At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Huntingfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Huntingfield: an outstanding High Victorian survival (click to enlarge)
south side old graveyard south porch from the Holland graves

font cover and nave roof   There is nowhere else in Suffolk quite like St Mary. Huntingfield is one of the county's most obscure villages; there are hardly any signposts to it. It is the nearest village to the great pile of Heveningham Hall, and perhaps these two facts are not unconnected. But it is worth getting out the old Ordnance Survey map, because here at St Mary was a remarkable 19th century restoration.

In the second half of that century, many parish churches were drawn by the excitement of the age into major reconstructions and revisions. They often looked to London stars like Scott and Butterfield, or local plodders like Phipson, or else mavericks like Salvin. The demands of the new liturgical arrangements, coupled with a renewed sense of the need to glorify God, led them into what was often a rebuilding rather than a restoration. Internal decorations were, perhaps, the bespoke work of the architect; witness Phipson's meticulous attention to detail at St Mary le Tower, Ipswich.

Other restorers relied on the big picture, a vision that encompassed walls and floors, but left the fittings to others; as, for example, Salvin's Flixton St Mary. What was the driving force behind Victorian revisionism? Essentially, what happened in England between about 1830 and 1870 was a cultural revolution, a ferment of new ideas and the reaction to them. The changes proposed by the Oxford Movement were, at first, objectionable, and then merely controversial; but gradually, they seeped into the mainstream, until by about 1890 they had become as natural as the air we breathe.

By the centenary of the movement in the 1930s, one Anglican clergyman could observe "It is as if the Reformation had never happened". Well, not quite. And now, the pendulum has swung the other way, leaving the ritualists high and dry. But the evidence of the energy of those days survives, especially at Huntingfield, where it was the local vicar who drove the Oxford Movement through the heart of the parish, like a motorway through a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

What the vicar of Huntingfield had, and many other ministers didn't, was a visionary wife. Between 1859 and 1866, Mrs Mildred Holland planned, designed and executed the most elaborate redecoration of a church this county had seen since the Reformation. For seven years, she lay on her back at the top of scaffolding, first in the chancel (angels) and then in the nave (saints on the ceilure, fine angels on the beam ends), gilding, lettering and painting this most glorious of small church roofs. Her husband, the Reverend William Holland, kept a journal throughout this period, and there is no suggestion that she had any assistance, beyond that of workmen to raise the scaffolding, and a Mr E.L. Blackburne FSA, who was, apparently, an 'authority on medieval decoration'.

angel roof angel angel Lamb of God
nave roof nave roof St Matthias and St Simon St Simon, St Jude, St Mary Magdalene
St James the Less, St Paul, St Thomas St Paul and St Thomas St Paul St Andrew and St Peter
St Simon and St Jude St John and St James St Philip and St John St Bartholomew and St Philip
crossbeams nave roof Lamb of God corbel

J.P. St Aubyn was responsible for the structural restoration of this largely 15th century building, and it is very restrained and merciful. He did, however, refit the little windows in the south clerestory. But you come here to see the painted roofs, which are perfectly splendid. Beware if you come with children, or it will cost you a fortune in pound coins to activate the illuminations.

The font cover is not part of Mildred Holland's work; rather, it is her memorial, as is the art nouveau lectern. It is as if her art was a catalyst, inspiring others to acts of beauty. She died in the 1870s, predeceasing her husband by twenty years. They are both now buried by the churchyard gate. How fitting, that they should lie in the graveyard of the church they loved so much, and to which they gave so much of their time, energy and money.

Curiously, Ann Owen, the wife of the vicar of nearby Heveningham, produced the stained glass there; a novel is waiting to be written about these two women.

For such an obscure village, St Mary has had its share of influential patrons. Four major families in particular have left their mark here. Before the Reformation, the de la Poles and Uffords, whose shields you'll find on the font, and in later years the Cokes and the Pastons, both more usually associated with Norfolk.

But, as I have said, you don't come to Huntingfield because of important dead people. Look up, look all around, and see the true memorial to Mrs Holland. It does not have the gravitas of Lound, or the piety of Kettlebaston. And I really love it for that. I think this is a place that should be better known, and not just because of the way it contrasts with the less successful 19th century restorations at neighbouring Cookley and Walpole.

What we have here is as fine a display of 19th century folk art as you'll find anywhere in the county.

  1848: William Holland

Simon Knott, 2001 (updated 2007)


looking east looking west looking west in the south aisle tomb recess
instruments of the passion south doorway Holy Trinity chancel lectern monument
chancel arcades Annunciation, Crucifixion, Visitation image niche way out south aisle
Mother of God with St Francis and St Benedict geometric cross lion rampant
brass loyal font lions
St Margaret border hare lap dog arcade

George and Mildred Holland lichened Martha, James


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