a genealogist, who had come to visit the last resting place of found ancestors. I found that curiously moving.

And so that was Dalham again. I had spent far too long here, pottering about inside and out. My plans to revisit the churches at Gazeley and Moulton before getting the train home from Kennett station were clearly now too ambitious. It was enough to head on up the steep, long hill into the forest to the west of the Hall, through suburban Gazeley and then out onto the other side of the ridge. In the haze below, I could make out the thread of the A14 and the Cambridge to Ipswich railway line. In the distance, I could see the mighty tower of Mildenhall like a sentinel among the aircraft hangers. It was fully eight miles away. From how many places in Suffolk is it possible to see so far? And at last down, down to Kentford High Street, and the brief, warm hospitality of the Cock Inn before the train back to Ipswich.   cat

Simon Knott, May 2008

looking east looking east sanctuary sanctuary tower arch looking west
Peter and John with Christ John and Peter Christ and Peter who do you say I am
war memorial Affleck Affleck Affleck
crucified angel of creation incarnation Adam and Eve
angel of creation angel north aisle Our Father west window
Peter, John and Christ suffer the children organ Affleck Mary at the Annunciation 
altar royal arms Honor of God stop
rood screen dado east window lion and dragon unicorn and bearded man
chinese circus lions old woman and bearded man old woman wild man in a hat


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