At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John the Baptist, Metfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Metfield: a delight (click to view)
  south side porch brick tombs from the street

lichen   It was an unpredictable day in the Waveney valley. We'd seen the sun come out at Oakley and Billingford, but there'd been thunder at Hoxne. We came down the long road from Weybread, the clouds gathering and now the rain was beginning to fall.

This was a pity, because I'd really been looking forward to coming to Metfield. I always do. This is such a lovely church in a lovely village; I can never pass without going inside. What I'd really been looking forward to was coming here with a decent digital camera, and now the rain was suggesting that it was going to make photography rather difficult.

Metfield is remote enough from anywhere of any size to feel like it has a life of its own, and this was certainly so in the 19th century. At the time of the 1841 census, when the populations of most rural East Anglian parishes were beginning to reach their peak, the village had more than 700 residents, and could boast a surgeon, a schoolmaster, a tailor, a bricklayer, an inn and two beerhouses, three shoemakers, two butchers and three grocers. White's 1844 directory notes that Mrs Susan Godbold has resided in the parish for 80 years, and walked round the village on her 104th birthday, Sept 14th 1843. A century later, Arthur Mee found her gravestone while poking around in the churchyard, and noted that she had died at the remarkable age of 105.

The church seems to have been in a fairly moribund state by the early years of the 19th century. By one of those arcane pieces of Church legislation, it was what was known as a donative, which is to say that there were no Rectorial or Vicarial tithes, and the institution of a minister was in the hands of the congregation, who paid him a salary as a chaplain. This was all well and good, and sounds very democratic, but it relied on a large number of parishioners attending church and paying for the privilege of doing so. By the 19th century, the level of Anglican churchgoing in East Anglia had fallen to about a tenth of the population (it was slightly higher than this in Metfield) and consequently there simply wasn't enough money to maintain a minister and the upkeep of the buildings. Thomas Mayhew, the Rector of Rumburgh St Michael, served as chaplain at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, but he complained that some parishioners who have not signed the agreement have refused to pay their portion of composition which cannot be recovered without action at law... in the course of time this church will be robbed of its only money payment.

In some parts of Suffolk, the independent churches were more popular than the Established church, but this seems not to have been the case at Metfield, where the Methodist Society had only about a dozen members. It seems that in Metfield, as in most of north-east Suffolk, most people simply didn't go to church anymore.

A series of reform acts, and the revival of the Church of England in the second half of the 19th century, would have a dramatic effect on parishes like Metfield. And yet, the restoration of the church was a light one. This large, aisless church sits in its wide graveyard surrounded by 18th and 19th century gravestones. The view from the west is typical: no great statements, no flowery Victorian windows, just a fine,tall tower lifting to a simple bell window and the battlements and pinnacles restored in the 18th century. Apart from these, the building is pretty much as it was on the eve of the Reformation. It is a setting I love, but by the time we arrive the rain was sheeting down across the graveyard, and so as quickly as possible we took refuge in the 15th century porch.

This is typical of the way rural East Anglian parishes emulated the grandeur of near neighbours with money. Here, the porch is vaulted, but in wood, probably by a local carpenter, and there are even bosses as if we were in the porch of Eye or Wymondham. These are also wooden, depicting heads - one is a green man, another had swallow nests tucked in above to give him a full head of hair - but the central boss is bigger than the rest. It is said to depict Christ in Majesty, although if he is stting on a rainbow it is actually Christ in Judgement.

Christ in Judgement
head green man head

If you have visited Metfield, you will never forget the slow, steady ticking of the early 17th century clock which fills the nave. You can see the mechanism through the gates in the tower arch. It was already more than two hundred years old when Sarah Godbold did her birthday walk around the streets of Metfield. The interior of the nave is light and open, the furnishings all modern, but attractive. There's a lovely west gallery put up in the 18th century, and below it are surviving panels from the medieval rood screen, still with their original paint. When Peter Dickinson was revising the Little Guide in the 1950s, these were still in situ within the chancel arch, but the chancel has been reordered simply and skilfully, and is even fuller of light than the nave.

The greatest treasure of Metfield church is above the east end of the nave. This is the finest surviving medieval canopy of honour in East Anglia. It surmounted the rood, the crucified Christ flanked by the Blessed Virgin and St John, which was destroyed by the Anglican reformers in the middle of the 16th century. On large panels, roundels contain the monograms IHC and AMR are surrounded by flowers and foliage, all rendered in red and green. It is reminiscent of the roof of the chapel at Bury St Mary, and is absolutely haunting.

We came outside, and the rain had stopped. The air was steaming as the clouds began to part, and a blackbird began to sing.


Simon Knott, 2007


looking east looking west altar canopy of honour
canopy of honour IHC AMR royal arms
font chancel clock war memorial candle stick
redeemer pelican rood screen panels 1939-45

left blank Sacred Rebecca Samuel Freestone


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