At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Catherine, Ringshall

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Ringshall tie beam lancet Ringshall
Ringshall Ringshall always open

angel   It was Easter Monday 2009. The busy rituals of the last few days now over, it should have been time to relax in the sunshine: but for the first time in nearly a week, the sky was overcast with thick grey cloud which glowered at the land beneath. It was a day which would have suited Good Friday rather better. And yet, I always feel enervated by the events of Holy Week. The daily going-to-church puts me in touch with the experience of my medieval ancestors, and it is rather awe-inspiring to take part in the the liturgies which they knew at this season: the Chrism Mass in the Cathedral on the Wednesday, and then returning to our church near the middle of busy Ipswich for the Mass of the Last Supper on the Thursday, the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, and culminating in the awesome power of the Easter Vigil on the Saturday night. It reinforces my sense of medieval churches as a touchstone, and I was glad to be cycling out in the lonely parishes around Stowmarket with my daughter, even if I might have hoped for some sunshine.

In fact, the weather rather suited St Catherine, and I remembered my previous visit here in the late autumn of 2001. I observed then on this site that late autumn was a good time to visit St Catherine.

The church sits beside a wood, on a hill above the narrow road, which makes it sound idyllic; but this is agricultural country. There is a hardstanding area for vehicles below the rise of the ploughed field, and the containers parked on it on that muddy October day made it convincingly bleak. I thought then, and think now, that this was not a bad thing; I had found it very atmospheric, and as I pushed my bike up the steep swampy track I imagined Victorian funeral processions making the same journey.

The tower here is certainly quite something. It is that unusual thing for Suffolk - a square Norman tower, with very little alteration since. Looking back at the south side of the church, I was fascinated to see that the roof beams protruded, and were tied and braced to the outside of the wall by huge wooden pegs. Generally, the exterior of the church has been patched up rather than rebuilt, with massive brick buttresses on the north side, although the porch is Richard Phipson's, possibly from the Boys' Bumper Book of Genuine Medieval Features (1870s edition). Phipson was a conscientious architect; and his work has a degree of comforting self-confidence. There is something bleak to contrast it with; the high perimeter fence at the top of the opposite rise. We'll come back to it in a moment.

St Catherine is kept open all the time as, I suppose, all parish churches should be. I was looking forward to coming back, because, in my opinion, St Catherine is pretty much what a remote village church should be. It is clearly ancient, but entirely refurbished by Richard Phipson in 1878. There are no major monuments or significant medieval liturgical survivals, but it is open; not for tourists then, but as a church open for prayer, or even just for the special silence of an ancient place. It is dim inside without being gloomy, and a bit damp, making an organic transition between graveyard and church. You can sit here awhile, and know you are in the presence of God. I like that a lot.

The village of Ringshall is a surprisingly large and suburban place, but a mile or two distant. You'd never know it was nearby, not least because of the way the ridges and hills around here cluster and conspire to hide the landscape. As with virtually all parish churches, money was lavished here in the late 19th Century, and a lot of it was spent on stained glass. Not all of it is very good - some of it is not good at all, but again here is a perfect example of the late Victorian imagination. The glass is by Clayton & Bell, and dates from the late 1870s. It is clustered in the chancel around the sanctuary. The best of it is in the east window, depicting the Resurrection and the noli me tangere, when Mary Magdalene finds the Risen Christ walking in the garden. Less good are the familiar pairing of the Good Shepherd and Light of the World in the south side of the chancel: Christ has been given the curly hair and beard familiar from late Medieval iconography, but the Light of the World in particular is very poorly done. But that doesn't matter: as I say, this is a lovely and valuable statement of 19th century rural priorities, and is endearingly rustic because of it. Best of all, I love the little angels in the upper lights.

angels noli me tangere: Mary Magdalene noli me tangere: Christ angels
Light of the World Good Shepherd Good Shepherd Light of the World angel
Resurrection and noli me tangere noli me tangere Resurrection Resurrection lifting the lid

There is one of those 13th century Purbeck marble fonts more familar from the East of Suffolk, supported here on pretty Victorian pillars; but everything else, pretty much, is Phipson's. The roof beams look original to my uneducated eye, but Mortlock thinks that the hammerbeams that support them were all replaced in the 1870s. They look low enough for you to hit your head on. Unusually, there is what appears to be a piscina set in the east wall of the sanctuary, behind the altar. Phipson was far too liturgically literate to reset one there, and it doesn't appear to be an aumbry in disguise. Why it is here and not in the south wall as usual is a mystery.

Up in the sanctuary hangs the standard of 74(F) Squadron Royal Air Force. It was put here in 1992, to remain until it turns to dust. I loved the 19th century picture hanging up at the back of the church. It is called The Wide and Narrow Paths, and depicts all the stumbling blocks on our journey through life. Verses from the bible are used to illustrate where we can fall. As far as I could make out, it looks like we are all going to hell.

Back in 2001, I had come here a week or so after the invasion of Afghanistan by American and British forces, in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Centre. On that occasion, I stepped outside into the graveyard, where the day was still deciding whether or not to bother me with rain. The graveyard is wide and open, the long grass climbing the slope. I walked up to the top of it, and found that the extension eastwards consisted almost entirely of military graves.

Looking westwards, there was that perimeter fence again. St Catherine is one of three medieval churches on the edge of the Wattisham airfield, one of the country's major military helicopter bases. At the time of my visit, many of the people here were involved in the assault on Afghanistan; the thought of this was quite a contrast with my feelings about the inside. The other two medieval churches are Great Bricett, near the main gate, and Wattisham itself, now redundant. Of the three, St Catherine is most obviously the one that serves the local military community, although there is also a base church.

The ancient ways that once linked those three communities have now disappeared beneath the towers, hangers and runways of the western military-industrial complex, and I would see quite a lot of that perimeter fence over the next few hours as I skirted almost completely around it.

As I wandered back down the slope of the graveyard, a huge pheasant broke cover from behind a headstone. It fled into the woods, whirring like a helicopter. As I watched it go, I saw what I should have noticed before; there were about a dozen of them, perched silently in attitudes of stupidity and defiance, on stumps and branches, watching me warily. Their sullen splashes of red were an empty threat in the darkening day.


Simon Knott, May 2009

looking east font font looking west
hanging sanctuary MU tiger hidden piscina the broad and narrow way
war memorial frontal until it turns to dust

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