At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Hemley

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Hemley Hemley

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          It was the year of the Great Coronavirus Pandemic, and as a response the Church of England closed all its churches to the People of God. At the time this seemed merely a hasty, ill-thought out decision - or was there something more sinister about it? I'm sure all church explorers have encountered those tiresome people who insist on telling you that 'the church is the people, not the building'. Was this the opportunity they had been waiting for? Whatever, those of us who are not members of any particular congregation but who visit churches for a variety of other reasons were locked out. For strangers and pilgrims, and those who wonder at the powerful sense of the numinous that a visit to a church can bring, and those whose visits are touchstones to the people of the parish down the long generations, and those who, like the poet Philip Larkin, surprise a hunger in themselves to be more serious and gravitate with it to this ground, would never find streamed internet services and zoom prayer meetings a likely substitute.

Be that as it may, I wondered what would happen to churches which had previously been left open all the time? Dear, faithful Nettlestead for instance has been an open church for decades, and although I did not broadcast it during the Lockdown itself, that little church continued to be open all the time, for which its people will have riches in store. Many was the time during those gloomy days of late March and April 2020 that I cycled out into the hills to the west of Ipswich to sit for a while in Nettlestead church.

And what of Hemley, I wondered? For here was another church that had always been open before the Emergency. It wasn't until August that I thought of heading back there, by which time the Church of England had resigned itself to some of its churches being open again. What would I find? I remembered a visit I'd made to Hemley some fourteen years previously, when I'd written this:

'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 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.

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 still-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.

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. This village has always been tiny, and by the mid-19th century the church had fallen into decay. The Anglican revival happened here under the gaze of the rector, Thomas Waller, who was responsible for the rebuilding of nave and chancel in 1889, the architect being Frederick Barnes of Ipswich. Waller had become rector in 1862, and is remembered by the west window in Waldringfield church, and indeed for being the first in a four-generation dynasty of Waller rectors at Waldringfield and Hemley which would last into the 21st century.

The only medieval survival is the square font, a battered early example of the 13th century arcaded Purbeck marble fonts which are found so frequently along the East Anglian coast. 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 17th 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.'

Although I had returned to Hemley several times since I'd written that piece, it was the visit which had most stuck in my mind, and it pleased me to imagine going back there. I had recently retired, and had resolved to keep fit by cycling regularly in the east Suffolk lanes, but the second week of August 2020 saw a heatwave across the whole of England, the longest sustained period of weather this hot for thirty years. Even so, I stocked up my bike with bottles of water and set off on a curving loop that took me from Ipswich up towards Grundisburgh, down through Martlesham and Waldringfield and along the lonely lane above the Deben until at last I was back in Hemley.

Nothing had changed. The red brick tower beckoned me across the rolling barley stubble, a combine harvester trundling away down the slope towards the wide river. I arrived to find the church sitting as before in its small, neatly-kept churchyard with just a couple of houses for company. In the south-east corner of the churchyard is its most memorable headstone, to Thomas Adams Junior who died in 1775. The inscription reads:

Hark from the tombs a dolefull sound,
my ears attend the cry,
Ye living men come view the ground
where you must shortly lie.

Princes this clay must be your bed
in spite of all your towers,
The tall, the wise, the revrend head
must lie as low as ours.

There was a new headstone beside the south porch. I came closer and saw that it was to John Waller, the last of the unbroken Waller dynasty of rectors at Waldringfield and Hemley. He had died in 2013, more than 150 years after his great-grandfather had been the first of the line. John was a self-confessed sporting parson, he spent half the week intimately involved with his parishioners who he dearly loved, including those who never went to church, and the other half sailing, riding and fishing. The inscription on his headstone says simply A Man of the People. He's much missed in the area.

A sign on the door told me that all Church of England buildings were closed, but I had seen the same sign on an open church earlier in the day, and so I tried the door and it opened. I stepped inside. Cool on this day of high heat, simply furnished, no coloured glass, a church of the ordinary people and yet a serious house on serious earth where, for generations, our compulsions were recognised and robed as destinies. To the east, as if to strike a note of gravity, Larkin's sense of seriousness, there was the reredos with its putti, perhaps from a continental organ case.

It was hard for me to understand why the churches had been closed at a time when they might have been needed most. I was glad that Hemley was open to pilgrims and strangers, and perhaps it always had been, perhaps this was another of the churches which had defied the bureaucrats of Lambeth Palace, which had instead welcomed the stranger within the gate, and thereby perhaps entertained angels unawares. A building which over the centuries had sustained its people through plagues, famines and wars could surely have done so during a pandemic, couldn't it?

I stood for a while, wondering. I thought of Thomas Hardy: Yet this will go onward the same though Dynasties pass. Outside, through the open door, I could hear a skein of crows nagging each other in the breathless air above the barley fields. And then the harvester turned, and its throttle opened as it climbed the gentle slope towards the church, becoming louder in the haze.


Simon Knott, August 2020

looking east sanctuary looking west
altar piece putto font (13th Century) Good Friday 2012
Hemley Church Choristers Shield 1931-33 bomber command

hark from the tombs a doleful sound (1770) a man of the people

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