At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary Magdalene, Little Whelnetham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

Little Whelnetham

Little Whelnetham low side window and priest door 

eagle   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 up until the industrial revolution this was one of the most heavily populated parts of England. As recently as the 1950s, 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 - 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, with the stress on the second syllable) 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.

There is no reason why, I suppose, 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.

ruin ruin ruin

In any event, St Mary Magdalene now sits to the west of 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.

Unusually for these parts, the church is kept locked, but there is a key across the road. The interior is curious, not easily grasped but not wholly like any other church I've visited. I hope that the parish will not be too offended if I say that it is rather endearingly shabby, without the polished shine of many Victorianised parish churches. Part of its charm is the lovely 15th century roof, all hammerbeams and braces. Who were the figures on the beam ends? They are angels, but each one is different. Were they based on medieval locals, perhaps? I looked up into its intricate tracery, and the lions stared back at me.

A 17th century bench end depicts a grinning and undeniably masculine bull, and the initials JB - almost certainly 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 bookledge, Mortlock thought it might not have been intended as a lectern at all. In the seven years since my last visit, 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.

  John Bull

Simon Knott, May 2008

looking east candle and piscina sanctuary lectern looking west
lion screen lion looking west
angel roof roof angel



Amazon commission helps cover the running costs of this site