At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Nicholas chapel, Gipping

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Gipping Gipping Gipping Gipping north transept doorway north side Tyrrell knot transept window flushwork north transept doorway north transept IHC Tyrrell knot shield

Eagle of St John (detail)   2009: Just as I finished visiting all the medieval churches of Suffolk in 2003, decent digital cameras became cheap enough for me to afford one - or, at least, not to put too big a dent in my overdraft - and so I went out and bought a Fuji S5000. This was, of course, too late for Suffolk. Instead, I went off to explore Norfolk, but by the summer of 2007, when I had got about 700 churches around Norfolk, I decided that it was time to start exploring Suffolk again. By now, I had an S9000, and there was simply no comparison with the dismal, blurred old photographs of the first Suffolk site entries. I took about eighty of the entries down, but I really meant to redo the lot, eventually.

Back in 2003, Tom Muckley had nagged me constantly about going to Gipping. Tom, an enthusiast of East Anglian churches living in Hampshire, was far better than me at seeing both the strengths and weaknesses of the Suffolk site. It was he, when my energy and enthusiasm were flagging in the spring of 2001, who had first contacted me with convincing threats of his own mortality, something along the lines of if you don't get on with this, I'm not going to be alive to see you finish it! As it turned out, Gipping was one of the very last Suffolk churches which I visited. And when Suffolk was complete, Tom, of course, was not satisfied. He bullied and cajoled me into finally agreeing on a great adventure - visiting every Anglican and Catholic church in Norfolk.

What with medieval ones, and Victorian ones, and modern ones, and ruins, and places where churches had once been, and even a sprinkling of non-conformist ones, we came up with a total of about a thousand Norfolk churches, with which Tom seemed satisfied. And so it was, in the summer of 2004, that the Great Norfolk Adventure began. It still continues - I estimate I'm about three-quarters of the way through, although I must confess that many of those left to do are distant from each other, each an island in a sea of already-visited churches.

But coming back to Suffolk, I had the privilege of being able to decide exactly where I'd like to go back first. There's no great hurry this time. Inevitably, it was churches with medieval glass that enthused me, and I went around Suffolk with the satisfying task of putting right what I knew I had not done well before. But Tom noticed one great omission. When on earth was I going to get off my backside and revisit Gipping? The threats of mortality were brought to bear, and in reality Tom knew what he was talking about. Around the turn of the Millennium, he had been given six months to live, which, as he pointed out to me, concentrates the mind wonderfully. Here we were, almost ten years on, and Tom had the satisfaction of knowing that his threats were real, but that he was successfully reaping the harvest he was sowing.

I came back to Gipping in March 2009. I had plans to meet up with Tom in Norfolk a couple of weeks later, but on this bright early spring day I cycled out of Stowmarket up the Old Newton road, and then off into the countryside. I hadn't told him I was planning to pass this way. I found the beautiful church open - I won't go into details, you can read the original 2003 entry below - and took photographs of those wonderful windows in digital, at last, at last.

I hurried home. I don't usually unpack the photographs I have taken straight away, but I really wanted Tom to see these Gipping windows, and so I downloaded them off the camera and sent them that evening over to Hampshire. Well, he went into raptures. Tom's expertise in all areas of the medieval never failed to impress me, but he was always the most passionate about glass. He knew well how enthusiasm, when it is bolstered with love and knowledge, can be one of the most satisfying of emotions.

The following afternoon, he sent me a brief e-mail postponing the Norfolk visit, because he was being rushed into hospital to have abdominal pains investigated. And there it was that he died, two days later, on Tuesday the 24th of March 2009. The last words of his final e-mail to me, expressing disappointment that he wouldn't be making it, were Damn! Damn! Damn!

I was glad that he had seen those photos.

2003: Just when I think I’ve seen it all, Suffolk surprises me. Out of all the county’s churches, this was the one that people most often wrote to me about, urging me to go and visit it. There are very few churches in the county that don’t have an entry on this site now, but I identified a skein of them, stretching from the northern outskirts of Ipswich out to Diss, where I could catch a train back to Ipswich. Gipping wasn’t one of them, but things didn’t quite go according to plan.

It was a gloomy day as I cycled out along the Henley road, the low clouds glowering over the damp air. A puncture at Coddenham didn’t help matters much, and once the enthusiasm of the churchwarden at Pettaugh had detained me for longer than I’d planned, a thin continual drizzle was penetrating my clothes, hair and face with its icy fingers. This made my photographs of the wrecked church at Mickfield more atmospheric, but it also loosened all the mud on the road left by the ploughing of the previous week. My bike wheels threw it up around me; I reassured myself that Mendlesham would be open, as it always is, since I was now in such a state that I was sure no keyholder would grant me access, looking as I did like a tramp who might make up a bed on the altar.

There was another thing too – I had found the climb out of Stonham Aspal a hard one, and I knew that it wasn’t the bike’s fault. There was the beginning of a dull ache in my head, and a burning in my throat. My chest felt like someone was standing on it. In fact, it was the start of the flu that would keep me in bed for the next four days. After Mendlesham, I had planned to head north, for Finningham, Westhorpe and all points to Diss, but as I stood in the high street holding my bike, I knew I wasn’t well enough.

I decided to head south-west to Stowmarket, through the threads of lanes that wind around the Gipping valley. I could catch a train there. And so it was that I came within a shout of St Nicholas Chapel, and could not resist it.

You’ll notice that St Nicholas is styled a chapel. This is because it is not a parish church, and never has been. The history of England’s medieval parish churches is complex enough, but suffice to say that they were built as Catholic parish churches before the Reformation, and translated directly into the new Church of England in the middle years of the 16th century. The imagery, style and iconography of St Nicholas will clearly demonstrate it to be pre-Reformation, but it was actually the private chapel of a Big House, Gipping Hall, home of the Tyrrells.

Gipping Hall once stood immediately to the east of the St Nicholas chapel, but it was demolished in the 1850s, and all that remains today is the wide pond, and a couple of outbuildings. You approach the tiny village along the narrow road to Old Newton, and then turn off along a farm track for about 100 metres. Not far from here, a spring rises, and the parish shares its name with the river that it makes. Two lovely farmhouses stand to the left of the track, but already your eyes and breath will be caught by the stunning building to their right.

It is like a finely-crafted jewel. Forget the glum little tower at the west end – this was an unfortunate addition of the 17th century, presumably by a Tyrrell of the time. The rest is a superb example of late Perpendicular architecture; the flint-becrusted walls soar to heaven, and great expanses of glass shimmer in the late afternoon light. Once, the windows were full of stained glass images of Saints, but they were all destroyed, probably by 17th century puritans. Not the iconoclast William Dowsing, who never came here; but he was vicious in his treatment of the Tyrrell chapel at Stowmarket, and the fact that he never came here suggests that he knew it had already been dealt with. At the time, it was still a private chapel (although he investigated these elsewhere) and the Tyrrells were still tainted by their recusancy, so it is a mystery.

Because the windows are so vast, there is a kind of greenhouse effect; from the outside, you can see right through the building, and within can be lighter than outside. I wandered around. The flintwork is superb; the buttresses are punctuated with the iconography of the Tyrrell family, some of which has still not been certainly decoded. Most notable is the Tyrrell knot, a three-bowed interlacing that looks like the kind of thing I used to make with my spirograph set when I was little. There is the interlocking heart of the Arundell family, into which the Tyrrells married, and the letters AMLA, almost certainly Ave Maria, Laetare, Alleluia! ('Hail Mary, rejoice, alleluia!') from the May anthem. Also on the north side is the extraordinary chaplain's quarters, like a 15th century house red brick grafted on. Above the door is written Pray for Sir Jamys Tirrell. Dame Anne his wyf. It was in 1743 that St Nicholas became a public chapel, and an outstation within Old Newton parish.

The church is open, and it is so every day, although be aware that the south door is rather stiff. You step directly into the nave - there is no porch. If the exterior of the building speaks of late medieval glory, you will be delighted to find an interior that still retains much of its prayerbook atmosphere, from the time before the Oxford Movement resacramentalised the Church of England. The glory of the inside is the awesome east window, where surviving glass from other windows is collected. There is much to see, including fragments of Saints and their emblems; but the best are the grieving figures of St John and Mary the Mother of God, reset in their original position. The rood that once separated them has gone, but the glass between is sensitively arranged to suggest a cross. For my money, they are the best stained glass figures in Suffolk.

fragment: castle St John at the foot of the cross fragment Eagle of St John (detail) fragment fragment: dog eating a peacock Edmund Tyrrell Parson: Richard Chilton Curate 1756 fragment fragment fragment: angel musician fragment fragment: hands Blessed Virgin Blessed Virgin at the foot of the cross St John fragment: angel musician bishop Bishop king rood group

The furnishings are a simple, late 18th century affair, painted in a seemly manner in recent years. On either side of the east window are theatrical decorations, draped pillars that rise to the 15th century ceiling. They would seem curious in most medieval buildings, but in the 18th century they were common enough. The Victorians hated them, of course, and so few survive. The font is easily dismissed, but its shape, on the eve of the Reformation, already speaks of the rumblings on the continent that would flower as the Renaissance; a flowering to which the Tyrrels would have an access unusual in this county.

There are no memorials; in fact, the Tyrrells are mostly remembered at Stowmarket, three miles away, where the Parish church contains some of Suffolk's best, including some intriguing 17th century survivals. It is possible that the benches in the north-west corner, which a re decorated by the Tyrrell knot, were brought here from Stowmarket when that church was restored in the 19th century. But perhaps the most remarkable thing of all about Gipping is the sense of constant care, that there has always been a community here to look after it. It has always been a tiny one; even at the time of the 1851 census of religious observance, when churchgoing in England was at its height, the congregation here only numbered 20. The officiating minister was the headmaster of Needham Market Grammar School.

St Nicholas lifted my spirits, and I cycled off buoyed up by it, not realising that I had left my copy of Mortlock behind. Fortunately, the kind people in the house opposite rescued it for me, and looked after it until I could collect it. Fighting the rising aches in my body, I headed on down the tiny lane which follows the infant River Gipping into Stowmarket. Rooks fluttered upwards to land as I passed. For three miles, the lane wove its way along the side of the brook, crossing it once. I didn’t see a single other human being, let alone a car. I had forgotten how hilly it was around here, but the water led me onwards, cutting a path down through the woods and fields. Beyond Stowmarket, it would leave me behind to catch my train. But onwards it would flow; it would open out into the wide water meadows above Ipswich, before cutting into the industrial heart of the great town, becoming tidal, becoming the Orwell, and emptying its broad and majestic expanse into the grey North Sea.

But by then I would be too dosed with aspirin and whisky to think of it.


Simon Knott, March 2009

looking east looking east sanctuary looking west
piscina east window (lower range) two bishops and a king



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