At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Andrew, Sapiston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Sapiston: click to enlarge

Sapiston Sapiston Sapiston
 porch a door and a ghost of a door

south doorway   I have a very vivid memory of visiting this church in the early weeks of the new Millennium. At the time, I was doing a job I did not like, having been moved sideways by a manager whom I did not find it easy to work with. This made me depressed, and on a bright morning in early spring I got up and decided that I did not want to go to work.

Instead, I set off with my wife and our infant daughter into the countryside, and we ended up here. I remember sitting in the porch that day in the bright, low sunlight, listening to the small birds weaving around the graveyard. The sun warmed me, the birdsong lifted my heart, and I knew, if I had not known before, that there is more to life than getting and spending, and times would change, and the world would move on.

I already knew the church, because I had been here some six months before on one of the hottest days of 1999. It is an old building, and it looks its age. It was hardly touched by the enthusiasms of the late medieval period, and the 19th century restoration was early and light. It retains all the character of an intensely rural parish church. This is helped by the fact that it has been redundant for more than a quarter of a century, and the Churches Conservation Trust looks after it. They have cleared it of clutter and left it as an ancient space should be, peaceful and purposeful.

There are two ways of getting to this church. The obvious way is the long, narrow driveway from the Honiton to Barningham road. But St Peter is less than half a mile from the similarly ancient church of All Saints, Honington on the other side of the river, and a walk between the two is possible along a strictly enforced public footpath across private land. On the occasion of my first visit, this was the way that I came here. A sign near Honington church warned me that there was a ford along this route, and my OS map also showed this ford across the River Blackbourne, which bisects the path. I love fords, so I ignored the new footbridge, and careered along the path on my bike.

In all my time cycling around the churches of Suffolk, I have only ever known an OS map to be wrong twice. The other occasion was to my advantage; this one was not. There is no ford across the River Blackbourne.

There is a river, and there is a bank on either side. Fully three feet deep in the middle, no one has used it for anything other than swimming or fishing for a very long time, with the possible exception of horseriders. Soaked from the knees down, I carried on up the narrow path, cursing and blaspheming at my own stupidity. It didn't help that I had to lift my bike over several five foot high kissing gates. Under the circumstances, it might have been that I was not in the right frame of mind for visiting this church, but as I came out onto the drive from the Barningham road, the thrill of this beautiful place buoyed me up.

St Andrew is set in rolling meadows, with the fields of the Euston estate beyond. For company, it has a huge farmhouse, and a fantastic restored barn, converted into a house. I pushed my bike through the five bar gate of the church yard. I sat down on the grass, and removed my shoes and socks. A young rabbit broke from nearby, scutted across through the graves, and leapt the low stone wall. It was a hot, muggy day, so I left my things by my bike, and proceeded barefoot to the porch.

I had expected the church to be locked, but before I could even discover that it was not I came face to face with one of the most gorgeous Norman doorways I have ever seen. The extent of the convoluted arches is accentuated by the smallness of the doorway. It took my breath away, and still does, when I look at the photograph. There is nothing like a Norman doorway for restoring ones sense of proportion. It has stood there for nearly 800 years, and suddenly my dampness paled into insignificance.

The blocks are set together in pairs, each one reflecting the scoop of its partner. Those in the inner arch are slightly larger than those in the outer arch, and the illusion is of a peacock displaying its tail feathers. A medieval head looks down from above it. At either end is a mass dial, from the days before the 14th century porch was built.

You step in to a gorgeous little interior. There was a transparent coolness in the stone, intensified by the thick Norman walls. The stone blocks on the floor, the spaced benches, create a sense of a different time, outside the loss of nerve and limited imagination of the modern world. The walls are whitewashed, except for where wall paintings remain. There are several large consecration crosses, and above the alcove of a former tomb recess in the north wall, a wall painting can just about be discerned as showing the martyrdom of St Edmund. Beside it, a perfect rood loft stairway entrance.

martyrdom of St Edmund martyrdom of St Edmund consecration cross

An interesting feature is the set of Royal Arms. It is that of the House of Hanover, but as Bryan Kitson points out, the floriated lettering and the hastily inserted 2 show that this is actually a repainted set of Stuart arms from a century earlier.

PH Ditchburn, in his enchanting 1913 celebration The Parish Clerk, recalls an incident at Sapiaton church in the middle years of the 19th Century. The Duke of Grafton, on whose estates surrounded the church, was passing it on a Sunday while a service was on. He entered the vestry, motioned to the parish clerk to come out, and presented a large hare for the parson's kitchen, asking the clerk to put it quietly into his trap and inform him of the Duke's compliments at the end of the service. But the clerk, knowing his master would be pleased at the little attention, could not refrain from delivering both hare and message at once before the whole congregation. At the close of the hymn before the sermon he marched into a prominent position holding up the gift, and shouted out "His Grace's compliments, and please sir, he's sent ye a hare."

Back in 1999, the quiet half hour I spent here, drying out, made me serene and human again. My second visit had lifted my heart. Coming back was a kind of affirmation, I suppose. It is always salutary to recall less secure and comfortable times from the vantage point of happier days. There is a pleasure in knowing that you have survived them.

I wandered around the graveyard. It had been raining heavily when we had set off from Wymondham that morning, but now in the middle of the day the sky had cleared to a deep blue, with the boilings of cumulus clouds lifting to heaven along the northern horizon.

It would rain again later, but for this perfect moment I was alone with the gravestones, some dating back into the 17th century, their skulls and cherubs and hour glasses a warning of mortality, but also a reminder of the preciousness of life, as precious for me as it was for these, now resting forever in the birdsong on the bank of the River Blackbourne.

  mass dial

Simon Knott, March 2008

  looking west priest door Norman doorway looking west sanctuary
GR 2 looking east Arthur Rogers window
font piscina memorial war memorial

hour glass skull and crossed bones skull skulls
kissing cherubs hour glass Grick and Mothersole sleeping cherub
the grass withereth, the flower fadeth skull Sapiston Moss

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