At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, South Elmham All Saints

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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All Saints

All Saints selm as

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          There is no village, although this of itself is not unusual in this part of Suffolk. A farmhouse, a huge former rectory, a disused garage and a couple of cottages are barely company for the curious church, for it sits out in the fields, and the road up to it falls short by a hundred metres or so. A designated footpath leads along the edge of a ploughed field, and will take you to the east side of the churchyard, but it isn't easy going, even outside of winter. However, the parish is not without at least one superlative, for after the the Reformation it was consolidated with that of neighbouring St Nicholas which had lost its church. And so today, as South Elmham All Saints and St Nicholas, it has the longest name of any parish in Suffolk.

The reward for the walk is a delightful setting, especially when the churchyard is high with the wild grasses of early summer. There is a crispness to the exterior, and it was all heftily restored in the 1870s, a late date for what was done inside, but the exterior is a curious mixture of Decorated and Norman. James Bettley in his revision of the Buildings of England volume for East Suffolk thought that the architect was likely to have been the diocesan surveyor Richard Phipson. In 1910 the 15th Century octagonal bell stage of the Norman round tower was replaced with an embattled circular stage, with Norman-style bell windows to match.

You step into a narrow south aisle which opens beyond a great square Norman font into the nave, also narrow of proportion and feeling rather cramped with a surfeit of 19th Century furnishings. The character is that of a prayerbook church, one of few in the county from that century, which devoted most of its energies into reinventing them as sacramental spaces. A pulpit sits between the two large windows on the north wall, and all the benches are angled towards it. Such a protestant restoration was most unusual in the 1870s, when even the arch-evangelical and future Bishop of Liverpool J.C. Ryle was using the eastwards position at Helmingham and then Stradbroke.

However, despite the considerable rebuilding and refurnishing here there are a number of older survivals. The tower arch is screened off by 17th Century panelling that seems designed for the task, Even more than this, All Saints is the only church in the Saints with substantial medieval survivals. On the north side there are two dear little roundels of Continental glass. One is of St Ursula holding a ship and an arrow, and the other of St Dorothy with her flowers, sending a basket of fruit to Theophilus, the messenger here shown as the Christchild. In the south aisle are two composites, one largely consisting of part of a harpist, the other a curly-haired angel.

As if this were not enough there is some very good 19th Century glass. The floral decorative glass is likely to have been made by Emily Owles & Son of Halesworth, so similar is it to the workshop's glass at Bramfield, and indeed to glass at Dennington credited to Constantine Woolnough of Framlingham who may well have been the designer for the windows in all three churches. There are also two lancets with what appear to be monograms in that may also have been made by the Owles workshop.

fragmentary glass (15th Century) floral glass design (Constantine Woolnough? 1850s/60s) monogram (TSX?) monogram (SH?) roundels of St Dorothy and St Ursula (17th Century) and fragments of English glass (15th Century)
St Dorothy sends a basket of fruit to Theophilus (Continental, 17th Century) floral glass design (Constantine Woolnough? 1850s/60s) St Ursula with an arrow and the ship that took her and her 11,000 virgins to Cologne (Continental, 17th Century)
fragmentary glass (15th Century) fragmentary glass (15th Century) bird and acorn (fragmentary, 15th Century)

Beside the font is a medieval bench with two curious bench ends. One is a floppy-eared dog, while the other is a creature with a long, curved neck. It is probably intended as a giraffe. These were known to late-medieval Suffolkers (there is another on a bench end at nearby Dennington) but they appear not to have known that their long necks would be erect.

There is something particularly enticing about a church which has such a sense of its 19th Century days. At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, before the major restoration here, there were two hundred and thirty two people living in this parish, an extraordinary number compared with today. Most of them must have lived and worked on local farms, and on the morning of the census eighty-seven of them made there way here for George Sanby, the Rector of Flixton, to lead them in divine worship. This figure of one in four is relatively high for this part of Suffolk, and another thirty-three were in the local Methodist church, suggesting that they were a particularly religious lot in this neck of the woods - or, perhaps, that the local landowners were insistent that their employees went to church.

Today, without a parish population to speak of, it is inevitable that this church has been declared redundant. The Churches Conservation Trust do their usual fine job in looking after it. That it is the only one of the Saints to have suffered this fate is more remarkable.

Simon Knott, February 2022

You can also read a general introduction to the churches of the Saints.

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looking east chancel looking west
font (12th Century) pulpit and reading desk (Lucy Bloxham, 1878) tower screen (17th Century) south aisle
acorns in a porch window floppy eared dog giraffe
Roll of Honour 1914-1919 the tower of this church was restored


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