At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Hemley

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk




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Hemley: remote

Spring 2006, and after such a long, cold winter we still haven't got used to being out of doors. Indeed, it had taken an effort to shake ourselves away from our computers, our library books, our cats and our Durutti Column CDs, and actually get out into the open air. What should we do? Where do people go when the sun shines? We decided to drive to Waldringfield, about seven miles east of where we live, and we parked at the pub on the river front - they don't mind you doing this if you are coming back later.

We set off south along the foreshore of the Deben. The wide grey river spread lazily for miles, with hardly a ruffle or a ripple under the sun. Ahead of us we could see the creeks, and several miles off was the quayside at Ramsholt on the far bank of the river. A huddle of tiny white blocks in the far distance was Felixstowe Ferry.

At this point, eight year old Martha was the most energetic of us, running ahead and coming back all the time like a joyful floppy dog. Her twelve year old brother was more serious, studying the waterline for treasure, and shouting to us above the insistent clink of the boat masts.

Rather than try to walk the path through the creeks (the OS map ominously shows the dotted red line threading through water at one point) we cut up through the beach huts and found the path to the Newbourn road. At a sharp bend, the bridleway to Hemley Hall is concrete for its first few hundred metres, and we followed it. Beyond the Hall, the footpath cuts beside a field, and ahead of us through the trees we could see the sun-warmed red brick tower of All Saints, Hemley.

Hemley is the most remote of the villages on this side of the Deben estuary. Either side, these tiny villages are generally at the end of narrow, winding lanes that lead down to the water's edge. And yet, 1500 years ago the Deben was the motorway of the Angles and the Saxons; it was up these creeks they came, to establish their settlements, and eventually their royal palace at Rendlesham, their burial ground at Sutton Hoo, and their industrial and merchant centres on the next river down at what would become Ipswich. On this river they built and declared the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia, one of the lost English nations. Just to the south of here at Dummoc, the modern Walton, St Felix would establish the Kingdom's first cathedral, now lost forever beneath the encroaching grey North Sea.

We came down towards the church, set high on its mound above the lane in its cutting. Hemley is a tiny place. All there is is the church, and a few houses and converted farm buildings. The road stops here, and if you come by car you'll need to return the way you came, back to Newbourn or Waldringfield.

Hemley church is unusual for this part of Suffolk, in that virtually nothing remains of its medieval structure. The tower is one of those late-Tudor red brick ones familiar from nearby Brightwell and Waldringfield - indeed, this tower is so similar to that of Waldringfield that it probably had the same builder. The rest of the structure is Victorian.

This village has always been tiny, and by the mid-nineteenth century the church had fallen totally into decay. The Anglican revival happened here under the gaze of Thomas Waller, who was responsible for the complete rebuilding of nave and chancel in 1889, under architect Frederick Barnes. Today, Waller's great-grandson, John Waller, is vicar, and there has been an unbroken succession of Wallers here since 1864.

Virtually the only ancient item remaining in the building is the font, which is very old, mid-13th century at the latest. The Decorated north doorway was used from the earlier church. The interior is very plain, very simple. The only striking note is the polished wooden reredos, which must be 19th century but seems to have been cobbled together from various furnishings in the 18th century style.

There is nothing remarkable, but All Saints is always open, a humble little Low Church wayside shrine in the creeks and marshes.

I took a quick peek inside the register. A typical congregation here is between 4 and 7, so this is a peaceful place, where the Anglican benefice system has ensured the survival of a church that can hardly be described as significant or essential. And the sentimental cherubs on the reredos are really rather lovely. We all agreed that we liked it, and set off back on the road to Waldringfield, Jacquie and Jimmy leading the way, Martha lagging behind until I took her hand. I encouraged her on with tales of the alpacas on the farm further along the lane, near the Newbourn road. We hurried, and then stood and watched them, and they watched us, until thoughts of the pint of Broadside just a couple of miles away encouraged me on too.

All Saints, Hemley, is at the end of an unclassified road, 1 mile south-east of Newbourne, which is two miles east of the Foxhall junction of the A12, east of Ipswich. It is kept open during the day.

organ pipes altar and reredos memorial

Simon Knott 2006



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