At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Kentford

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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porch door stop

busy bee   I’m not a great reader of newspapers, but if ever I buy one of those big weekend ones, they always seem to contain a horror story about someone who moves from the noise and dirt of London or Birmingham to a rural idyll, only to find themselves shunned as an outsider by the natives. Not only does the village post office not sell carpaccio, they get stonewalled in the village pub. It’s not a price worth paying for decent schools. Within six months, they’re packing the Range Rover and hightailing it back to the big city, relieved to return to civilisation.

Some English counties do not accept incomers easily. I think Suffolk does, partly because the people are so easy-going. Mind you, this may change as more and more villages, especially on the coast, fall victim to second-home owners. New arrivals add to the economy and cultural life of a village, but nobody wants to live beside an empty cottage for ten months of the year. I am not from Suffolk originally, but certainly feel as if I belong here. It was one of the proudest moments of my life when the local radio station described me as an ambassador for the county. But when I’m out on the western border, I get a yearning that reaches me nowhere else; the call for home. I am Cambridgeshire-born and bred; for generations, my family were fen men and women, outlaws and vagabonds before the great draining, survivors and schemers after it. Culturally and politically, the Fens have always been a place apart, the South Armagh of England.

The strange landscape of my ancestors haunts me now. I grew up in the bustle of the city of Cambridge, but my thoughts still turn north of it to the flat land. And south-east of the Fens, the graveyards of the Cambridgeshire/Suffolk border are full of my mother’s maiden name.

Kentford is about as close to Cambridgeshire as you can get; to the north of the churchyard, the busy A14 marks the border. Kennett station, 300 metres away, is in Cambridgeshire. Often along this border, adjoining parish centres merge, as if ignoring the vagaries of Saxon bureaucrats; in their names, Kentford and Kennett reveal themselves as two parts of the same whole.

As with all the Newmarket hinterland, Kentford looks to Cambridge more than it does to Ipswich and Norwich. For two centuries, Cambridge was the poor cousin of the three, but the high-tech developments of the last twenty years have completely reversed this, and houses around here cost twice as much as they do in east Suffolk or south Norfolk. More than that, this area is wooded, and hilly; a landscape that seems to stop at the border. Basically, Suffolk is prettier than Cambridgeshire.

At one time, Kentford high street was the main road from Cambridge to Ipswich, Norwich and the seaside. If you grew up in the sixties and seventies like I did, and lived so far from the sea, you’ll know that you didn’t get to see it very often. I remember summer mornings, still cold from the hour, the excited coach escaping the sleepy city, the whole pleasure of the day ahead contained in it. I remember Kentford as the first hill we reached, as if entering a foreign country. You’d know for certain now what a wonderful day it was going to be. Perhaps because of this, the sun is shining whenever I visit Kentford, as if a powerful memory lingers on, like a charge or a charm. Perhaps the sun always shines in Kentford.

Today, the village is completely bypassed, but St Mary still sits at the top of the hill in the little graveyard. There is a pub a bit further east, and a shop along the road to Moulton. With the station and A14 nearby, it’s no surprise that this is increasingly a commuter village, but it still seems to have a considerable life of its own. I’m very fond of it; today, Kentford is often still the start of a journey for me, if I take my bike on the train to Kennett, and spend the long day cycling through the lanes back to the coast. There is still an excitement.

St Mary is not a big church, and its tight hilltop graveyard means that you could easily miss it if you were driving through. Best not to drive; medieval Suffolk was not designed for cars. Just inside the church gate, there is a fine early 18th century grave, and in general a genealogist would spend a happy hour here. The building is largely 14th century; its rather ideosyncratic appearance is a result of a considerable 18th century renovation. It has been left a largely lovely building, attractive in an otherwise fairly workmanlike village.

The church is ordinarily kept locked, and the key is at the Cock public house. So, this is a church to visit in pub opening hours. And, since parking is near impossible on the village street, you can park at the pub, refresh yourself with a pint, and then wander over to the church. You let yourself into a delightfully atmospheric space, a brick floor with simple, rural furnishings, a seemly High Church chancel and a silence brewed God knows how long. Directly opposite is the great treasure of the church, one of the few surviving medieval wall-paintings in East Anglia of the Three Living and the Three Dead. Three hunting courtiers encounter a trio of skeletons in the woods; As I am so you shall be, observes the first. Rich and poor come to the same end, points out the second. Just in case there is any doubt, no one escapes, declaims the third. This church used to have other wall paintings, but all have now been plastered over, awaiting a kinder, gentler age when money is available for the restoration of such things.

three living and three dead three living and three dead

Another interesting feature of the church is the good range of early 20th Century glass, all of it unsigned, unfortunately. The most striking is the east window of about 1920, a memorial to Henry Otto Lord. Henry Lord was a lieutenant in the 26th Manchester Regiment amd, as the window points out, a Scholar of Christ's College, Cambridge. Born on the 29th May 1896, he was the eldest son of Henry and Frieda Lord of Kentford Lodge, and was killed on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme 1st Juy 1916, a few weeks after his 20th birthday. The boy is depicted in shining armour kneeling before the cross, while other panels of the window depict the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Christ in Majesty. It is extraordinary to think that it was produced less than a century ago.

Ascension Christ in Majesty (and cobwebs) Henry Otto Lord Resurrection

Perhaps the best of the glass is in the chancel north and south windows. A stunning roundel of a bee collecting pollen surmounts the monogram GG. Who was that, I wonder? A delightful panel opposite depicts an icon of the Blessed Virgin and child, with a verse from the Magnificat. It is all utterly enchanting, and perhaps makes what I am about to tell you next all the more concerning.

Shortly after the first entry for this church appeared in 2002, I received an e-mail from the parish clerk. I had been unable to get inside, and bemoaned this fact. She told me, rather unnervingly, that Kentford church had almost been lost to us. It had sunk about as low as it is possible to go without actually disappearing from sight; the last PCC had given up eight years previously, and the congregation had fallen to zero. The church was closed for a year, pending the possibility of redundancy. However, an energetic new Rector had arrived in the Benefice, and rapidly increased congregation numbers in each of his five parishes.

So, the garden of faith was flowering again at Kentford, but the chance of redundancy still existed. The people in the parish were working hard to make survival a proposition. By 2002 they were up to two services a month, which I see they are still maintaining in 2013, and the congregation was up to about twenty people. The locals were busy organising fund-raising events, tracking down the old parish bank accounts, and generally giving this pretty little church a fighting chance.

It is easy to say that the Church is the people, not the building, but St Mary is a good example that a church building is the engine house of a gathered faith - it would be wonderful to see Kentford church move towards a position where it was open during the day, and people could be encouraged to stop a while, for rest and reflection. Churches where this happens find it can be a way to grow their congregations; after all, some people may come back on Sunday. And, according to ChurchWatch, a locked church is twice as likely to be broken into as an unlocked one, twice as likely to be vandalised, and even slightly more likely to have something stolen from it.

But there’s more to it than that, of course. A locked church is a dead church, both spiritually and culturally. People who no longer have the touchstone of an open church have their faith privatised, however strong it is. Those without faith have no access to it. At Kentford, there is a chance for a Church to pull back from the brink, and for a building to play its part in being the body of Christ to the people of God.

  Lamb of God

Simon Knott, April 2013

looking east looking east sanctuary looking west font

chancel window Magnificat 1877 G G See of Ely

See of Ely agnus dei Annunciation

Manchester war memorial Henry Otto Lord



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