At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Santon Downham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Santon Downham

Santon Downham wolf and lilies (11th Century) north chancel doorway blocked transept chapel entrance

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          Once, in a wood, there was a wolf, and a very good wolf he was too. Through the budding groves of spring, the green St Martin's land of summer, the golden bower of autumn and the long thin winter among the leafless boughs, he ran with the pack and he foraged alone. Then the men came, and they hunted him. But before they caught him they saw him as a symbol, they raised him up as at once evil and mighty, and yet glorious and beyond their comprehension. And they loved him, and they killed him. And they hunted and killed all his companions, and drove them southwards, and slaughtered them. Until there were no wolves left, anywhere in England.

And yet they remembered him. He was still a mighty, lawless power, and since they didn't have the Word they made do with Meaning, and kept him in their hearts and pondered on him, until he was transformed into something far beyond that which he had ever been. And the men stayed, and they tore down the forests to build their villages and farmsteads, until the land was wide open under the eastern sky, and the men were the South Folk, and the land was the Breck, and when the wind blew it lifted the land. Until one day the men said there is nothing we can do with this land, and so they planted the forests again, and the forests stayed. But the wolves never came back.
(tr. Sophie Fousse, 2002)

I first came here on a murky day in November 2003, a visit that is memorable to me still because this was the very last of all Suffolk's medieval parish churches that I still had to visit to complete the county, so to speak. The church sits in the great Thetford Forest, along a back road between Brandon and Thetford and immediately beside the border with Norfolk. The Little Ouse and the Cambridge to Norwich railway line form a kind of No Man's Land between the two counties. The remoteness suggested by the Ordance Survey map is entirely correct. It is the kind of place that stories get told about, and not without reason, for as the entry for the parish in White's 1844 Directory of Suffolk recalls, Santon Downham is remarkable for an inundation of sand, which in 1668 threatened to overwhelm the whole parish. The sand was blown for several years by frequent strong winds of long continuance, from the hills of Lakenheath, distant about five miles from the south west. It buried and destroyed houses and cottages, and so choked the navigation of the river that a vessel with two loads weight found as much difficulty in passing as it had done with ten. Mr Wright, who occupied the largest farmhouse, had all his avenues blocked up, so that there was no access to his dwelling but over the tops of two walls, 8 or 9 feet high; and at one time, the sand filled his yard, and was blown up to the eaves of his out-buildings. For several years, he raised furze hedges, set upon one another as fast as they were levelled by the sand. By this experiment, he raised banks near twenty yards high, and brought the sand into the compass of 8 or 10 acres, then by laying upon it some hundred loads of earth and dung, he reduced it again to firm land. He then cleared away all his walls; and with the assistance of his neighbours carted away about 1500 loads, and cut a passage to his house through the main body of the sand.

The church sits at the far eastern end of the village green. The forest encroaches up to the churchyard wall, dwarfing the tower. The church is a pretty little thing, and the graveyard was still full of the smells and sounds and life, though now, in the dropping days of November, nature was busy here at Santon Downham putting itself to bed, and I was glad I had come so far. The verge outside the church was a carpet of fallen gold. Everything was like a fairy tale here, the colours, the smells, the church wall slightly too low, the church beyond huddled and crouched as if Hansel and Gretel might be lost nearby.

Once, in a wood, there was a wood-cutter, and he had a wife. They had two children, but the wife died, and so he laid her to rest in the damp earth, beneath the soft grass. This was in the days of the first King William, when all around the land was being tried and measured. Here in the wood there was a Christian chapel, and perhaps a priest. Perhaps, when the priest arrived in this heathen place the woodcutter and his family were already living together, and so he sanctified their very existence. This was a way of taking power, but it was also a powerful magic, and the magic that surrounded their daily lives would resonate for nearly five hundred years. But later, in the time of the sixth King Henry, all that would come to an end. The magic would be destroyed. The children's names? Hansel and Gretel, and they were surrounded by magic, magic touched everything they did. So when the woodcutter took a new wife, and her jealousy forced him to abandon the children, magic still surrounded them even then. But in the years to come the magic would be lost to us for centuries. (tr. Sophie Fousse, 2002)

The name of the parish differentiates it from Downham Market over the border in Norfolk and from Little Downham a few miles off in Cambridgeshire. The word Santon is to do with sand, and the parish immediately over the border is Santon, so the first word of the parish name here simply comes from its proximity to its neighbour and tells us which Downham this one is.

A remarkable number of medieval wills survive which made bequests to the rebuilding and furnishing of this church. Those recorded by Simon Cotton include an early one of 1376 by John de Fransham, the rector of the church, who left 26s 8d (which is to say 4 nobles) to the completion of the paving of the chancel. The chancel must have been complete by 1442 when a later rector, John Berton, left 20s to the painting of the Blessed Mary standing in the chancel. The attentions of donors then turned to the completion of the tower, which was probably underway by the 1470s when there was a bequest by John Reve which does not mention the tower but which, we will see, is likely to have been put towards it. In 1500 Alice Skeett left 10 ewes and 10 wethers (older castrated rams kept for their wool) to the buying of the bells and Geoffrey Skete (presumably Alice's husband) left 20 wethers to the making of the bells. In 1503 William Toller left 5 marks to the reparation of the church and the following year his wife Margaret left the residue of goods to the reparation of the bells in Downham steeple.

The base of the tower has a long inscription, a litany of the names of donors: John Watt, John Reve, John Dow, Margaret Reve, Patsy Styles, William Toller, as well as sacred monograms and a sheep inside the letter D. The inscription is in exactly the same position and takes exactly the same form as the one at nearby West Tofts, now abandoned in the Norfolk battle zone area, so they were probably by the same masons.

Santon Downham Santon Downham
Santon Downham Santon Downham Santon Downham

The exterior of the church is notable for its number of filled-in archways, windows and doorways and the general patching up of the centuries. You pass the base of an old preaching cross, and stand outside the north porch. This is very odd. Not only are the door and niche off centre, but the eastern wall of the porch is more than a metre thick. What on earth is going on here? A few steps further east, and all is revealed. An archway has been infilled with a Victorian window and flushwork. The window matches those on the south side of the church. At one time then the entrance to a transept chapel stood here, and the east wall of the current porch was the west wall of the lost chapel. To the east of the arch is a pretty exposed piscina, which once served the eastward-facing chapel altar. But when was it demolished? As I say, the infilling is 19th Century, but in the graveyard where the chapel would have been there are early 18th Century headstones. Curious.

Further east, a Norman priest door has been filled in, and the doorway moved to the south side of the chancel. However, as we shall see inside, the dog-tooth moulding that once surmounted it is still in place on the north side. And further west there is the Norman south door, and above it the greatest mystery of all.

The wolf is a ravenous beast, and thirsts for blood. Its strength is in its chest and muzzle, not in its legs. It is said to live sometimes on prey, sometimes on earth, and occasionally on wind. The she-wolf only bears cubs in May, when it thunders. Its eyes shine in the dark like lanterns because many of the devil's works seem to blind and foolish men like beautiful and wholesome deeds. Just as the wolf gets its name from its rapacity, so we call whores 'she-wolves' because they destroy the wealth of their lovers.
the 13th Century Bestiary MS Bodley 764 held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.)

Above the south doorway into the nave is a carving which probably dates from the end of the 11th Century. It shows, or appears to show, a wolf or some other creature with a tail that curls up and becomes a lily or a tree. Another lily or tree is beneath the creature, as though he might be trampling it, or is it lifting him up? It is rather oblique, but the creature lifts his head in triumph as if it might be a symbol of rebirth and resurrection.

You enter the church through the north porch, and step down into a dear little Victorianised interior, its 19th and early 20th Century glass making it glow in a jewel-like manner. Three lancets containing Faith, Hope and Charity are by Kempe & Co. The 1952 depiction of St Francis is by Harcourt M Doyle, the saint surrounded by local birds, although the prey in their mouths perhaps aren't having such a blissful experience. The Good Shepherd to the south of the nave is by Heaton, Butler and Bayne, and the Kempe & Co Annunciation beneath the tower is the epitome of Victorian Anglo-Catholic piety. But as your eyes adjust, there are fragmentary medieval survivals here including a tiny remnant of wall painting uncovered by the Victorians in the south-east of the nave. The reason it is interesting is that it is obviously in the splay of a window which was later filled in. Perhaps this happened when the now-vanished north chapel was built. Was the window in the south wall moved westwards to light the chapel better? If so, this wall decoration is at least as early as the 13th Century.

The most memorable survival though is cut into the south dado of the late 14th Century rood-screen. This is a simple Y-tracery window, about 15cm high. Small holes in roodscreens are not uncommon, particularly in big churches. There are circular holes in the screens at Blythburgh and Southwold, for example. The reason for them has not been firmly established, but the mundane explanation that they were peepholes does not seem unreasonable. If so, they were made by ordinary people kneeling and saying devotions, not for priests celebrating Mass at other altars. Special squints were always prepared for that purpose, and many survive. But to find a hole in the wood that is so elaborately shaped is most unusual.

This has always been a church of the ordinary people, without the patronage of a great family or a landed estate. As if to remind us of this, the altar furnishings and processional cross are carved from wood by a local forester, David Patterson. That said, there are a couple of memorials to members of the Cadogan family set on the west wall of the nave. Henry Cadogan fell at the Battle of Vittoria, 1815, and battle paraphernalia is piled on the tombchest with his portrait in profile. On the other side of the chancel arch is his father, the 80 year old Charles Sloane, Earl Cadogan, who had died eight years earlier, although his memorial looks all the work of the century before. The Cadogans had one of their houses at Downham Hall, demolished in the 1920s, and this was where Charles had died in 1807. The family may not have made much of an impression on this remote parish and its little church, but their hands fell heavily in the metropolis of London, seventy miles away. Charles's father, also Charles, had married Elizabeth Sloane, the daughter of Sir Hans Sloane who had bought the Manor of Chelsea in 1712. Inheriting the estate, Charles commissioned the architect Henry Holland to build a 'new town' in the area that would become Sloane Square, Sloane Street and the King's Road. The Cadogan Estate is still managed by the family trust today.

Curiously, St Mary is one of two churches in this parish. Even more oddly, the two churches are in different counties, for All Saints, half a mile a way on the other side of the river, is in Norfolk. They were combined into one parish in the 19th Century, and for many years All Saints was the only Norfolk church in the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. But in the 1970s Santon church was declared redundant, although it is still cared for by the parish here and is always open. As it sits at one end of a forest trail it receives a fair number of visitors, as does this one, which is also always accessible. And so it was with a friendly, open church that my first journey around all the parish churches of Suffolk came to an end.


Simon Knott, December 2020

looking east sanctuary looking west
Faith Charity Hope Annunciation by Kempe
St Francis owl with a dead mouse HDM 1952 ( Harcourt M Doyle )
Charles Cadogan Henry Cadogan font peephole window cut in the roodscreen
war memorial

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