At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Honington

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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south porch: crown and arrows of St Edmund south porch Norman south doorway

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The name of this village will be familiar to many, for RAF Honington was in its day one of East Anglia's busier airbases. In fact, the base lies a mile or so west of the village, and the main thing that disturbs the peace here is the busy A1088, which scurries through on its way from Ixworth to Thetford. This is not a cyclists' road, but you can get off it onto some of the quietest, loneliest lanes in all East Anglia.

The church is off the main road, down what was once the high street, among old houses which have been carefully restored. In one of these, the poet Robert Bloomfield was born. Little-known today, his work The Farmer's Boy was a publishing sensation at the start of the 19th century, thanks to the attentions of the influential radical lawyer and writer Capel Llofts of neighbouring Troston. It sold more than 26,000 copies in less than three years. It is hard to imagine a poet today selling a tenth as much. There is a memorial to Bloomfield inside the church.

This is not a big church, smaller and prettier than Troston. What they both share is a beautiful porch, replete with flint flushwork and Marian iconography, completed on the eve of the Reformation. This is the devotional English Church at perhaps its highest point. But this church is a much older one than its porch, as you see as you go through the outer doors, and find the great Norman doorway. It is one of the half dozen best in all Suffolk, and similar to that at nearby Sapiston, more awe-inspiring, perhaps, although less beautiful.

Inside, all is neat, bright and devotional. You might even think it a little tame and polite, after the grandeur of the porch, the mystery of the doorway. With its plastered ceilure, the grand Norman chancel arch is a rather curious thing. You could be forgiven for thinking, for a moment, that it is an 18th century classical conceit. However, despite its domestication, Honington church has a couple of splendid survivals. One is the 14th century font. It has familiar tracery patterns on 7 sides, but the 8th has a heart-achingly lovely crucifixion scene. Above the cross are the sun and moon in the sky, and Mary lifts her hands imploringly, while John holds his head in despair. The other great treasure is at the other end of the church, for although Honington suffered one of Suffolk's very last destructive restorations, when all the medieval benches were removed on the eve of World War I, some of the bench ends survived. They have been incorporated into the choir stalls in the chancel. Here you'll find Honington's famous bagpiper, the quality suggesting that he is part of the body of work of the same carver at Ixworth Thorpe.As I often say, probably too often, if these medieval art objects were in the V&A, people would travel to London from all over England just to see them.

crucifixion (14th Century) bagpiper (15th Century)

The most significant new addition to churches in the last two decades has been a series of millennium windows, although as I have said elsewhere there seems to have been a loss of nerve among stained glass designers, and the bold, confident designs of the previous half a century was replaced by a certain kitschiness, a loss of nerve perhaps. Some of the windows appear to have been designed by a commitee, cramming in as many aspects of parish life as possible without an over-arching focus. However, at Honington the window transcends this difficulty, a lovely boiling of images from the joint parish of Honington and Sapiston, including wildlife, farming on the Euston estate, the airbase, and the vicar standing outside the Norman doorway of her church. The River Blackbourne trickles through it all. The artist, of course, was Pippa Blackall, who I think quite the most significant stained glass artist working in East Anglia over the last thirty years.

Sun, moon, village school and schoolchildren playing (Pippa Blackall, 2006) Millennium window (detail, Pippa Blackall, 2006) Honington church doorway, vicar and parishioners (Pippa Blackall, 2006) Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II (Pippa Blackall, 2006) Dawn of the Third Millennium (Pippa Blackall, 2006)

Sam Mortlock bemoans the whitewashing of the wall paintings that Munro Cautley saw here in the 1930s. One of them was of St Thomas of Canterbury, a rare survival, since he was violently excised by the Anglican reformers. Of course, the whitewashing was probably an expedient measure, to protect them until such a time as there was money and a will to restore them. When Cautley saw them, they were already faded.

Simon Knott, July 2019

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looking east

looking east looking west font
Robert Bloomfield the Suffolk pastoral poet war memorial Honington - Sapiston M U
Pippa Blackall, 2006

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