At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Andrew, Darmsden

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Darmsden Darmsden Darmsden
2007: Darmsden Darmsden all in a row

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      Darmsden is a curious place. It is one of those pretty villages in the rolling, wooded hills above the industrial end of the Gipping Valley. However, unlike the others it is a private estate village. Technically, there are no public roads leading to it, but the lane from the B1113 is marked as a private road and public footpath, and although gated in several places is generally left open to all, including visitors to the church. Alternatively there is a marked footpath from Needham Market, starting above the Lion pub, which takes you north of the quarry and out into the wide fields between there and Barking. The church sits above the houses with splendid views in all directions. Although the church is entirely of the 19th Century, it was built on the site of its predecessor, and this is interesting. Suffolk's parish churches were often built in the river valleys, but here at Darmsden and neighbouring Barking, Baylham, Willisham, Nettlestead and Flowton they are at the highest points in their parishes, suggestive of ancient, even pre-Christian holy sites.

The church was built in 1880. The architect was Herbert Green, surveyor for the Diocese of Norwich, and there is a near identical church by him not far off at Willisham, an off-the-shelf design in an Early-English-becoming-Decorated style that was thought eminently suitable for small parish churches. Green's also are all the furnishings, and nothing survives of Darmsden's medieval predecessor. You enter through the south porch, and it is worth saying that this church is always open, for a reason that we will come to in a moment. The interior is rustic and charming. The only coloured glass is in the pale quarries. The font is a Norman-style tub with a cross on it. Green was a great fan of the Norman style, but apart from the font it does not intrude here. The furnishings are plain, seeming almost shoehorned into this small space. They look to a wooden reredos carved with Christ as the Good Shepherd flanked by St Peter and St Andrew. Bearing in mind that sheep farming was a mainstay around here during the agricultural depression in the 1880s, it is easy to imagine the power of this image to the agricultural labourers who sat on these benches when they were new.

It feels as if not much has changed here since Green's rebuilding. This still feels the church of the blacksmith and the ploughboy, the farrier and the shepherd. This must be put down to the love and care of the people of Darmsden, who have kept their little church the way they want it. That they have been able to do this is an irony, for in the 1970s this was one of a dozen or so churches declared redundant and sold off for domestic use by the diocese. Like most 19th Century churches at that time, it was not considered worth saving, and there was a condition that if a new owner could not be found within three years, it would be demolished. This in fact happened to two churches in Lowestoft. However, this little community was very determined. They got together and formed the Friends of St Andrew. They raised a large sum of money, and bought the building off the diocese. The Friends then promptly re-opened St Andrew as a church again. Half a century on, they still maintain regular non-denominational services, and keep the church open all the time for the pilgrims and strangers who wander the lonely footpaths and tracks that thread across these hills.


Simon Knott, February 2023

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looking east looking west
font reredos candles

'Now the labourer's task is o'er', 1889 'Twas better he should leave us, than linger on in pain', 1898 'A light is from the household gone', 1885 Samuel Haggar (Swan Hotel Needham Market), 1863


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