At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Giles, Risby

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


hover to read,
click to enlarge:

The graveyard is tight, unspoiled...

On the north side an Victorian vestry.

A huge porch competes with the tower.

Looking west to Norman loveliness.

The font, and eastwards beyond it.

Mary of the Annunciation on the font.

Stunning niches to the north of the chancel arch.

Risby's elegant little screen.

War memorial.


Risby: my last round towered church in Suffolk.

In the Bury St Edmunds area you often come across villages that had more money to spend in late medieval times than they did in the 19th century; Risby is one such place. Not surprisingly, they often have interesting churches. St Giles is particularly harmonious, its setting making it appear larger than it is, and its Norman round tower stately against the body of the church, which is about 200 years younger. On the day we came the lych gate was decorated with flowers, and there were more flowers in the niche of the south porch. I assume this was for a wedding later the same day, but it was all very lovely.

Most of the building predates the Black Death; only the porch and a few windows were added later, and the Victorians replaced the chapel on the north side of the chancel with a vestry.

This church for me was 1 PC, the first post-camera. My trusty Samsung had curled up and died at Beck Row the previous week, but fortunately Dr Digi came to the rescue, his cavalry consisting of the loan of a digital SLR, which I had to learn to use very quickly. The photographs here were the first I took with it. St Giles has a large amount of surviving medieval features (a visit to nearby Tuddenham is all the more depressing if you come here first) so it was a bit of a test. I had always assumed that I would go digital once I had finished Suffolk, but with nine churches still to go the decision was made for me.

DD had been here before, and knew what to expect. Unusually for the Bury area, the church is kept open, so it was with a happy heart that I saw the fine sequence of wall-paintings, the jewel-like rood screen, and some of Suffolk’s best image niches with original colour. My only problem was photographing them. I wasn’t using a flash, but by pushing the asa to 1600 and not letting my slight hangover shake my hands too much, it was possible to bring the exposure down to 1/16 of a second. Slightly easier were the Norman arches, for the sharp late summer morning light was slanting through the south windows. The tower arch is lower than the one across the A14 at Little Saxham, but above it is another opening, and as at Thorington this was probably the original entrance to the tower, with a ladder that would be drawn up.

The wall paintings are large scale scenes that appear unrelated. They are early for Suffolk, probably mainly dating from the early 1200s. The exception is also the easiest to decode; Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene is probably from 150 years later. Of the others, there is a fair chance that the most westerly shows St Thomas of Canterbury, since his cult was very popular at the time, although other Bishops are possibilities. Mortlock is keen to infer that the double-headed axe beside him is the soul surviving element of a Christ of the Trades. At one time, there were far more paintings; a sequence of the nativity story like the one at Thornham Parva has faded within living memory, and another series below included a devil, and so might have been part of a warning against gossip. Unfortunately, protected as they were under whitewash for 300 years, they were exposed by Victorians before techniques for making them stable were developed; now, they are lost forever. However, those that still survive can be seen in the images below; click on them to see them enlarged.

Bishop. St Thomas of Canterbury? Noli me tangere: Mary Magdalene meets Jesus in the garden. Until recently, a nativity sequence was discernible here. Note the top of the former north door arch.

The font is tremendous, and the Annunciation scene on it one of the finest in Suffolk. Mortlock argues that the strange object behind her is a dog, but I can't see it myself. We know that the Anglicans plastered over fonts in the 1540s rather than destroying the imagery, but this one is interesting because the plaster remained until the 1890s.

But inevitably your thoughts will turn eastwards. The view is stunning. The image niches and screen were restored in 1966, and they are very lovely. It is the very narrowness of the screen which fascinates, with just three lights either side. The Norman arch above is the perfect companion. You step through into light, and a crescendo of medieval glass, presumably collected during the restrained 19th century restoration. In addition, there is some excellent glass from the last years of the 19th century.

Resurrection scene.

I liked this church very much indeed; the benefice is rich in fine churches, including as it does Barrow, Great Saxham and Little Saxham in addition to this one. The Rector is the colourful Father Peter Macleod-Miller who we met previously at Barrow, and I am sure that he enjoys them as much as anyone does.

St Giles, Risby, is located in the middle of the village just north of the A14 to the west of Bury. I found it open, and am told it is usually so.

this site supported by commission from