At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John the Baptist, Lound

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Lound war memorial (Ninian Comper, 1919)

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      Lound is a pleasingly self-contained village in this area of scattered parishes, and despite its position between the urban sprawls of Lowestoft, Gorleston and Great Yarmouth it is entirely rural in character. The church sits off the village street, and as often around here it is round-towered. The tower appears to have been completely rebuilt in the early years of the 14th Century, and this is probably a good date for the rest of the church as well, although as James Bettley points out in his revision of the Buildings of England volumes for Suffolk, the details of the nave and chancel are all of the 19th Century, the result of three successive restorations. The most striking feature of the exterior is probably the crucifixion war memorial set into the south wall of the nave. It was the 1920 work of Ninian Comper, and it is a foretaste of things to come.

If you do not know what to expect when you push open the south door and step inside, then you are in for a surprise. The Rector of Lound from 1908 to 1917 was the Reverend Booth Lynes, and at his behest and expense Ninian Comper was employed to transform the interior of this church to return it to its medieval arrangement, as Comper's biographer Anthony Symondson put it, going on to add that as a result it became far richer than it was in the Middle Ages. The first sign of this is the great gilded font cover which rises above the late medieval font, and the similarly gilded organ case above the west door. And then you turn to the east, and there is Comper's remarkable gilded rood screen.

rood and rood loft (Ninian Comper, 1913) The Lound screen (Ninian Comper, 1913) Holy Kinship: St Elizabeth and the young St John the Baptist, Blessed Virgin and Christchild, St Mary Salome and the young St John the Evangelist (Ninian Comper, 1913)
six-winged seraph standing on a wheel (Ninian Comper, 1913) Holy Kinship: St Elizabeth and the young St John the Baptist (Ninian Comper, 1913) Holy Kinship: Blessed Virgin and Christchild (Ninian Comper, 1913) Holy Kinship: St Mary Salome and the young St John the Evangelist (Ninian Comper, 1913) six-winged seraph standing on a wheel (Ninian Comper, 1913)
light shining through angels holding the letter G (Ninian Comper, 1913) light shining through angels holding the letter M (Ninian Comper, 1913)

Comper used the surviving remnants of the medieval screen and then built it up with rood loft and rood group. Comper interpreted the rood as a 'Tree of Glory', and the cross is vine-like. Along the front of the rood loft are angel musicians and heraldic shields. These are a curious collection, representations including Edward III, who had been on the throne when the church was rebuilt, the Bishop of Norwich and the Lynes family. The G and M above the entrance represent King George V and Queen Mary, who were on the throne at the time of the screen's installation. At the south end of the screen is a lady altar, in the manner of those at Ranworth in Norfolk. The panels are a depiction of a Holy Kinship. St Elizabeth stands with the young St John the Baptist beside the Blessed Virgin and the Christchild, and then comes St Mary Salome with the young St John the Evangelist.

Comper's work here at Lound was carried out between 1912 and 1917, and this makes it a snapshot of the apotheosis of Anglican ritualism. On the eve of the First World War, the Church of England was at its height as a national and sacramental institution, a position so powerful that it was able to offer both a mystical counterpoint to the experience of the War, and a focus and ministry for grief during and after it. But the Church would never be the same again. The old certainties had been destabilised by the War, and the social structure of England was changing forever. Never again would the Church of England hold such cultural and social power.

The font and organ case at one end of the nave and the screen at the other act as a balance to each other, and the space in between is relatively simple, with two blocks of plain benches set far enough apart to create a sense of space. The font has a dedicatory inscription around the base recording that it was the gift of John Bertelot, the incumbent here towards the end of the 14th Century. The only intrusion in this space is Comper's wall painting of St Christopher set on the north wall in the traditional manner. This St Christopher is a jolly bearded fellow bearing a smiling Christchild. Fish swim in the water about the saint's feet, and beside a water mill on the bank a man stands with a heavy horse. The Rolls Royce being driven up the road behind the mill is a self-portrait by Comper, and when the painting was restored in the 1960s the elderly Comper ordered a passenger jet plane to be added, flying above the Christchild's head.

St Christopher (Ninian Comper, 1920s/1950s) St Christopher, Christchild and jet plane (Ninian Comper, 1920s/1950s) St Christopher's feet in the stream, mill and Comper self-portrait in a vintage car (Ninian Comper, 1920s/1950s)

The screen dominates the church, and of course Comper's refurbishment here it is not to everyone's taste. But Betjeman loved it, and once when I was here with my friend John he told me a wonderful story. When John was young, he'd watched a television programme that Betjeman had made about East Anglian churches. One of the churches was Lound, and the way that Betjeman stuck his head through the rood screen to gaze at Comper's chancel made a deep impression on John. The following day, his careers teacher asked him what he wanted to do when he left school. "I want to do what John Betjeman does", John told him. To his eternal credit, the careers teacher suggested that John write to Betjeman, which he did. Betjeman replied, inviting John for tea at his Chelsea flat, and they became friends. At the time, Betjeman was involved in helping set up the organisation Friends of Friendless Churches, and after Betjeman's death John took his place on the board. Today John lectures on churches and church history, and leads guided tours to medieval churches all over England. And all this thanks to a television programme about this place and a wise, kind teacher.

After the Reformation this must have been a very plain and simple church until the 19th Century Anglican revival came along, but in fact Lynes and Comper were not the first to try to beautify it. Beyond the screen is the chancel with its altar and riddel screen. The glass in the chancel is the work of the great Henry Holiday, and it was installed here between 1897 and 1905 by Lynes' predecessor. The most memorable glass is a window depicting the Presentation in the Temple. Mary carries two doves and Joseph beside her leans on his staff. They look on as Simeon holds the Christchild with a rapt expression on his face, Anna standing quietly beside him. Underneath are Simeon's words, Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.

Blessed Virgin and St Joseph at the presentation in the Temple (Henry Holiday, 1905) Presentation in the Temple (Henry Holiday, 1905) Simeon, Anna and the Christchild at the presentation in the Temple (Henry Holiday, 1905)
Blessed Virgin and St Mary Magdalene (Henry Holiday, 1897) St John and Christ (Henry Holiday, 1897)

The illusion of permanence that the late 19th and early 20th Century Anglo-Catholic movement sought, and its desire to erase the wrongs of the Reformation by recreating a sense of continuity back to the early Church, are written here physically in Comper's furnishings. In those days the Anglo-Catholics were in the ascendant, and many firmly believed that, eventually, the entire Church of England would be like them. Then, it was hoped, the 'Roman' Catholics of England and even most non-conformists would recognise the truth of the Anglo-Catholic position, see the error of their own ways, and seek a return to the 'true' English Mother Church. But of course this did not happen, and it never will.

I thought about what Roger Scruton wrote about the Church of England in England: an Elegy, his elegant meditation on the way this country changed over the course of the 20th Century: The English knew in their hearts that religion is a human invention - the whole history of their Church reminded them of this. The census of 1851 already showed that less than half of them were regular worshippers - a figure which dropped below a quarter in urban areas. Yet they automatically put 'C of E' on any form inquiring after their religion, and acknowledged the necessity of religion in every ceremony in which their loyalties as Englishmen were rehearsed. Their religion was a conscious artefact. Like good manners, it did not bear too close an interrogation. It was a collective polishing of the world, and veneered the ordinary life of England in the way that a smile veneers a face.

The veneer that Comper put on Lound church is unforgettable.This church is a shrine, an uncompromisingly militant Anglo-Catholic statement about belief and practice. But it is of its time, and times have changed. The events of the last thirty years have pushed the militant Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England further and further towards the margins. Suffolk is mostly today a Low Church county, and perhaps it always was. True, its Anglo-Catholic communities thrive, but they are generally liberal in practice rather than following the old militancy of the traditionalists, and both Lynes and Comper would be most surprised to learn that today the majority of its ministers are women.


Simon Knott, September 2022

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chancel high altar font (15th Century), font cover, organ case and font cover beam (Ninian Comper, 1911-14)
St Francis St John the Baptist repurposed mortar in piscina and credence (20th Century)
Holy Trinity dedicatory inscription
screen altar frontal (Lucy Bucknall)


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