St Mary, Redgrave
www.suffolkchurches.com - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
Redgrave is one of those large and relatively self-sufficient villages that you get more in the north and west of Suffolk than around Ipswich. However, this was not apparent to me, as I approached it from the direction of Wortham Common. I had cycled through the Long Green, a strange, otherworldly place. The Commons and Greens around here were still, until half a century ago, intensively grazed. Now, they have been let go back to nature, and are in many places covered in gorse and furze, with outcroppings of angular trees. Occasionally, as at Wortham, there are settlements which seem carved out of the common land. Theres nowhere else in Suffolk quite like it.
I left this behind, and a deep cutting of a lane led me up and out into open fields. The sun came out, and the tower of St Mary was ahead of me. It is a curious sight. Suffolk has a handful of towers rebuilt in the 18th century. Mostly, they are red brick, as at Layham, and rather less successfully Grundisburgh. However, Redgraves tower is white brick, and would be quite at home in the City of London, if a little more austere than most there.
Attached to it is a huge church. St Mary is big; it is a little-known church, but has more to offer than most. Simon Jenkins ignored it in Englands Thousand Best Churches; most probably, he didnt know about it. It would fit quite comfortably into his two or even three star categories, and joins Westhall and Badingham as the churches most deserving of inclusion.
Incidentally, when I pointed out to him that he'd missed Westhall and Badingham, he looked at me as if I was some kind of sad lunatic. I suppose that hes approached by someone with a similar complaint at least twice a day.
Be that as it may, St Mary is distinguished by several things, one of which you see as soon as you get there. It has more 18th century gravestones than any other church in the county. It sits in a great sea of them, hundreds of them, along with lots of 19th century ones as well. It is a genealogists dream or nightmare, depending on how much time theyve got.
The church is a good mile from the village, with a cottage next door and a farm across the road. Otherwise, the vast, steeply rising graveyard is completely surrounded by fields, a lovely sight. The aisles and clerestories are grand and elegant; as I said, this really is one of the great Suffolk churches.
The church was locked, but two keyholders were listed indeed, the notice stressed that visitors were most welcome, and I had experienced the same thing at the last two churches Id visited, Burgate and Thrandeston. A further bonus was that the notice gave the telephone numbers of the keyholders, including the local code a recognition that most of us carry mobile phones these days.
However, it didnt give their addresses. As it turned out, this was because they are so far away to the west that it wouldnt have been much use. Youll have a six mile trip if you plan on getting the key, returning to the church, taking it back and then coming back to St Mary to continue your journey. As it was, I was planning on continuing westwards anyway, but it is a fair stretch if you are on foot and wanting to continue eastwards.
I was on my bike, and full of enthusiasm. Following the keyholders careful instructions, I headed on into Redgrave, past the football ground and the old chapel with its surviving gravestones. I was nearly led astray by the pub, which looked very inviting, and promised food and real ale, opting instead for the shop, and lunch-to-go. I headed on out towards South Lopham, and when I was almost in Norfolk, I found the keyholders house, exactly as she had described. She was very cheery. Enjoy the church! she called, as I set off back towards it.
When I got back to St Mary, I was disheartened to find that, try as I might, I couldnt open the door. The key simply wouldnt turn. I even went up to the priest door and tried that, but it wasnt the right kind of lock. I wondered if I had been given the wrong key. I sloped back to the south porch, and found that, by not pushing the key fully in, and then tilting it downwards, I could get it to turn.
I stepped inside to a vast space. This church is full of light. The clerestory and aisle windows are huge, and although the east window is full of coloured glass, it too is vast, one of the widest I've seen. It would take hundreds and hundreds of people to fill this place, more than a thousand perhaps; but it was a gentle reminder to me that our medieval parish churches were not built for congregational Anglican worship.
St Mary has one of Suffolk's three best brasses, the 1609 memorial to Anne Butts. It has been reset in the sanctuary floor. You can see an image of it in the left hand column. She was related to the Bacons, that mighty Suffolk family, and her inscription reads:
The weaker sexes strongest precedent
Mortlock thought it the finest post-Reformation brass in England.
To get to it, you will have to pass an awesome table tomb in the north aisle. On it lie, life-size, Sir Nicholas and Lady Anne Bacon. Lady Anne was the daughter of Anne Butts (and Sir Nicholas her son-in-law) so we may assume that they are responsible for the quality of her memorial. But the grandeur of theirs quite outshines her, and everybody else. It is by Nicholas Stone, famous for the Coke memorial at Bramfield; she died in 1616, he in 1624. There is an excellent modern window behind it.
The Bacons are responsible for most of the thirteen hatchments here - more than in any other church in Suffolk. Others are for the Holt and Wilson families (who later intermarried). The latest is dated 1929.
One of the Holts can also be found up in the sanctuary. He's life-size, as you might expect here. He was Lord Chief Justice of England in the first decade of the 18th century, and he sits in his judge's robes. He's flanked by two voluptuous figures who are Justice and Mercy, and the whole piece is by Thomas Green of Camberwell. I know this, because he signed it in very large letters. Perhaps he was particularly proud of it.
In this great palace of slightly absurd grandeur, mention should also be made of the vast wooden decalogue hanging in the north aisle. I've never seen Moses and Aaron look so important. It once stood at the east end of the chancel, has ridiculously large scrolls, and would certainly have concentrated the mind.
All of this is overseen by that lovely glass in the huge east window. Mortlock tells us it is by a local firm, Farrow and son of Diss. I thought it splendid, quite in keeping with this mighty place. Also in keeping is the white stone pulpit, which is rather camp, although one assumes this was not the intended effect.
Curiously, Redgrave village is not the largest population centre in the parish. That honour goes to Botesdale, down on the main road, and part of the extended village of the Rickinghalls. Botesdale has its own church, but strictly speaking it is a chapel of ease to this one. The most famous residents of the parish these days are not Bacons, Holts or Wilsons, but the extremely rare great raft spiders which live in Lopham fen, to the north of the village. It is one of only two places they are found in the British Isles.
St Mary is refreshing; it is not understated, it never attempts to be tasteful or refined. Before taking back the key and hurrying on to Hepworth, I sat for a moment on the steps leading up to the organ at the west end, surveying the wonderful brick floors, the expanses of light beneath the arcades, the awesome seriousness of the chancel. If, at that moment, a group of 18th century ladies and gentlemen had stepped out of a Samuel Richardson novel and into this church, I should not have been the least bit surprised.
Postscript March 2004: This church has been recommended for redundancy, and transfer to the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.
St Mary, Redgrave, is to the west of the village on the road to Wortham. Redgrave sits on the Norfolk border, just to the north of Botesdale, at the junction of the A143 and B1113. There is a very welcoming keyholder on the road to South Lopham.