St Mary, Nettlestead
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
The inside of the church is neat, bright and welcoming. It is easy to describe the interior of a small church as pretty, but Nettlestead really is so, and once stepped into it will not easily be forgotten.
The crowning jewel here is one of Suffolk's loveliest fonts. Panels intersperse lively evangelstic symbols with grinning men, one with his tongue sticking out (but could he be a lion?), a jolly bishop, and, almost surreally amongst all this merriment, St Catherine clutching her wheel of martyrdom. There are noticeable cracks around the bowl, as if at some point it has been seriously damaged. There is a story behind this font and its survival, as we shall see.
Another curious survival is the large squint in the splay of a window in the south wall. It seems to be focused on where the pulpit is now, so we might assume that there was once an altar in the nave there. But why was the squint where it is? Mortlock thought there might have been an anchorite's cell outside the south wall there, but it is hard to see how an outbuilding could have offered a view through the squint without its east wall cutting into the window. I wondered if the Easter sepulchre had been built where the pulpit is now, and the squint allowed parishioners a view of it on Good Friday, when the church was out of use.
Cautley doesn't mention the squint in his 1935 survey, so it was probably uncovered during a major restoration after the war. On the night of 12th August 1940, this pretty church suffered the same fate as that at Akenham, six miles away, when German bombers returning from a raid on the Midlands dropped their remaining bombs in a swathe across this part of rural Suffolk before embarking on the crossing of the North Sea. The church was gutted, and its restoration and reopening in 1950 was one of Munro Cautley's last jobs for the Anglican diocese. He is responsible for the meticulous piecing back together of the font, which was wrecked in the explosion.
The east end of the sanctuary is a curious thing, too. Its rather sober classical blank arcades are elegant, but beside them is the grimly morbid early 17th century memorial to Samuel and Thomasina Sayer with their pet skull in the north wall. Sayer built a faire almes house at Bewdley in Worstershier for six poore men and gave thirty powndes a yeare for ever, but he seems none too happy about it. Rather jollier are the lion and unicorn on the George IV coat of arms, which, instead of supporting the shield, emerge dramatically from behind it.
as this church is, only the font has survived today from
the Medieval period. But there was once much more. The iconoclast William Dowsing visited
Nettlestead on 22nd August 1644. It was one of seven
churches he visited in the area that day. One of his
houses was in the adjacent parish of Baylham, and these
small churches are close together, but even so the going
on horseback must have been easy that day.
Dowsing does not usually get too
worked up about fonts, but he mentions St Catherine on
the one here, who survives, unlike her saintly companions
in paint and glass, so presumably she was either
plastered over, or the font was removed from the church
and used as a drinking trough for cattle or something.
Unusually, Dowsing names the Saints he sees at
Nettlestead, and this despite it being just one of many
churches he visited that day. Why was Dowsing so thorough
at Nettlestead? The obvious conclusion is simply that,
being local, he already knew the church well.
Simon Knott, June 2007, updated February 2017
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