At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Nicholas, Rattlesden

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


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From the top road

Blomfield meets the 15th century - it seems to work.

That 15th century church in full

From the north east

Prynne's magnificent rood apparatus

The anctuary

Sedilia in the sanctuary

looking west

The south arcade


Looking west in the chancel

Lady chapel in Prynne's parclose

Part of the original roodscreen

Blomfield's angel roof

Jumble of medieval glass in the north aisle

Rattlesden airfield memorial chapel

Royal arms

Art Nouveau lantern in the sanctuary

Kimball memorial

Beneath the tower - ropes and spiral staircase

Rattlesden Baptist Chapel on the edge of the village.


St Nicholas bestriding the Rat Valley.

The hills roll in from the west, and make gentle folds in the countryside between Stowmarket and Hadleigh. Some of the valleys are quite dramatic, and in one of the steepest sits the village of Rattlesden. Rattlesden is a large village in a wide parish, and in fact the parish contains several other settlements; one of them, Hightown Green, is bigger than many other Suffolk villages. But it is Rattlesden itself that contains the parish church, and what a dramatic setting! Half-timbered houses clamber the slopes either side of the splendidly named River Rat. On the south side they are particularly grand, and include a fine old pub. However, there is a jollier pub on the north side where the church is, and it was this one that was packed to the gunnels when we called in at 4pm on Easter Monday 2004.

The churchyard drops dramatically away to the south-east. A steep path descends from the road above the graveyard giving a grand view of the building, and it doesn't take much to see that St Nicholas is a little unusual. Although the assemblage of nave, clerestory, aisles and chancel are familiar 15th century rebuildings in this prosperous area, the tower is a little out of the ordinary. Uncastellated, but with a little wooden spire, it was remodelled by Sir Arthur Blomfield in the later years of the 19th century. Replacing an earlier spire which had fallen, but avoiding Richard Phipson's psychedelic fantasies at nearby Woolpit and Great Finborough, he produced something much more austere, although in its way just as singular. The shortness of the spire create an effect a bit like a hat on the thin tower. Two clasping pencil-like buttresses rise on the west side, and the tower appears to lean into them, but this is perhaps just an optical illusion.

The exterior took its present form in four stages. Firstly, the original nave was built in the 13th century, probably replacing a Saxon or Norman building. A hundred years later, the tower was added. Next, the dramatic remodelling occured in the 15th century, when the little church was transformed by the addition of Perpendicular aisles and a clerestory.

The clerestory is a beautiful one and above the windows, between the battlements, are a sequence of holy symbols. They are for the Blessed Virgin and most of the disciples, but also include St Edmund of East Anglia and St Etheldreda of Ely, a reminder that the Priory there was one of the patrons of the living here. The pinnacles finish it all off a treat.

Parapet: Mary, sacred monogram, St John? Parapet: Andrew, Simon, Thomas, Etheldreda

You step in through the south porch into a wide, urban interior. Apart from some medieval benches in the south aisle, the pews were all replaced with modern chairs, which always looks good and is always a blessing to anyone who actually has to sit on the things.

What makes St Nicholas remarkable is that it contains one of the most complete and precise reconstructions of a rood system in England. It was constructed between 1909 and 1916 to the designs of GHF Prynne. It is based on a medieval fragment surviving at the west end. One of the reasons it is so good is that it does not try to recreate a medieval effect, but rather serves to demonstrate the actual mechanics of how the whole thing worked. If you are lucky enough to be allowed through the locked grill, the original roodloft stair in the south aisle takes you up into the loft of the parclose screen as at Dennington, and then up a ladder and through an opening in the south arcade across into the roodloft itself. This crosses to the north arcade, beneath the elegant arch. The rood is a grand thing; however, I suspect that the original rood here may have been even bigger, hence the backlighting from the triple lancet window in the east wall of the nave. The other little opening may have been designed to enclose a sanctus bell, which would have been rung from the rood loft.

The doors in the rood screen are very heavy, effectively separating the chancel from the nave, and the chancel itself is fitted as a choir, which must have been the very thing at the turn of the 20th century. Above all this, the whole medieval vision-thing is completed by the angel roof installed in the 1880s. Imagine all this wood ablaze with colour, and you'll begin to get a feel for what this place must have been like when it was first in its current form towards the end of the 15th century.

Prynne's great rood.
The rood figures Transition from the rood loft to the parclose loft The parclose loft and roodloft stair.

The chancel is grand without being overstated, although the art nouveau lamps either side of the sanctuary are something special. Looking back towards the nave and the tower arch, you'll see that it is, unusually, raised up a step, as if to improve the view. The railings dividing it off are actually the former communion rails removed from nearby Kettlebaston at the time of its Anglo-catholic makeover. Within the tower arch a quaint wrought iron staircase spirals into the belfry.

St Nicholas has plenty of good modern glass, especially that in the south aisle chapel, which contains a hauntingly beautiful Madonna and child. This chapel still retains image pedestals, some with original colour, as well as a little piscina whch has been cruelly vandalised.

In the south east chancel window stands a 1930s rendition of St Nicholas himself, with the face of the Vicar of the time which is a touch eerie. On the left, Thomas Rattlesden meets Henry VII outside the gates of Bury Abbey, while the figure on the right is St Edmund. There's also a good war memorial window containing St George.

Madonna and child in south aisle chapel St Nicholas and friends. Spooky. St George and the war memorial.

Below the St Nicholas window, a 19th century wooden sedilia is inserted into the low window ledge.

In the nave are several reminders of the connections between this parish and the United States. The Kimball family came from here, and their ancestors have installed a plaque in the north aisle as well as paying for the bringing together of fragments of medieval glass in a north aisle window. The north aisle chapel remembers the presence of the USAAF on Rattlesden airfield during WWII. The 'K' on the prayer desk recalls not only the Kimballs but also the operation letter for planes flying from the base.

Stepping out into the churchyard, we found the clouds had gathered. The large houses to the south of the church contrasted with the modern, smaller ones back up the road where we returned, pushing our bikes to the strange little pub. It looked unreal, as if it was someone's hobby rather than a business.

We'd planned St Nicholas to be our last port of call that day, and so we weren't in a hurry. We left the pub, got on our bikes and headed out of the village on the backroad to Drinkstone. We passed an early 19th century Baptist chapel with its own graveyard, a reminder of the days when the conflict between church and chapel was as much social as theological. As we climbed into the fields, the heavens opened.

looking east from the graveyard Looking south from the graveyard

St Nicholas, Rattlesden, is in the middle of the village just to the south of Woolpit, south of the A14 between Bury and Stowmarket. I have always found it open.

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