At the sign of the Barking lion...

For all the Saints
a general introduction to the churches of South Elmham and Ilketshall

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

the heart of the Saints

All Saints St Cross St James
St Margaret Homersfield (South Elmham St Mary) St Michael
St Peter South Elmham Minster Ilketshall St Andrew
Ilketshall St John Ilketshall St Lawrence St Margaret Ilketshall

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          The Saints are a group of twelve parishes in north-east Suffolk, in the area between Bungay and Halesworth. They are all styled either South Elmham or Ilketshall. The area is wide, remote, scattered and by tradition lawless. Between them, South Elmham and Ilketshall have eleven medieval churches, as well as the ruin of a chapel. The four Ilketshall churches are St Andrew, St John, St Lawrence and St Margaret. The first three are to the east of the Roman Stone Street, now the A144. St Margaret is to the west, among the South Elmhams. There are seven South Elmham churches. These are All Saints, St George, St James, St Margaret, St Mary, St Michael and St Peter. Another, St Nicholas, has now gone, its site marked by a cross. The parish was combined in modern times with that of All Saints. St George's village is called St Cross, a corruption perhaps of the medieval St George Sancroft. St Mary is in the village of Homersfield.

The churches of the Saints have a subtle charm, one that is perhaps not readily apparent to the casual visitor. Here, there are no famous monuments, no historic rood screens. And yet the fragmentary survivals are fascinating and even haunting, for example the spectacular wall paintings at Ilketshall St Andrew, the Easter Sepulchre and dado panels at South Elmham St Margaret, the old glass and a couple of bench ends at South Elmham All Saints. There is also the ruin of what is usually referred to as South Elmham Minster, a church in the woods in the parish of St Cross, half a mile from the nearest road, set in the middle of an ancient, possibly Roman, fortification. It was probably not a Minster, but its origins are shrouded in mystery.

Apart from the churches, there are only two buildings of note. These are South Elmham Hall in the parish of St Cross, part of the former summer retreat of the Bishops of Norwich, and St Peter's Hall in the parish of St Peter, former home of the Tasburghs and now home to the St Peter's Brewery. The beauty of the Saints is in their bleakness, their remoteness. There are no shops, there are no pubs. Only five of them have villages at all. Instead, there are scatterings of modest farmsteads, 19th Century cottages, former farmworkers' council houses. And entirely rural country churches, of which only one, remarkably, has been declared redundant.

It is possible to visit all the churches in one day, and indeed this becomes something of a pilgrimage. Setting out from Bungay, the shortest tour of the churches and the minster ruin may be made by bicycle or car in this order: St John, St Andrew, St Lawrence, St Margaret Ilketshall, St Peter, St Michael, St James, All Saints, St Margaret South Elmham, South Elmham Minster, St George, St Mary, and then back to Bungay via Flixton. This is a journey of about thirty miles, and about a mile of this will need to be done on foot. The distance will be reduced by a third if you miss out St Lawrence and St James. If you are walking, there are plenty of footpaths across the fields. And to the great credit of these parishes, all the churches are open every day. On foot or on a bike it is a challenge at once both physical and mental, for the winds always sweep across this flat landscape, and a decent OS map is essential if you are to find them all. In winter the landscape can be unfriendly, for this is a lonely place with few people living here outside of the two St Margarets and Homersfield. The wide parish of St Peter has barely ten houses. The narrow lanes can become ratruns, as the occasional speeding local carves a shortcut to Bungay or Halesworth. Cycling the Saints may perhaps not be considered a pleasure, but it is an adventure.

Simon Knott, February 2022

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