St Bartholomew, Orford
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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|Given the rate at which houses in
Suffolk coastal towns have been bought up as second homes
by outsiders in the last few decades, you might expect
that Orford would have succumbed long ago, especially as
it is so much smaller than its neighbours Aldeburgh and
Southwold. But it seems to me that there is still a quiet
local resilience to this place, perhaps because it
doesn't have a beach, or maybe that the houses in its
main street are mostly too large to attract someone
looking for a bolt hole. Back in 1978, Jean Carter and
Stewart Bacon observed in their fine little book Orford,
Suffolk, that of all the places we have visited
in Suffolk, and that excludes but a few, nowhere we have
found a more typically Suffolk character than the true
native of Orford, and perhaps that remains so today.
Orford isn't really a town at all of course, no more than
a large village really, though it retains services that
have been lost to similarly sized communities elsewhere,
its fire station, its school and its three pubs for
example, perhaps by virtue of its wide, rural hinterland.
But unlike Southwold say, Orford does not turn its back
on its fields and forests. The outskirts of the place
have streets of former rural district council houses, and
the inhabitants are as likely to work the land as be
Across the wide River Ore, which was the Alde before it turned suddenly south, the spit of Orford Ness cuts the village off from the grey North Sea, a dramatic thing to see from the top of Orford Castle, which can be the windiest place I know. It was the building of the castle by Henry II that made a proper place of Orford, and led to the building of a substantial church, of which the ruins of the chancel survive. The Norman chancel was a remarkable six bays long, with aisles on each side, and must have been a spectacular sight. The nave, aisles and tower underwent a rebuilding in the late 14th and 15th Centuries. The nave and aisles would have been complete by 1488 when Thomas Pratt left 6s 8d to the painting of the candlebeam and 6s 8d to make a tabernacle of Our Lady of Pity, roughly £300 in today's money to each. However, he also left 6s 8d to the reparacion of the steeple. Over the next few decades there were a number of further bequests to work on the tower. In 1498, John Fferor left £10 towards the treble bell, a hefty £10,000 in today's money. In 1504, Robert Maryot left 6s 8d to the reparation of the bell frame, and the following year Thomas Bokyll left 20s for a bell. So, we can assume that as the Reformation approached, the rebuilding of Orford church was pretty well complete.
The medieval period was the economic heyday of the Borough of Orford. As early as the 13th Century, its level of trade was equal with that of Ipswich down the coast. But the Reformation coincided with a slow decline, and with it a consequent lack of will and funds to maintain the whole of the church. By the early 18th Century the chancel was in decay and was abandoned, leaving only the arcades. At the start of the 19th Century, the top of the tower of which late medieval Orforders had obviously been so proud collapsed. It was replaced as recently as the 1970s, perhaps not entirely happily, although Pevsner's revising editor politely thought it monumental. The church sits in an imposing position at the top of the main street just off of the former market square on the opposite side to the castle, and leaves you in no doubt that medieval Orford was a place of some significance.
You enter the church, which is to say the late medieval nave and aisles, through an enormous late 15th Century south porch. Stepping inside can be a little disorienting, especially if you have come for one of the frequent concerts that the church hosts, for then the chairs are often turned to face the west. The internal space is square, the most easterly third of it divided off by a screen of the 1920s to form a wide, aisled chancel beyond. There is no coloured glass to the west of the screen, and the 19th Century furnishings have been removed, so clear coastal light floods across the brick floors. This is a perfect setting for one of Suffolk's most interesting fonts, which is a set in an imposing position on a pedestal which carries a dedicatory inscription to John Cokerel and his wife.
It is one of the familiar 15th Century East Anglian series, octagonal with a stem supported by lions and wodewoses, and the symbols of the Evangelists alternating on the panels of the bowl, but the panels between them include a depiction of God the Father holding the cross with his Son crucified on it, and on another the Blessed Virgin holding the body of her dead son. These images are found rarely elsewhere on fonts in East Anglia. The first of them is usually described as the Holy Trinity, but this is only the case if it also incorporates the dove of the Holy Ghost, otherwise it is more properly known as the Mercy Seat. The wodewoses are fearsome, their clubs ready for action.
One of the modern names associated with Orford church is that of the composer Benjamin Britten. Born in Lowestoft,he lived at Aldeburgh and is buried there. But he loved this church, and it was for the first performances of a number of his works. The shape, space and light here must have contributed to the structure and scale of Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace, The Prodigal Son and, most famously of all, Noyes Fludde, his version of the Chester mystery play of the Noah story. It was originally performed by vast ranks of Suffolk schoolchildren, and the recording of that first production is still the standard version of the work today. It is marked by a 1990s sculpture by Liliane Yauner depicting Noah's release of the dove, and Britten himself is remembered by a large roundel set in the floor towards the west end of the nave. High in the west window beyond it is an echoing roundel of glass depicting the Orford Arms.
Stepping through the screen is to enter a part of the church with a quite different feel, labyrinthine, cluttered and secretive. the chancel aisles are divided from the central space by 18th Century screens, and in the north aisle stands the organ. On its east side is an inscription telling us that this organ and gallery were erected at the sole expence of the Rt Hon Francis Earl of Hertford 1772. I assume that this would originally have stood at the west end, and was taken down and moved here when the screen was installed in 1921. But the star of the show in the chancel is the best collection of late medieval and early modern brass memorials in all Suffolk, including a dozen figures, a reflection of the wealth and power of this town in centuries past.
A number of the figures have lost their inscription plates, and this appears to be a result of the visit to this church on the 25th January 1644 by the Puritan iconoclast William Dowsing. Over the course of some nine months, Dowsing made a visitation to several hundred churches in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. His task was to advise churchwardens on what needed to be removed in order to comply with the recent ordinances against idolatry in churches. Most often this consisted of getting rid of the recent 'Laudian' innovations like raised altars and their rails, but at many churches Dowsing identified pre-Reformation imagery that had not been removed a century earlier, most often in stained glass (which, pragmatically, had been expensive for parishes to replace with clear glass) and in roof carvings (which had been difficult for parishes to remove.) Dowsing was not a pragmatist, and occasionally destroyed offending objects himself, but most frequently he was advising parishes of what they needed to do to conform to the injunctions and thus avoid the fine of forty shillings (roughly two thousand pounds in today's money). At Orford, he appears to have carried out the work himself: We brake down 28 superstitious pictures (these would have been in glass) and took up 11 popish inscriptions in brass, and gave order for digging up the steps,and takeing of 2 crosses off the steeple, one off the church and one off the chancel, in all four.
The 'popish inscriptions' were what is known as prayer clauses, asking for prayers for the soul of the dead person. Protestants do not believe in praying for the souls of the dead, and so from the puritans' point of view these inscriptions were idolatrous. However, a curiosity is that not all the inscriptions with prayer clauses were removed, including the one on the font. The biggest curiosity of all, however, is that one of the surviving brass memorials includes an image of the Holy Trinity, God the Father seated, holding the crucified Son, and the Dove of the Holy Ghost. The most likely explanation is that it was in poor condition and Dowsing assumed it was a heraldic device, which he was always careful never to remove.
Not all of the figures are anonymous, although no identification survives for most of the pre-Reformation memorials. The Coe family provided mayors to the Corporation in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries, and have several memorials here. John Coggishall was mayor three times in the 17th Century, and his ledger stone has an inset brass depicting him with his wife and children. His inscription tells us that
His corps lyes here, his soule
is gone to heaven
After the expanse of woodwork beyond the screen, the sanctuary itself is plain and simple. The east wall was rebuilt as part of an 1890s restoration, and the glass in the east window came in 1921, by Clayton & Bell. It depicts the Blessed Virgin and Christchild flanked by St Edmund, St Paul, St Bartholomew and St Nicholas. Pevsner tells us that the early 16th Century painting of the Holy Family with donors below it is by Bernadino Luini. An elegant sanctuary in the south aisle chapel is surmounted by another painting of the Holy Family, attributed to Raffaellino dal Colle. The simple holy table in the north aisle chapel would have been familiar to the Coggishall family who are buried in the space in front of it.
The churchyard sprawls around the
large church, the long generations of Orforders in their
final sleep both within and without the church. Beyond
the churchyard, this lovely little town, for surely it
still is a town despite its tiny size, is full of
interest with plenty to explore. Explore the castle and
then walk down to the quayside, always a breezy place,
and then take shelter in one of the old-fashioned pubs.
Come in winter to avoid the daytrippers, when the air is
fogged with wood smoke and the mist from the sea,
wrapping the red brick houses in a secretive velvet. The
21st Century continues to transform East Anglia, but
Orford still feels wilfully different, and I admire it
tremendously for that. Carter and Bacon recalled the
words with which George II was greeted on his visit to
Orford in 1727:
Simon Knott, January 2024
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