At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Margaret, Reydon

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


Hover on an image to read the caption, click on an image to enlarge it:

The tower.

Horse mounting block for 18th and 19th century posh people.

pompous graveyard angel.

Overgrown priest door.

Percy Hunt's grave.

Grieve not with helpless sorrow...

Henry and Harriet Hunt.

Inside. looking east.

Superb Madonna and Child.

Double niche in splay of window on south of chancel. Note the piscina beneath.

Christ and St John.

The woman at the well.

Trampolining Jesus.

The offending organ.



St Margaret, with the very good 1988 extension.

I already knew that this church would be locked. The Sole Bay Benefice churches are some of the most welcoming in Suffolk, and a leaflet advertising the opening times is available in all the churches. St Margaret opens at seven in the morning, and closes at five. When I discovered this, three miles away at Uggeshall late one Saturday afternoon, it was already twenty to six.

But I thought - well, why not give it a try? Clocks don't run so strictly in Suffolk. A Suffolk hour is like a Suffolk mile - flexible, elusive, and deceptively long. I encouraged my wife to head eastwards, ignoring the complaints of the children in the back.

Reydon is a suburb of Southwold; in terms of population, they are about the same size. But which one of the two have you heard of? Precisely. Reydon is industrial, and when you cross over the river from one parish to the other, the houses double in price. Not so long ago, a beach hut changed hands in Southwold for 50,000.

St Margaret sits away from the houses, on the road towards Wangford, anonymously pretty in an overgrown graveyard. I had passed it before, and had always looked forward to visiting it. It is probably older than it looks, having undergone a serious tarting-up in the 15th century. I wondered what it was like inside.

But when I got there, it was locked. I immediately decided to phone the rector, partly because I was very keen to see inside, but also because I had heard he was a great character, and a nice man. And I was sure he wouldn't mind. And in any case, if I only got his answering machine, it would make him no different to the great majority of ministers of the cloth.

So I packed my family off to the beach, stood in the porch, and rang him. The conversation went something like this:

Me (enthusiastically): Hello, I'd very much like to take some photos inside the church - can you tell me where I might find the key?  

Him (patiently): Well, the man who locks the church lives in one of the houses just up from the church, but I'm afraid I don't know which one. The churchwarden is on holiday, and the only other person who has a key is me, and I'm having my dinner in the Randolph Hotel.  

Me (disappointed): Oh, sorry to bother you then. Would it be easier if I came back another day?  

Him (gratefully): Well, yes it would, really. I open up at 7am every morning to say Mass. Have you come far?  

Me (politely): Only from Ipswich. Well, thanks very much. I'll try again another time.  

We said our goodbyes, and I set off to photograph the outside. I loved the Priest door into the chancel, unused, and overgrown prettily. In the churchyard wall behind me was a surviving mounting block, so that the gentry could climb straight onto their horses from the churchyard without descending to the muddy road.

I wandered around the back to the surprise of a super late 1980s extension, one of the best of its kind that I've seen. The architect was Andrew Anderson. The graveyard was wide and spacious, but there were many more modern graves than 19th century ones, a mark of how the town has grown. A 1920s angel was rather pompous, but to the west of the church I found the older ones, and stood looking at them. One of them was a cute little child's grave, to Percy Hunt, son of Henry and Harriet, who had died at the age of just ten months in August 1888. Grieve not with helpless sorrow, it read, Jesus hath felt your pain. He did thy lamb but borrow, he'll bring him back again, the theology of which seemed curious, to say the least. The tiny tombstone was covered in a century or more of moss. It was very moving. His parents' larger graves were beside it; His father had died in 1910 at the age of 60, his mother surviving into the 1930s, when she died at 86. There were no other Hunt graves nearby, and I wondered if little Percy had been their only child. Counting backwards, I worked out that she must have had her baby in her mid-forties - was this an unexpected late fruit after barren decades? And were their hopes dashed? It was all very sad.

 I stood there, feeling a bit gloomy. Suddenly, my mobile rang.  

Me (surprised): Hello?  

Him (enquiringly): Are you still taking photographs of the outside?  

Me (shaken out of my torpor): umm, yes!  

Him (resigned to the fact that he's a really nice bloke, and this condemns him to the action he is about to take): Well, if you have come all the way from Ipswich, and you don't mind me finishing my dinner, I'll pop down with the key in about 15 minutes - how does that sound?  

Result! So I pottered about a while longer, and about 15 minutes later he appeared.

He was in his mid-fifties I suppose, and he let me in, and we chatted for about half an hour. He had spent much of his priesthood in South London, and Reydon had been something of a culture shock for him. We stepped into a clean, bright, neatly-kept interior. It was smaller than I'd expected.

The church has more surviving medieval image niches than any other in Suffolk, and they are of the highest quality. They are in the eastern splay of every single window. It seems likely that the Anglicans filled them in during the great iconoclasm of the 1540s, because when Dowsing came here one April morning a century later, he doesn't mention seeing them, taking to task instead ten stained glass windows and Laud's offending chancel steps.

In one of the niches, the Parish has placed quite simply the most beautiful Madonna and Child I have ever seen in a Suffolk church. Mary holds out the infant Christ, who is naked, and extends his arms in a prefiguring of the cross. Of course, there had been complaints - an image in an image niche? Outrageous! And some people had complained that Christ was naked, and asked if a loin cloth could be incorporated. The Diocese, who usually  come in for a lot of stick from me, very bravely said no, it must be as the artist intended, expressing the vulnerability of the infant Christ - so they are to be commended.  

Generally, the church bears all the hallmarks of enthusiastic Victorians reritualising it in the 1870s, although the greatest offence is probably the refitting of the organ in the chancel at the time of the 1988 extension. It really shouldn't be there. It detracts from some splendid Victorian glass, particularly the story of Christ meeting the Samaritan woman at the well - you can tell at a glance that she's probably had six husbands, and she's not married to the one she's with at the minute. Certainly, she's the sexiest 19th century figure I've seen in Suffolk stained glass - Mortlock tells me she's the work of Arthur Moore. You can see a detail of her among the images on the right. Other 19th images are equally fine - except for the east window, perhaps, which appears to show Jesus trampolining.

We wandered back to the road, and I was about to set off on foot to the beach, two miles away, but he said,"Get in, and I'll take you as far as the Randolph". He turned the ignition, and a CD of Billy Bragg sprung into life. "One of the terrible things about living in Southwold" he observed "is the number of Union Jacks there were about for the Jubilee. I know it's childish, but I took great pleasure in playing the Internationale at top volume as I drove up the High Street. Anyway, I may as well take you all the way to the beach."  

I told him that, on the huge housing estate in Ipswich where I work, there was not a Union flag to be seen, but there were hundreds of Crosses of St George. He said that it had been the same in South London. We both agreed that this was much healthier, and that it was a good spiritual exercise for the nation to forgive David Seaman. He told me that he was leaving Reydon in a few months - not to retire, but to go to Leicester Cathedral. He dropped me off at the pier, and I said goodbye, knowing I'd probably never meet him again.But what a nice bloke.

St Margaret, Reydon, is along the road out of Southwold towards Wangford. It is open from 7am to 5pm every day.