At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Stephen, Higham

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


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The north aisle and vestry revealed.

Jelly mould tower.

Going up: echoes of Little Saxham.

Wear and tear: this needs mending.

Looking east through the gathering gloom.

The best moment: the baptistery.

Moulding in the baptistery.

Moulding in the baptistery.

Charity benefactions board, which unusually predates the church.

Least good moment: the stone pulpit.

The rich tractarian sanctuary.

Scott's original frontal still in use after more than a century. An amazing survival.


Convincingly Suffolk, completely Scott.

With a grim yet somewhat optimistic determination, DD piloted the car through the narrow lanes west of Bury. I sat steely-jawed beside him. We were men with a mission. The plan was to do something that hadn't been done by many people, as far as we knew. Something we had both attempted, but neither of us had previously succeeded in. We were going to see inside Higham St Stephen church.

I had tracked down a churchwarden, who had admitted under pressure that he had a key. My expressed desire to go inside St Stephen met with mild surprise, as if my request was not unreasonable, just rather unusual. I would have got a similar reaction if I had phoned him up and asked to come and count his cutlery as part of some national cutlery survey, I suspect. He tested my resolve by telling me he wouldn't be in until late afternoon, but when we turned up at the appointed time he knew the game was up, and accompanied us to the church.

Higham St Stephen is rather special. It is the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, he of Albert Memorial fame. It is his only complete church in Suffolk, and if you want to see 19th century work of the highest quality you should come and see this. It is convincingly rural, convincingly Suffolk. The round tower is based on that a few miles away at Little Saxham, with the addition of a conical cap and a solid base course that make the church appear as if it has been carefully turned out of one of those aluminium jelly moulds like my Granny used to have. I imagined Scott as a giant bestriding the Victorian countryside, putting down a mould of his church and lifting it again with a vast hand, leaving a fresh new church wobbling slightly and then drying in the sun.

DD and I had been at the church earlier in the day when the light was better, although not much better, as you can see. To be honest, it had been a grim old morning, and the sun wouldn't come out properly until Santon Downham two hours later. Inside the porch a mouldy rucksack hung in a corner, apparently containing lost property. Out of it, DD tugged a rolled up poster which proved to be the alphadot security warning notice. A year or so before, when it was still up on the door, he had inscribed it with his strong regrets that the church was locked with no keyholder. It had also been scrawled on by three aggrieved members of the Round Towered Churches Society, who appeared to have made the long journey up from Kent especially to see inside. I was tempted to put the poster back up on the noticeboard, but as the main poster already there was for an Ipswich bookshop with a five-digit telephone number, and I knew these had been discontinued in the 1980s, I assumed that nobody would look at it anyway.

I have to say that the churchwarden was very pleasant, but his attitude towards us was a bit odd. He wasn't in the least bit curious about us. He didn't ask us who we were, where we were from, what we wanted or what we were doing. Having undergone the third degree at a neighbouring parish the previous week, this was some relief, but it was strange just the same. He sat in the church and watched us as we went about our business in the gathering gloom.

Until the mid-19th century, Higham village was part of the parish of Gazeley - indeed, several of the memorials inside Gazeley church are to members of the Heigham family. However, by the time of the 1851 census of religious worship there were more people living in Higham than in the main village. This was partly because of the proximity of Higham to the main Cambridge to Bury road. But it was also because of industrialisation, and the Church of England perceived the danger - where you get industrialisation you get non-conformism. So, in 1861 a separate parish was created, And Scott was commissioned to do the church. Today, a copy of Scott's plan hangs inside.

As I said before, St Stephen is not a run of the mill Victorian church, because Scott appears to have designed or commissioned everything inside, even down to the altar frontals which are still in use more than a century later. The furnishings were the work of the Cambridge carpenter Rattee, the glass is by Clayton and Bell, but all bear Scott's fingerprints.

Because 19th century furnishings are very collectible in places like California and New England, I have some sympathy with the parish's desire to keep the church locked. However, I would also observe that the church is remote from its village, and a church that is always locked can create a false sense of security. There is no point in locking this place if it is not alarmed. The furnishings are not bolted down, and are therefore insecure, locked door or no locked door. Also, a locked church is more likely to suffer vandalism than an unlocked one, and I was disturbed to see that the wonderful windows are not guarded on the outside.

Why are they wonderful? well, they are beautiful, but there is more to it than that. The colours vary from predominant jewel-like blues and greens towards the east to gorgeous oranges and reds in the west window in the baptistery beneath the tower. Scott commissioned them to create a whole piece, so that the building would react to the sunshine in different ways throughout the day. Now, as late afternoon drew on, the November light suffused the baptistery with a rosy glow, and other windows cast themselves along the north aisle. It was like a magical trick. Click on the images below to enlarge them.

The Good Shepherd in the baptistery. The Good Shepherd in the baptistery (detail). The Good Shepherd in the baptistery (detail).
The stoning of Stephen (south side of sanctuary). Stay awake! (south side of chancel). As late afternoon drew on, the November light suffused the baptistery with a rosy glow.

North aisles in winter can be rather gloomy; stone pulpits, just about excusable in a 19th century church, are usually ugly, but apart from these quibbles the building is a fine one. I liked it a lot. We finished, and were packing up. I looked around to see if there was a guidebook on sale, but there wasn't. There wasn't a visitors' book either - but why would there need to be? I asked the churchwarden why he kept the church locked all the time. He gave a hollow little laugh, as if it were plainly obvious. "Because it would be pillaged if we didn't", he replied.

Well, that's as may be. But we are not far from the lovely quartet of Ousden, Lidgate, Denham and Hargrave, all in their own ways of outstanding interest, full of medieval delights and surprises. And all four open every day. And the terrible irony is that this building is probably of more historical significance than any other 19th century building in Suffolk, but it sits here gathering dust. Nobody appears to know how important and beautiful it is, and hardly anyone seems to care.

A magical trick.


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