At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Gregory, Hemingstone

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Hemingstone north porch Hemingstone

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          There are some churches I've been tempted to keep quiet about, for fear that they might have become tremendously popular and I wouldn't have had them selfishly all to myself on my regular visits over the last quarter of a century. This church has so many memories for me, of winter bike rides with the frost sparkling below me as I spin across it and the ice cracking in the ditches. Of those first warm days in spring, the churchyard coming back to life, and in high summer with the Suffolk sun beating down on the wide barley fields all around. And then in autumn, when all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin...

No major road touches this spot, but it does not feel remote. Rather, it is as if the lattice of tiny lanes that thread through the fields converge here, as if they inevitably lead you to this green mound of a churchyard with its noble little building straddling the top. There is only a farm for company, and the wide Suffolk sky, the rise of a lark perhaps, and the gentle wind across the barley.

I have never found this church locked. It always seems to be open to passing pilgrims and strangers. You enter through the north porch, where a large set of blacksmith's bellows stands and the WWI Roll of Honour is fixed to the wall. You step into a light, airy, rural interior with hardly any coloured glass and a surprisingly large number of wall memorials. The church feels surprisingly wide and open to the east. There is a series of texts in neat little panels around the walls, the one by the south door dated 1753, pointing to a restoration of the church at that time by a pious churchwarden (a rare thing at that date, one imagines). All in all it feels a busy place.

Arthur Mee and Sam Mortlock both record a delightful laxity in religious observance in this parish after the Reformation, the entire parish being hauled before a church court in 1597. Perhaps the villagers were encouraged by their local Lord of the Manor, Ralph Cantrell, who was a recusant Catholic, as several such were. Mortlock recounts a tale about him which explains the apparent pair of porches on the north side of the church, one now in use as a vestry. The story goes that, wary of the monstrous fines imposed for failure to toe the Anglican line and the prison sentence that might follow for a second offence, Cantrell built himself a little chapel on the side of the parish church. Here, he would repair with his family and servants on a Sunday, presumably saying their devotions quietly while the Anglican service was said in the main body of the church. A squint enabled him to see what was going on, and would technically mean that he and his family were in attendance. The vestry is known as 'Ralph's Hole' to this very day.

Beside the squint is the church's most memorable feature, the 1585 memorial to William Cantrell. It is, as Pevsner notes, of rustic quality, and yet it suits this little church and imposes itself more than it might elsewhere. William Cantrell was Ralph Cantrell's father, and this late 16th Century memorial looks intriguingly like an altar tomb, although that would obviously not be possible at such a date. And yet, given what we know about his son...

lectern and Cantrell tomb man here thou mayste yntombed see a man of honest fame come home to earthe who in his life bare William Cantrell's name

The inscription, which sits beneath the Cantrell shield of a pelican in its piety flanked by two impaled shields, reads:

Man here thou mayste yntombed see, a man of honest fame,
Come home to earthe, who in this life, bare William Cantrell's name.
A gentleman in birth, in life, in office and degre,
Now wrapte in clay; then thincke O man what will become of thee.

This William Cantrell feofee was with others put in truste,
Regarded well for vertuous life, wise, sober, true and juste,
Even of the whole revennes of that mighty prince of late,
Late Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, highte, some tyme of high estate.

The font is 14th Century, again a powerful piece in such an intimate setting, and the church has one of Suffolk's few sets of royal arms for William III. Hanging below it is a painting of St Gregory as one of the four Latin Doctors. His papal crown sits on the desk, and the dove of the Holy Spirit hovers above his head as he writes.

Several of the later memorial inscriptions are also of interest, particularly perhaps that of Miss Elizabeth Brand, who on a tour to the Hebrides died at Stirling in 1812. She was 23. Her 16 year old sister Emma had died seven years earlier. In 1854 the 18 year old George Davy Brown was lost at sea, while Colonel Sir Richard Edward Rowley-Martin who died in 1907 receives a powerfuil cast bronze plaque on which he is portrayed at the top flanked by St Martin and St George. He seems to have led a busy life out in Empire, for the inscription tells us that he served in South Africa during the Boer War of 1881 and in Zululand 1883-1887 and 1888: also as British Commissioner in Swaziland from 1890 to 1895 and Deputy Commissioner and Commandant-General of Police in Rhodesia 1896 to 1898. He packed a lot in, for he was only 59 years old when he died.

Most churchyards are a fascinating pleasure to explore, and Hemingstone's is no exception at any time of the year. And then, if you are on a bike, a long, winding lane takes you south of the church eventually back into the 21st Century and the shock of the industrial Gipping Valley and the outskirts of Ipswich at Claydon, but the thought that you will come back to Hemingstone soon is some comfort.


Simon Knott, August 2020


looking east looking west
font St Gregory font
bellows war memorial William III it is I be not afraid
this church was repaired Colonel Sir Richard Edward Rowley-Martin flanked by St Martin and St George lost at sea
accidentally killed in Germany war memorial How dreadful is this place! this is none other but ye House of God, and this is ye gate of Heaven.
on a tour to the Hebrides died at Stirling


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