At the sign of the Barking lion...

St James, Nayland

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


Hover to read captions, click to see enlarged images:

Great St James from the west.

Chocolate box Nayland.

Up the churchyard path to the north porch.

William Abell's grand porch of the early 16th century.

The south-east corner, and the rood-stair turret.

Stepping down into the north porch.

The hazy incense-filled sanctuary after the Pontifical Mass.

A very good recut font.

Looking east.

The south arcade.

The south aisle chapel, and Scuola Gregoriana

The Blythburghesque roof.

West gallery and organ.

Clergyman and Constable.

Looking east.


The least exciting face of St James.

Most recently, I visited St James as part of the anniversary celebrations – of another church. I’ll explain why in a moment, but an observation first: I like St James a lot. I like Nayland too – Suffolk has far fewer chocolate box villages than you might be led to expect, but Nayland is one of them.

The church is shoehorned into a tight site among houses that are nearly as old; only to the north is there room for the graveyard to expand. Because of this, you might be tempted to view it only from this side; but this would be a mistake, for although it is grand enough, it is probably the least interesting of the four sides. At any church, a walk around the outside is recommended. Here, it is essential.

As I say, I came here last because of celebrations It was the centenary of the little building on the north-east edge of St James’s churchyard. This is the Catholic church of the Sacred Heart. Before the Reformation, of course, St James itself was a Catholic church; but Henry VIII and two of his children threw the Priests out of the Temple, and now Nayland’s Catholics leave their Mass under the shadow of the glory that was once theirs. Sacred Heart is a tiny little church, and St James is vast; but as so often these days, it is Sacred Heart that has the larger congregation. So it was that the centenary Mass was held in the big sister church. It must have been many years since St James hosted a high pontifical Mass, but it seemed very comfortable with it.

I have several reasons for particularly liking St James. Firstly, he is my favourite Saint, and his church here is a glory to him; it is furnished in the Anglo-catholic manner of the early 20th century, with Stations of the Cross set in the walls and a grand ritualist sanctuary. But it does not have the pomposity or the triumphalism you find in other large Suffolk Anglican churches like Lavenham and Clare. Here, the feeling is of a rural church at ease with itself, not the proto-urbanity that comes with Minton tiles and polished woodwork.

Having said that, the work here is of a high quality, and very well-cared for. Quite frankly, I think this church is a credit to its village and parish.

But let us survey the outside first. St James was a 15th century cloth church, rebuilt on the wealth of the cloth traders. You step down into the seriously civic south porch, or continue anti-clockwise to the west tower, behind the houses, where the west door has four steps - up. Most curious. The tower was never rebuilt; it is still the original 14th century one, and the late-medieval battlements are, in fact, Victorian.

Carrying on southwards, we come to a third entrance, and the grandest. William Abell's porch was given as part of a bequest on the eve of the Reformation. Rather curiously, it faces westwards at the end of the south aisle, and is no longer in regular use.

A narrow path leads up the south side of the church, with a wall and gardens beyond. It takes us past a grand red brick rood loft stair turret, an indicator that the screen went right the way across the church as at Blythburgh, Southwold, Lowestoft St Margaret and other grand churches of the same date.

The eastend is like a little city of chancel and chapel, including several original doors. Then, you are back round into the open churchyard.

We step in, then, through the north porch. The nave is immediately reminiscent of that at Framlingham, with the organ high in its gallery, the well recut font in the north-west corner, and solid pillars leading to a bold clerestory. The aisles spread beyond the arcades, and end in fine modern chapels; that in the north aisle is particularly appealing. The roof is reminiscent of Blythburgh in its camber, but is entirely devoid now of angels and monograms.

The chancel is high and grand, and if the stone reredos is a little severe then this is adequately compensated for by John Constable’s best altar piece. I am assuming that there is now a replica in place, as at Brantham. Christ blesses the bread and wine with a haunting expression on his face; you wonder what Constable might have done if he hadn’t achieved success as a landscape painter.

If you can get access to the vestry, you will find the memorial to William Jones, vicar for the last quarter of the 18th century. His place in modern Anglican history is secure and undeniable, and yet his name is almost entirely forgotten. At a time when the Church of England was almost entirely the preserve of a boorish squirarchy, he led a group of intellectuals who explored the spiritual nature of the church, and attempted to reintroduce ideas to their parishioners like the real presence in the Eucharist. He made his mark felt in many corners of the English Church. One of his early followers was John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement. Another was the father of John Keble, who went on to be the inspiration behind the Oxford Movement. Yet another person inspired by the legacy of his spiritual writings was the young John Henry Newman. It seems incredible that the catalyst behind the two great breakaway movements of the last 250 years should have been a quiet clergyman in this Suffolk backwater, although in the late 18th and early 19th century the name 'Jones of Nayland' was well-known.

For brass-hunters, there is much to see - there are six, all told, to the Sekyn, Hacche and Davy families. There is also some really good modern glass, particularly in the north aisle.

Why is this grand church not on the ecclesiological tourist circuit? Well, it is all a bit Victorianised, I suppose. But as on the outside, there are some medieval survivals inside, and the most remarkable of these are hanging up on the south aisle wall. These are the panels of the medieval roodscreen (the frame and boarding is all Victorian) and show eight figures. The first shows St Cuthbert - the football in his hand is in fact a head; the second and third are two popular Saints in East Anglia, our own St Edmund and the Papal St Gregory (you can tell that the furious Anglican reformers didn't like him). The fourth is a King, the fifth shows the legend of St Edward the Confessor (you can see this in stone at Wordwell) the next two are Kings, and the last is probably St Thomas of Canterbury.

I’m assuming that the screen must have been in situ until the Victorian restoration.

If you can get permission to climb to the organ loft, then the view of the church from there is wonderful, and particularly that of the roof and clerestory.

Don’t leave without examining the funeral bier in the south aisle; it is one of Suffolk’s biggest, and obviously designed for grand processions for civic worthies. It is a reminder that, as late as the 19th century, Nayland was a significant place, before the second industrial revolution faded it into obscurity.

Saints of Nayland - click to enlarge.

The funeral bier - click to enlarge.

Station XII: Christ Crucified.


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