At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Felsham

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


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Felsham's grand porch.

Into the porch.

The heavily restored south side.

Looking east.

The sanctuary.

Insipid reredos.

Looking west.

Royal Arms

The knitted Last Supper.

A memory of the dead.

Elegant early 19th century tomb to the south.

Board of Honour across the road in the pub.


Felsham: not such a bimbo after all.

Back in 1998, when I first visited this church, I described it as a bimbo of a building; all sugar and sweetness on the outside but with no redeeming features inside. This didn't go down terribly well with local people, I can tell you. It has taken me a long time to get back to Felsham to revise my opinion, but I took the previous entry down anyway.

Not least, because the word 'bimbo' now has an archaic air, and has all but disappeared from the language. Back then, it was applied to those empty-headed actresses who had made it on looks rather than talent. But the old order dies away, and with it just about anyone famous who is remotely interesting. There is no longer a contrast between the bimbos and the rest. In these days of Now! and Hello! magazines, when the new order of pop stars are remarked upon for their manicures rather than their music, when it is more important to know which celebrities are sleeping with each other than if they have any taste or imagination, when the vacuous Posh and Becks have become the new royal family, when a lack of something to say is no longer considered a barrier to a presence in the public eye and an entire generation gets its understanding of interpersonal behaviour from Friends and Sex and the City, it is harsh to single out anyone as being more vapid, clueless and lacking in style than the rest. Sic transit gloria mundi.

At worst, the interior of Felsham church is an example of middle-brow Victorian kitsch, and it is the contrast with the elegant and determined 15th century exterior which is striking. So this time I started outside the graveyard, across the road in the pub, looking across the village high street at that awesome bulk. We had cycled down from Woolpit, and in truth it was a little early to stop for a rest, but the pub looked welcoming, and we were both in a holiday mood. My travelling companion was not particularly interested in churches, but it was a warm spring day and so she brought the book she was reading across to the graveyard and stretched out in the sunshine as I pottered about.

St Peter's most remarkable external feature is that awesome north porch. It seems too magnificent for the building behind it, with chequered flushwork and hearty front buttresses funnelling you into a tunnel-like space punctuated by matching arches. Here are the boards of honour, detailing everyone from the twin parish (there is another church at Gedding) that fought in WWI. The same names are also displayed in the village pub.

You step inside to an insipid restoration. Everything was removed, the building scoured, and fitted out hesitantly in the transitional style of the late 19th century. Maybe it would have worked better in a smaller building. Looking east, the eye is inexorably drawn to a dull painting behind the altar of Christ giving St Peter his orders. The glass above is also not good, and it is generally not an inspiring view - it hardly makes you want to sink to your knees in awe, or fills you with a sense of the numinous.

The space at the west end of the church has been cleared, and there are plans to carpet the entire building as at Fressingfield. I think this will be a good thing, and will make it a warmer place, but it would be even better if the parish could also replace the benches with chairs, and perhaps refurbish the chancel, maybe in the style of Chevington.

At the back of the benches stands a funeral bier, and on this Easter Monday 2004 I found, arranged along it, a knitted Last Supper. I kid you not. Each of the disciples was a knitted doll in first century Palestinian garb, seated at a table with knitted bread, knitted wine, knitted grapes and so on. You can see an image in the left hand column. The whole effect was rather startling, not to say disturbing, as if Leonardo da Vinci had been brought back to life and given a commission by The Peoples Friend.

I decided that my young companion had to see this. I went outside and found her draped attractively along the bench in the sunshine, engrossed in a modern novel. "I've found something extraordinary, come and see", I said. She looked over the top of the book at me; her face a mixture of tolerance and disbelief. "No, honestly" I said, "you must come and see it, it's a knitted Last Supper."

We stepped out of the heat of the day, into the cool of the church. Like most of the generation after mine, like any younger generation, I could not expect her to think that the need to explore medieval churches was the compulsion of a sane man. She is of an age that has not had the benefit of a classical education or formative exposure to black and white television; she has none of the deeply bred stoicism we gained from waiting for buses and trains in an age of nationalised transport. For her, awe and wonder are something that happens at the Clarins counter, not in an English medieval church.

Almost at once, she spotted the font. "That font's really interesting", she said, "I thought you said there was nothing interesting in this church?"

I followed her gaze. "Well, it is very pretty", I said. "I wouldn't go as far as to call it interesting."

"But look at the base", she persisted. "Look. It's another font. Or part of a font. They've used the top part of another font as the base for this one. Fourteenth century, I should think."

And she was right. In my enthusiasm to moan about Felsham, I had missed something quite extraordinary. The panels on the side of the base were carved in reliefs of green men, fish, a cleric, a serpent perhaps. Only the top two thirds of each panel appeared to be visible, although I have no idea if the rest is sunk into the ground or if it was chopped off. The 14th century bowl has been filled in, and the 15th century font set on top. I have no idea if it happened at the 19th century restoration or was a construction by the medieval rebuilders, but I was excited and interested to see it, and slightly shame-faced that I hadn't seen it before.

Ho hum.

The font - interesting after all.
NE: fish, N: green man E: Cleric, NE: fish
N: green man S: green man, SE: sea creature


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