At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Lawshall

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Lawshall door door consecration cross

an angel stays Abraham's hand at the sacrifice of Isaac   Remember being young? That complete lack of responsibility that seems as though it might last for ever? But then something happens, to remind you that the clock is ticking away, and that respectability lurks around the corner. In 1986, my friend Mary did something that sent a frisson of mortality through all of us who were her friends. She bought a house. She was the first person I knew of my age to do so, and she bought it in this pleasant village between Bury and Sudbury. So I got to know Lawshall quite well then, and I still associate it with looming responsibility.

But along with responsibility comes much else which more than compensates, as we will see.

The narrow lane that leads down from Bury, through Nowton and Hawstead, may once have been the main road from Bury to the south. It swerves and rolls through the tightly packed fields, and only local people seem to use it, hurtling at breakneck speed towards the impossible corners. Before the violent fracture of the Reformation, All Saints was where the Catholic priests of the parish ministered. Unusually for Suffolk, Catholic worship was maintained in this village throughout most of the penal years at Coldham Hall, and Lawshall is still home to Suffolk's oldest Catholic church, Our Lady and St Joseph. It is a humble affair compared to All Saints, but is host to the larger congregation these days.

But it is to All Saints that we climb now, up the mound from the road, and through the sylvan graveyard. The church has much in common with Sudbury St Peter, ten miles away. It was almost completely rebuilt in the mid-fifteenth century on the profits of the cloth industry, and became a vast preaching house after the Reformation. Then in the mid-19th century it was restored in the Anglo-catholic style by the great William Butterfield, who as well as St Peter and Lawshall carried out restorations at Bacton, Sudbury St Gregory and Ipswich St Mary at Stoke.

I still remember stepping into this church for the first time some thirty years ago. It was early spring and the day was cloudless. The church was cold, the woodwork pale with the patina of more than a century of Suffolk winters, and Butterfield's thoroughly Victorian chancel punctuated by shafts of thin light. The sense of continuity was palpable.

Today on an early afternoon of high summer in 2014 I stepped into a brighter, warmer church, the high sunlight flooding the south aisle and nave beyond with warmth, the birdsong drifting through the open south door. This is a church of age and space and light, as though echoing Guernemanz's observation in Wagner's Parsifal that here, time becomes space. Modern banners lend shards of colour to the view eastwards, and the 19th Century glass is good and not intrusive. A good modern abstract window in the south aisle is unsigned, but is probably an early work by the Suffolk artist Pippa Blackall.

When I was preparing this page I remembered taking some photos here back in 1986. Turning the pages of an album I hadn't opened in more than twenty years became like separating layers of memory, the compressed stratification of increasing distance. The plastic pages stuck together, and as I peeled them apart, I never knew what I would find. It reminded me of those old polaroid cameras, where you used to have to count to sixty before, breathless with anticipation, ripping the cover off of the photo to see how it had come out. These old photos became like that, like new photos, unfamiliar again after many years wait.

And then, suddenly, there they were, precious jewels from the past. In one of them, of the south aisle, Mary is standing with Jacquie, who would later become my wife. The moment is held there forever, like a seed in amber. And later, Mary would get married, and have a son, and we would be his godparents, and so on. And so, the cycle continues.

Is it just this sentiment, of a sense of the past reaching out, that makes me tolerate and even enjoy the the way Butterfield coloured the medieval font and angels? I'm sure that some throw up their hands in horror at this, but I think it looks lovely. A curiosity, a Dutch-style glazed tile memorial to Johannes Van Mevdag is set behind the font, beside the tower arch. The chancel is textbook Tractarian - indeed, one might describe it as a Camden Society pattern book.

Almost thirty years later, married, with a mortgage, two children and several demanding cats, I find myself back here. Has it changed? Who can tell. For thirty years, you'd need a long memory. But that's not the point, anyway. Churches that don't change are dying. What is more important is the sense of continuity, that quiet and enduring beat of the heart.

  painted angel

Simon Knott, December 2014


looking east All Saints Lawshall painted font

fell for the liberation of his country two Lawshall angels Abraham St John the Baptist St Stephen

killed in action in France Resurrection liturgical symbols liturgical symbols

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