At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Nicholas, Little Saxham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Little Saxham

Little Saxham Little Saxham Little Saxham
tower porch tower

monster   2008: in the six years since I had last come to Little Saxham I had been to most of the churches in Norfolk. Embarking on a new cycling tour of Suffolk in 2007, I felt like I was visiting old friends, and St Nicholaswas a more familiar one than most, because I have been here several times. It is one of those churches where everything seems to come together - the setting, the survivals, the atmosphere, the sense of Faith still redolent in these cynical, secular days.

It was a reminder to me that, while Norfolk has the lion's share of the grander churches of East Anglia, the prettier and more interesting ones are mostly in Suffolk.

Not much had changed, and one thing which certainly hadn't was the rat run of traffic along the road from Bury. It is the one crimp in a visit to this church, and afterwards it was a relief to get off of the main road into the backwoods around Great Saxham. Yet still, it felt like I was leaving a friend behind, a place where I had been happy: I remembered vividly a day in the last high summer of the previous millennium when I had stood in this graveyard as my two little children tumbled around it exploring the gravestones. Leafing back through the visitors' book, I found that, even before that, my first visit here had been in 1996. I looked at the entry for a moment, wondering why my daughter's name was not there with the rest of us, and then realised foolishly that this had been before she was even born.

2002: A month spent cycling in central France had made me realise quite how crowded Suffolk is. In the Sologne, where I’d spent a week, the villages were 10 miles apart, with long straight roads cutting through forests to join them. There were none of the comforting Suffolk sights of another church tower on the next rise, or road signs to gentle, familiar place names. None of the traffic, either – in the Jura, I had often gone an hour or more without seeing a car, so the road from Bury to the Saxhams was hellish – a vicious ratrun between high hedges. Well, at least there still are hedges.
But Little Saxham is a handsome place, despite the road forking here, agricultural vehicles and 4x4s thundering suddenly around corners concealed by ancient yews. I made it across to the graveyard in one piece, however, and let the latch gate creak shut behind me.
Genealogists reading this will be disappointed to learn that Little Saxham has been pretty well cleared of all its older gravestones. This happened in many places in the 1960s, especially in smaller graveyards like this one. A few of the older graves have been reset in a line to the south of the nave, and the 18th century ones near the porch are particularly worth examination. An old photograph inside the church shows this graveyard as it once was, an entrancing jumble of priceless ancient memorials. Rather hard to get a mower between, however, and so they are now gone.
But the wide expanse of lawn does, at least, offset Suffolk’s finest round tower, and perhaps England’s. There are historical reasons for others being at least as interesting, but the aesthetic ones over-ride them.
Mortlock thinks the lower part Saxon, and the bell-stage Norman - this is particularly worth a gaze, because so many of Suffolk's round towers had their bell stages rebuilt in later centuries. The arcading is terrific - nothing else in Suffolk approaches it. The Victorians did very little here, and the outside body of the church itself is still broadly as it was on the eve of the Reformation. Worthy of particular note is the Lucas chapel (more often referred to these days as the Crofts chapel) on the north side of the chancel. It was built in the 1530s, just before such things became theologically unacceptable.

You step through a doorway that is broadly contemporary with the tower top, and on your left are two rather remarkable archways. The first, on your left, is a low Norman arch, roughly the same size as the doorway you have just stepped through, but set barely a metre and a half off of the floor. This has been variously identified as a tomb recess, an aumbry, a safe for valuables and a doorway into a lost chapel. None of these seem right, and it seems more than likely that it is the old north doorway, possibly moved here in the 19th century, although to what purpose is a mystery. Probably, it was reconstructed simply to look like a tomb recess - the Victorians went in for that kind of thing. It may have been intended to echo something similar in the chancel.

Beside it is one of the most breathtaking tower arches in Suffolk - it is of a similar scale to that at Stoke by Nayland, but here, in such a small church, it is a tremendous thing, perfectly beautiful, raising the eye heavenwards. The doorway above it reminds me of the one at Thorington, where the tower is not dissimilar, albeit over-restored. In the tower arch beneath are panels of the rood screen; lions, squirrels and eagles face each other off in the spandrels.

two squirrels two lions two eagles a squirrel and an eagle
squirrel woman reading a prayer book dog with a chicken

Turning eastwards, I was struck by the quantity, and quality, of medieval woodwork - it isn't hard to sort it out from the 19th century stuff; broadly speaking, the newer benches are on the south side. Of the medieval bench ends, several are worth mentioning; a lady at a prayer-desk may well be part of an Annunciation, a dragon biting its tail looks rather heraldic, and what is probably a lion looks not unlike the cock-monster at Stowlangtoft.

Mortlock thought that the entrance to the rood stairs being six feet off the ground suggested that it had once been used to store valuables. This may be so, but I think it is far more likely that it is giving us evidence of a now-vanished wooden section of the stairs that led down into the aisle, as at Denston. It is worth taking a moment to look at the inside of the chancel arch, because you can still see the marks where the rood screen fitted before its removal.

I stepped up into the chancel, which is beautiful and plain. The gorgeous carved communion rails were rescued from the abandoned church at Little Livermere, and reset here. The 19th century glass of St Nicholas, St Paul, St Peter and St Edmund above is good. On the north side, the curious memorial with its heraldic devices is, in fact, the blocked up entrance to the Lucas chapel, now the vestry. The shields come from the tomb of Sir Thomas Fitzlucas, which once stood inside.

The entrance to the vestry is from the east end of the north aisle. It is kept locked. However, it is worth contacting the keyholder listed on the door, because, from its days as the Lucas chapel, it contains the rather magnificent tomb of William, first Baron Crofts, in all its 1670s Restoration glory. The keyholder was out the day I called, but this was entirely my fault as I had been given their telephone number beforehand, and had neglected to ring ahead. Luckily, Michael Fitzgerald has come to the rescue with the photograph which you can see below.

Unable to see it for myself, I admired the fine pipe organ, and some fascinating photographs of the church before its late 19th century refurbishment.

St Nicholas is a super building, one of West Suffolk’s most interesting churches, full of discoveries to be made by anyone who isn't in a hurry. Not far off is the lesser-known church of St Andrew, Great Saxham, full of colourful Flemish glass, a refreshing dessert after this substantial main course.

  killed on the Somme

Simon Knott, May 2008

south doorway looking east sanctuary looking west former north doorway?
cherub organ pulpit rood stair entrance heraldic 
St Nicholas St Edmund Moses St George angel
woman reading a prayer book St Luke Blessed Virgin St James dog
monster wyvern creature St James
memorial St Nicholas, St Paul, St Peter, St Edmund war memorial carved
virtute fidelis beware of a thorn Heaton, Butler and Bayne

monument in the vestry (c)Michael Fitzgerald

skulls with ruffs St Nicholas skull


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