At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Ethelbert, Herringswell

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Herringswell Herringswell #

come ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom   I had been looking forward to coming back to Herringswell for a long time. Back in 2003, it was one of the very last medieval parish churches in the county that I visited. It had been such a pleasure to find it so late in the journey. Herringswell is not a place you pass through. For a start, the village street is a dead end, and the road it comes off of is not particularly on the way to anywhere. Because of this, you will not be surprised to learn that it is really rather lovely.

The village street is that nice combination of large houses set back from the road and Victorian terraces. The church is in the village street, but there is a farmyard beside it and fields with horses beyond the churchyard wall. I immediately liked it a lot, and resolved not to say anything sarky about Herringswell in case I ever won the lottery and could afford to live there.

The church presents a very curious aspect to the street. For a start, there is an overwhelming south transept, and the tower has three massive buttresses, one in the middle of the west face, and the other two forming stairturrets to north and south. I’ve not seen anything quite like this before. The church was destroyed by fire in 1869, and the body of the church is almost entirely the 1870s work of our old friend Sir Arthur Blomfield. Pevsner thought that the tower was his too, until an engraving in an 18th century antiquarian collection convinced him otherwise. This made me wonder if Pevsner had actually ever been here; the tower is obviously older than the 19th century, if only because it retains the drip course from the medieval roofline. The other thing that makes the church look unusual is the huge memorial outside the south porch. It shows what Mortlock describes as a ’lush young maiden’. Either someone designed it for themselves before they died, or someone else thought it would be suitable for them. Well, I don’t know, but if I was lying underneath it I think I would be rather embarrassed.

The dedication is to St Ethelbert. Obviously, Anglican parish church dedications need to be taken with a pinch of salt, since so many of them are inaccurate because of enthusiasm, either of the 18th century antiquarians who rediscovered them, or of the 19th century Tractarian clergy who wanted them to be as traditional and Catholic as possible. However, Mortlock points out that there was definitely a guild to St Ethelbert here in medieval times.

The base of the tower is as unusual inside as it is outside, for flying buttresses sprung from columns support it internally and the area beneath it is open. Generally, the church is plain and uncluttered. Despite the lack of aisles and a clerestory, this gives a feeling of spaciousness. Given this, you might think this would be like any other Blomfield church inside – well done, obviously, with some characterful details and perhaps even a little playfulness, but ultimately nothing that is going to detain you for long. Well, that may be so if you are a blinkered medievalist; but if you are interested in 20th century glass, particularly that of the Arts and Crafts movement, then you are in for an absolute treat. This church has the best collection in west Suffolk, and one of the best in East Anglia. It is almost entirely the work of Christopher Whall and his pupils.

All the windows are striking. Some are rather wonderful, most are lovely. One or two are rather over the top for my tastes, and I suspect many other people would also find them so. Sam Mortlock is very knowledgeable about 20th century glass, and so I quote from him entirely.

Most prominent is the 1902 east window by Whall, which you can see in the left hand column. Mortlock tells us that the Christ the Good Shepherd figure had been used 3 years earlier for a college chapel in Edinburgh, but here he is augmented by Alice Chaplin’s Suffolk sheep.  Whall’s also is the extraordinary sequence in the south west window of the chancel, a tribute to Dr Image, uncle of the stained glass artist Selwyn Image. It shows scenes from his life, including a bedside group, but also Dr Image dressed as a king, which looks rather odd I think. My favourite of the Whall windows here is in the south wall of the nave, and shows the Resurrection.

My favourite window of all is not by Whall at all, but by Paul Wodroffe, and also dates from 1902. It is in the north chancel wall, and it illustrates the text Suffer the children to come unto me. One carries a rag doll. Perhaps the two most striking windows are the two grand nature scenes by James Clarke. They are memorials to members of the Davies family, who were responsible for the decoration of this church. One is in the north nave wall, the other in the south transept. Both are atmospheric Suffolk scenes, with forests and fields populated by pheasants and rabbits. Mortlock says that they are ‘intensely romantic concepts that skilfully avoid sentimentality’.

The design I liked least is actually the most recent. It is also to a member of the Davies family, and shows the story of St Hubert. He is the hunter who allowed a stag to live, and then saw the light of a crucifix shining between its antlers. He was certainly popular in medieval times, but very little evidence of him survives; he might be the figure on the fragment of rood screen at South Elmham St Margaret. A better design is St Francis, who is in the far west of the north side. Also wonderful is Jasper Brett's window in the chancel, illustrating the text Come unto me all you who are weary or heavy laden...

suffer little children to come to me St Hubert's stag St Hubert's dog St Hubert suffer little children to come to me
Christ heron and rabbit Christ the Good Shepherd Christ in the seven works of mercy window visit the sick St Francis
for of such is the kingdom of God sheep birds benedicite for of such is the kingdom of God
rabbits Christ foot of Christ visit the sick for I was an hungred
St Hubert psalm 23 then shall the righteous answer benedicite St Francis opening the tomb
how manifold are thy works how manifold are thy works (detail) which givest us the victory sleeping soldier
come unto me resurrection how manifold are thy works suffer little children to come unto me

Other than this, you can see two good WWI memorials, one to a local lad who fell in Fields of Flanders, another killed in the Battle of the Somme. A third memorial, from the Second World War, records that he died while performing outstanding services in enemy occupied territory.

I hope you can tell that I liked this church a lot. But I’m afraid that I can’t finish without a moan. And yes, you are right, it is because the church is kept locked, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

There is nothing whatsoever of value in this church except the glass in the windows. Nobody is going to steal anything from here. The national organisation Churchwatch tells us that a church which is kept locked all the time is far more likely to be vandalised than one which is opened daily. The windows here at Herringswell do not have stone guards on them, and if you don’t think this kind of vandalism is very likely round here, then you need to go four miles south to Gazeley. Back in the late 1990s, when it was a similarly locked church, just about every one of the lower windows has had a stone put through it. Since being looked after and opened everyday, the vandalism has not recurred.

Herringswell very helpfully offers two keyholders, but locking the church is protecting nothing; all it does is make us complacent. If I was a churchwarden here I would consider wedging the main door open in daylight hours, and encouraging as many visitors as possible.

  looking a bit down

Simon Knott, October 2003, updated October 2011

font while performing outstanding services in enemy occupied territory fell in the battle of the Somme mortar

Herringswell art nouveau 



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