we are on the edge of Dedham Vale, one of
Suffolk's most famous tourist areas; but Great
Wenham shares with nearby East Bergholt a sense that it is a
proper working village. Part of this comes from
the proximity to the church of council houses,
homes to the descendants of the countryside's
ploughmen, blacksmiths and farriers. That they
probably all work in shops and offices in
Colchester or Ipswich these days doesn't matter -
this isn't a retirement village, and village life
thrives because of this. Unfortunately, this
vibrancy is rarely reflected in the size of
parish church congregations, but at least the
communities are still with us.
church isn't far from its sister at Little
and externally has some similarities; but inside,
the contrast couldn't be greater. There, an
extraordinary medieval survival sits among
fields. Here, the Victorians went to work, and
made a good job of it, mostly. There is none of
the high-pitched melodrama that has dated so
badly at neighbouring Higham; this was a low-church
parish, and the white walls, clear glass and
evangelical inscriptions are the sort of thing
that many people like nowadays. The interior here
could be described as tastefully discreet.
successful, for me, is the superb west end. The
organ fits snugly into the tower archway, and
wooden panelling below it finishes it off neatly,
as if it was a rural version of a great 19th
century concert hall. You can easily imagine an
oratorio performed here. Small-scale secular
grandeur at its best: Praise God in his
Sanctuary it says above, and most Victorians
would have put this quotation from the 150th
psalm at the other end of the church, of course.
the east end, above the rational light of the
chancel window, we read Holy Holy Holy Lord
God Almighty. Victorian woodwork abounds;
and the font was also replaced, in common with
those in several other churches around here. The
Victorians enthusiastically rolled up the sleeve
on the muscular arm of their Christianity here,
and it's all good stuff; but you have to step
outside to remind yourself that you are actually
inside a medieval building, and not some mid-19th
century chapel. There's nothing surviving from
Catholic England to be seen inside.
almost nothing. For up in the sanctuary are some
medieval tiles, rare enough in Suffolk, and
almost certainly reset here from elsewhere. But
then, the parishioners here have a long history
of protestant simplicity; when William Dowsing came this way on the
morning of February 3rd, 1644, he found nothing
to offend his puritan sensibility. Probably, the
parish was under the influence of the Vicar of
East Bergholt, who was so famously an
enthusiastic cleanser of idolatrous imagery from
his own church that, despite living only a couple
of miles away, Dowsing saw no reason to visit it.
17th century curiosity is set high up in the
north wall. A modern wooden plaque bears a
helmet, crest and sword. Probably, the helmet
once hung above a memorial. Mortlock thought that they belonged to the
East family, who were local puritan land-owners
at the time.
I visited this church on the day of the 2002
Suffolk Historic Churches Bike Ride, I found a
vast array of specially baked cakes set out to
welcome visitors - indeed, this was one of the
most hospitable churches of the fifty or so I
visited that day. I'm afraid that this is no
longer the case, for this is one of the very few
churches in this area of south Suffolk and north
Essex which is now kept locked without a
keyholder notice. I discovered this when I
skidded to a halt on my bike outside the
churchyard gate on one of those freezing, gloomy
days in February 2013. As
I pushed the gate open, a huge Jag pulled up
behind me, and an extremely posh old lady wound
down her window. "Can I help you?" she
intoned, in a cut glass accent. Unfortunately,
thanks to the cold I was trying to shake off, it
took me three attempts to work out what she was
saying. Perhaps the catarrh contributed to my
obtuseness, because I could only think to reply
"In what sense?"
was nothing if not patient with me. "I can
see that you are going up to the church,"
she persisted. "Why?"
I'm hoping to find it open," I said, with
perhaps a hint of pleading.
But it was
wishful thinking. She looked at me sternly.
"Well, it's not," she told me. Ah.
asked her if she had any idea where I
might find a key. She told me that the
lady at the council house on the corner
had one, and she was working in her
garden. I thanked her, and she drove off.
I went up to the church to photograph the
exterior, and after a few minutes caught
sight of her again, parked on the other
side of the churchyard, watching me. But
by the time I went for the key, she'd
gone. Well, I couldn't work out which
house she meant, and no one was working
in a garden. There was nothing to be
done. So, shaking the dust of Great
Wenham from my feet, or at least the mud
from my tyres, I headed on the short
distance to Little Wenham.
Stephens' photographs of the interior,
taken in 2011 when he was lucky enough to
find someone cleaning the church, are