At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary Magdalene, Little Whelnetham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Little Whelnetham

red brick porch and the view west round tower ruins


Although the A134 between Bury and Sudbury is an awful road, it is easy to escape it, and the hills to the east of it are Suffolk's prettiest, and full of pretty villages. These are ancient parishes. These villages were here before the Norman conquest, and almost up until the industrial revolution this was one of the most heavily populated parts of England. As recently as the 1930s most people in the villages worked the land around, and a railway line threaded through. But that is now gone, and to climb the road up from Sicklesmere is to enter a peace unknown in Suffolk for centuries.

Little Whelnetham today is little more than two rows of cottages and houses lining the road to Bradfield St George, but this is merely symptomatic of what the second half of the 20th Century did to rural England. Now, there is no shop, no post office, nothing except the church to suggest a sense of community. And, being a chapel of ease to Bradfield St George rather than a parish church, St Mary Magdalene hosts just four services a year. Even some redundant churches manage more.

It is easy to find evidence of the medieval life and liturgy of the churches around here, but at Little Whelnetham (pronounced well-nee-th'm) there is something even more ancient. Just to the east of the chancel, set in a mound in the graveyard, is a low, circular structure about 12 feet in diameter, composed of flint and rubble. It is almost certainly the base of a round tower, perhaps part of an earlier church. Round towers are not common in this part of Suffolk, but there is one a couple of miles away at Beyton, and others to the west at Little Saxham and Risby. The remains here at Little Whelnetham suggest the possibility that there were once many more of them. Does it mean that there were once two churches in this churchyard? Perhaps, for such an arrangement is not unknown. However, it is more likely to be a rebuilding, I think. There is no reason why, I suppose, that a rebuilt church should be set exactly on the same site as its predecessor. There is a case for saying that it might have reused previous foundations, but we know that a lot of early Suffolk churches were built without any foundations at all.

In any event, St Mary Magdalene now sits to the west of what appears to be its former self, and presents us with a tower that Mortlock thought older than its apparently 14th century details would suggest. Simon Cotton, my expert contact on Suffolk wills and bequests, acknowledges that the tower is difficult to date. As he points out, Pevsner suggests a 14th century origin, but the belfry windows look advanced Perpendicular, and the brick battlements could easily be early 16th century. He tells me that the late Peter Northeast recorded a 1453 bequest by John Dekys' of 6s 8d to a tower which is highly likely to be Little Whelnetham. Also, in 1510, John Bunne's will left 10s to the covering of litill Queltham stepill. As Simon says, it all fits, doesn't it? Looking at the nave, Mortlock went for a 13th or possibly even 12th century origin, although there's no doubt the whole thing was given a thorough 14th century going over, and inside the roof appears to be even later, perhaps contemporary with the final crowning of the tower.

As with several churches around here, the keystone of the late medieval south doorway arch is fashioned into an angel. You step into a curious interior, not easily grasped and not wholly like any other. The first impression is of a church which is endearingly shabby, without the polished shine of many Victorianised parish churches. There is no electricity, and crowns of candles hang from the nave roof. And part of the charm of this place is this lovely early 16th century roof with its hammerbeams and braces. Who are the crowned figures on the beam ends? Each one is different. The first instinct is that they are angels which have lost their wings, but if these figures ever had wings then they must have been enormous. And if they are angels, they are strikingly human ones. They are reminiscent of the increasingly secular figures on the contemporary roof miles away at Hockwold in Norfolk. Could they be drawn from the same original source, or even be by the same workshop? Questions, questions. Below them, the lion corbels stare sullenly down, offering no answers.

crowned angel (early 16th Century) crowned angel (early 16th Century)
corbel: winged lion (early 16th Century?) corbel: lion with its tongue out (early 16th Century?) corbel: noble lion (early 16th Century?)

A 17th century bench end depicts a grinning and undeniably masculine bull, and the initials JB - almost certainly the seat of a churchwarden called John or James Bull. There are some image brackets in the south-east corner of the nave, which are decorated with foliage and castellations. And then there is that curious lectern. I've never seen another one quite like it. Indeed, judging by the unlikely angle and obviously added book ledge, Mortlock thought it might not have been intended as a lectern at all. In the first years of the 21st Century it had been severely vandalised, but then repaired so well that I never would have known if the lady across the road hadn't told me.

Outside, the view to the west is impressive. St Mary Magdalene is a hilltop church, suggestive of an ancient site. A couple of miles off on the next ridge stands Nowton church, the land falling away from where you stand and then rising up to meet it. Out of sight behind you, the church at Bradfield St George stands a similar distance to the east. You can't help imagining that these were once three connected pagan sites of some significance.


Simon Knott, October 2018

looking east chancel font
eagle crowned angel (early 16th Century) crowned angel (early 16th Century) crowned angel (early 16th Century) eagle lectern
ledger stone: skull and crossed bones on a pedestal (late 17th Century) image brackets (early 16th Century?) ledger stone: skull and crossed bones on a pedestal (late 17th Century)
keystone angel in the south doorway

draped cherub flanked by hourglasses above a wreathed tablet (late 17th Century) cherub under scrolled foliage (late 18th Century) sacred to the memory

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