At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Earl Stonham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Earl Stonham

Earl Stonham Earl Stonham

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The Stonhams are a group of three parishes to the north of Needham Market along the Stowmarket to Yoxford road. The speed trap at the crossroads where this crosses the A120 through Stonham Parva seems to have caught just about everyone who uses that road regularly - just think of how many points it has put on East Anglian driving licences! But there are two other Stonhams. Stonham Aspal is further up the A1120 towards Framlingham, and is home to the famous Stonham Barns. But the least known of the three is Earl Stonham, despite the fact that it has one of the most interesting parish churches in the middle part of the county.

St Mary is that rare thing in East Anglia, a grand cruciform church with a clerestory but no aisles and a 15th century west tower, resting sedately in the middle of a large graveyard. It is such a handsome building that the grey cement rendering on the lower part of the nave seems unfortunate. As you walk up the long path towards the church, the overwhelming impression is of the beautiful clerestory above it picked out with flint flushwork. The great west door is original, its intricate patternwork weathered by the centuries. But you enter through the south door, via a simple porch.

You step into a long, narrow interior which can seem a bit gloomy on a dull day, but well cared for and neat and tidy. Still, with the lack of aisles, and the way that the clerestory makes the nave lighter above our heads than at eye level, the impulse is to look up, and see one of the best double hammerbeam roofs in East Anglia, and indeed in all England. It was once thought that the rich red colour was a result of it being made of chestnut, but in fact this roof is oak. The intricate carvings are warm and glorious. Alternate hammerbeams are false ones, for decoration, and these are the ones with the pendant pineapple decorations. Angels flank the wall plates, symbols and green men look down leeringly, while above them animals sport in the foliage of the spandrels.

Earl Stonham 15th Century roof
angels angel holding chalice and host angels
angel nave roof roof pendant

The font sits grandly now that the space around it has been cleared. It is a slightly battered twin to that at nearby Creeting St Peter, and perhaps the recutting of the font there was based on this one. From here, the eye is led towards the crossing. Ahead, the chancel is slighter than the two transepts and Victorian in character, appearing to float, full of colour and light, above the nave.

Above the chancel arch are the remains of a doom painting. It shows the Last Judgement, with souls being measured, and then sent south to Hell or north to Heaven. The middle part of the painting is almost empty, suggesting that the rood went up this high. It would have been lit by the small quatrefoil window near the roof of the north transept, which now contains what appears to be a panel of continental glass depicting a cockerel and a crown of thorns, presumably once part of an Instruments of the Passion sequence.

On the west wall of the south transept is a painting, a scene from St George and the Dragon. It is unfortunately cut off by the organ, making it difficult to photograph, but the king standing on his castle tower to watch the saint defeat the dragon is very clear. Opposite, until the 1930s, it was still possible to discern what appeared to be the martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury. This is a rare subject in East Anglia. Another wall painting, in the south transept, showed the Nativity, and was probably part of a sequence like that at North Cove or Wissington. It has been whitewashed again, but a modern transcript of an 1870s copy is on display.

There are also medieval benches, and one opposite the door bears a dedicatory inscription: Orate pro [anima] Necolai Houk ('Pray for [the soul of] Nicolas Hook'). The pulpit here has a series of three egg-timers behind it, with which an 18th century preacher could keep tabs on the length of his sermon. Simon Jenkins says that they were intended to make sure he didn't cut it short, rather than to stop him going on too long. They time a quarter, half and three-quarters of an hour. Stepping up into the chancel, There's some good 19th century carving, but some medieval carvings too, four stall ends including a bagpiper, rather different from the same thing at Honington. The others are very damaged, but appear to be a woodcutter with an axe, a woodwose and a devil. All of them have had their faces slided off, presumably in the 1540s.

bagpiper (15th Century) woodman with an axe (15th Century) devil (15th Century) woodwose (15th Century)

Back in 2000, when most churches had the pleasant luxury of deciding what their Millennium project should be, the parish here had rather more pressing concerns. The bell tower was beginning to separate from the back of the church, and so drastic renovation work was needed to both the tower and the bells themselves. As part of this project, the ringing chamber was lowered to be in full view of the congregation, a kitchen and toilet were added to the vestry area, and the medieval pews were moved to the north transept before the war memorial chapel to create a quiet area for contemplation.

Today, St Mary is an utterly lovely church which, despite its size, has a homely feel. Beneath the great roof, the light falls through ancient window tracery onto simple, devotional fittings. The deep silence of the wide graveyard fills the interior, a space which it is always a pleasure to visit, and to explore, and to just sit and be still in the presence of something beyond our everyday material existence.

Simon Knott, November 2019

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font, looking east looking east nave poppyheads
A king watches St George defeat the dragon south transept chancel south transept
font chancel arch doom painting quatrefoil rood light with continental glass of a cockerel and a crown of thorns


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