At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Augustine, Harleston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Harleston Harleston

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If I'm cycling the narrow lanes to the west of the town of Stowmarket I find it hard to resist popping in on one of my favourites of Suffolk's smaller churches at Harleston, a small parish not to be confused with the Norfolk town of the same name. It is partly the setting, a little thatched church in the quiet fields, wholly organic, at one and at peace with the landscape around it. From the road, you need to walk down to it, set below in the grounds of the Hall. There are perhaps echoes of Thornham Parva, but this is a jewel of a different kind, not a historically or artistically significant place, but being merely delightful, a church which looks as if it might just be in a fairy tale and made out of gingerbread. Although the exterior as we see it today is largely the result of its 1860s restoration, and I think the tracery in most of the windows is also from this time, this was a typical Norman church once. There is the bare ghost of a doorway on the north side. On my most recent visit in May 2019 I found that the thatched roof had been renewed.

The church is open daily, and you step into an interior which is crisp and apparently entirely modern. But as you wander in this little space, other periods in the life of the building become apparent. Best of all is the rood screen, which I think must be 14th century judging by the circular tracery in the upper lights. Beyond, in the chancel, the woodwork is of a spectacularly high quality for such a quiet spot. Munro Cautley was uncharacteristically warm about this almost-wholly restored church in his 1937 survey Suffolk Churches and their Treasures, and there is probably a good reason for this, because in 1931 the church underwent a major reordering, and it is likely that the beautiful return stalls with their carved angels and the altar furnishings are to the design of the Diocesan Architect of the time, who happened to be Munro Cautley. They are designed for prayerful High Church worship, and it is easy to imagine a cassocked and surpliced choir singing the Nunc Dimittis by candlelight. All gone now.

a Cautley angel return stalls by Munro Cautley a Cautley angel
a Cautley angel a Cautley angel a Cautley angel

Cautley's too are probably the pulpit and the panelling to the chancel, and he was probably responsible for the restoration of the screen. Given that this is a small church, there is probably no other Suffolk church which bears his impress so much, with the possible exception of Westerfield. The altar frontal and lectern hangings are by another star in the 20th Century Suffolk firmament, the great Isobel Clover.

Outside, on the edge of the churchyard, there is a group of cast iron grave markers which recall an awful story. In a neat little row, which can be seen in the foreground of the photograph at the top of this page, are memorials to five children of Charles and Mary Armstrong, who died within a few weeks of each other in 1891. The simple cast inscriptions, each beginning In loving Memory, read:

Beatrice Armstrong, who died October 20th 1891, aged 8 years.
Nelson Armstrong, who died October 22nd 1891, aged 5 years.
Spencer Armstrong, who died October 26th 1891, aged 12 years.
Percy Armstrong, who died November 8th 1891, aged 14 years.
Frank Armstrong, who died December 9th 1891, aged six months.

The children were victims of a diphtheria outbreak in the parish. Their father Charles Armstrong was a carpenter, and also the parish clerk, which gave him the awful job of recording his children's deaths and burials in the registers. He may have made their coffins as well, a terrible thought.

The markers face out across the rolling hills, full in spring with yellow rapeseed and goldening barley. Rooks cawed, wheeling away from the graveyard trees and northwards across the fields, in the direction of Haughley and Wetherden. Harleston church, and its graveyard, feel intimate and loved. Neighbouring Shelland and Onehouse are similarly remote and lovely. Because they, like Harleston, are not historically or architecturally significant, most church explorers pass them by. Long may it remain so.

Simon Knott, October 2019

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looking east altar frontal by Isabel Clover, 2000 a Cautley angel
sanctuary looking west image niche pulpit (Cautley? 1931?)
pulpit frontal by Isabel Clover, 2000 lectern by Munro Caultey, 1931 candle glasses

four little Armstrongs four little Armstrongs

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