At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Great Wratting

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Great Wratting

Great Wratting Great Wratting

asleep   I have a vivid memory of my first visit to St Mary back in 1998, because when I first arrived at the church early on that Summer Sunday afternoon, I wasn't even sure where I was. When I'm cycling, I use Ordnance Survey maps, one of the world's greatest inventions. Their gorgeous colours, clever symbols and fascinating information make them essential for any explorer of the English countryside; and, if there's anyone from OS reading this, then of course I'd be happy to receive free samples. But on this occasion, we were in the car, having visited Withersfield, and now trying to find our way to Kedington. Then as now, I couldn't resist an unvisited church. There was no sign at the gate, so I climbed the hill to the little church. I had Pevsner with me, but no Mortlock; in any case, it wasn't much use without a name.

The tower was bold and moody, with those flush buttresses to the east that create an impression of sheerness, softened here by the bell window and high roofline. The 19th century bell windows were Decorated, but probably were originally, too. All the other windows were Victorian too; but well done, particularly the excellent set of three lancets in the east end.

Despite the time of day, there was a service still in progress. It was a gloriously sunny day, so I walked around the church, taking photographs with the old East German Praktika SLR I had then, and then stood outside the north porch. A grand triumphal hymn was being sung. I'm not completely familiar with the liturgy of the Church of England, but it sounded like the sort of hymn that might be sung at the end of a service, so I decided to wait. There also seemed to be a lot of voices singing it, which surprised me; in my experience, churches like this have small congregations now.

The hymn ended, a muffled prayer, and then an organ voluntary. I waited for the people to emerge, so that I could nip in and have a look around before anyone tried to lock up.The door opened, and the then-Diocesan Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich emerged. He was dressed in his full regalia, with mitre, crook and eucharistic cope. He gave me a grave nod as he passed, and was followed by as large a congregation as this little church has seen in many a year, I'll be bound.

While they took photographs of each other outside, I slipped in. I'd guessed this was one of the Wratting churches. But which one? The banner propped up by the altar should have told me. But, no. Great and Little Wratting, it says. A combined parish; not very helpful, that. However, the insurance document pinned up by the north door told me everything I needed to know.

Coming back in 2011, I remembered the beautiful view from the lychgate, and the long climb up to the north porch. As I stood looking at it, a woman came briskly through the gate and asked me if the wedding had started yet. Although I hadn't yet been up to the church, it struck me as unlikely there was a wedding on, since there wasn't a single car around other than the one which I took to be hers. I said as much, but she told me firmly it was at either two or two-thirty, she couldn't remember which, and it was now two-fifteen. Again, I said that there didn't seem to be anyone around, and was she sure she had the time right? She fumbled in the depths of her handbag and brought out the invitation, which she flourished triumphantly at me. It said Great Thurlow, another parish several miles away. I felt sorry for her as she bustled back to her car and headed north, knowing she'd never make it in time (the invitation said two o'clock). But it made me smile when I remembered my own confusion of thirteen years earlier.

This time, I had to go and get a key, which was from an extremely large farmhouse to the east of the church. They were very nice about it, once they'd seen my bike and been convinced I wasn't going to cart off the pitch pine benches, even showing me where the key was kept if I wanted to visit again. I let myself down into what is a large, aisleless church. One big change since my last visit was that the western end of the nave has been partitioned off to make a meeting room. It is hard to do such things terribly well in an aisleless church, and I am afraid that the screening is rather imposing. However, turning eastwards is the more impressive aspect of the grand early 20th Century roodscreen, indicative of what must have been an anglo-catholic enthusiasm here. Pevsner isn't great on churches like this. It's easy to imagine him sticking his head round the door, and then zooming off to write up Kedington, before a slap-up tea at the Angel Hotel, Clare. But he noticed the most unusual feature of the church, the two corbel heads either side of the nave. They supported the rood beam, in years gone by. The modern oak screen, with its nice coving, is set eastwards of them.

Despite the rigorous Victorian makeover, in which the roofs and furnishings were also replaced and all the glass installed, there is still plenty of surviving evidence of the building's former liturgical life. As well as the rood beam corbel heads, the curve of the former roodloft stairs is discernable as an alcove behind the pulpit. you has to imagine an entrance and an exit, and the stairs turning between them. Below this to the west is a fine piscina to a former altar, and, further east, a good set of three sedilia, seats for priest, deacon and acolyte. Another piscina is above them. Dating from the 13th century, they are all in suspiciously good condition, so may have been recut.

The war memorial is a twin to that across the rolling fields at Little Wratting. On the north wall of the nave is one of Suffolk's more unusual 20th Century brass memorials. It remembers Edward Geoffrey McLintock Crozier, who was killed by a motor car on Magdalen Bridge, Oxford in 1937. Back in the meeting room at the west end of the nave there is plenty of evidence of the life of this very rural parish. As well as the 18th Century charity boards and decalogues there is the certificate awarded to Great Wratting when it came third equal in the 1995 Suffolk Village of the Year competition, which I thought was rather lovely.


Simon Knott, December 2011

looking east looking west from the chancel
lamb and flag behold I stand at the door pelican in her piety the seed is the word of God
a portion of the weather cock charity boards mortally wounded during a successful attempt to capture a German battery Constable, Cambridge
Great and Little Wratting killed by a motor car on Magdalen Bridge they gave themselves Great Wratting third equal

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