At the sign of the Barking lion...

St George, Shimpling

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Shimpling Shimpling carriagway Shimpling

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          Lonely Shimpling parish straggles through the rolling hills to the north of Glemsford, the lattice of narrow lanes dipping and doglegging between fields and copses. The church sits away from the road, and the setting is straight out of Trollope. You walk up a carriageway through an avenue of lime trees and then across a little bridge. From the far side of the church you can approach via a bridleway. It is easy to imagine Septimus Harding and his son-in-law meeting here, the exasperated Archdeacon leaping down from his horse, in a scene from The Warden.

To the south of the chancel stands the bulky Hallifax mausoleum, looking for all the world like some kind of 19th Century rector's garage. Across the churchyard to the south is a sweet little building generally referred to as the Faint House, and its use ascribed to ladies whose corsetry had overcome them during lengthy sermons. Probably, it was a school house provided by the Hallifax family of nearby Chadacre Hall.

There are two Shimplings in East Anglia, this one and the one in Norfolk, miles away. And yet, they both have parish churches dedicated to St George, an otherwise fairly unusual dedication in this part of England. It is likely that one or the other is a mistake by 18th Century antiquarians, whose work was used when dedications were generally restored to parish churches in the middle years of the 19th century. They had used documents from the archives of the Diocese of Norwich, and probably did not know which Shimpling was being referred to. From 1837 this Shimpling was in the Diocese of Ely, and the Shimplings' shared dedication would not have caused too much confusion.

I have a vivid memory of visiting this church on a frosty day in late October 2009. We had walked from Hartest through the chilly mist of the Chadacre Estate, which was for many years an agricultural college. The carriageway up to the church was carpeted in the vivid red of fallen leaves, and the sense of isolation was intensified by the weather. As we approached the bridge I took the photograph you see in the middle at the top of the page. The occasional squawk of a pheasant punctuated the stillness.

Coming back in the late summer of 2020 I remembered this, but now of course the scene was quite different, and perhaps that autumnal crispness had suited it better. It was the year of the Church of England's Great Coronavirus Panic, but Shimpling church had already reopened, and was open daily, as were other churches in the benefice.

The church was essentially rebuilt in the 14th Century, and gradually refurnished in the century after. Simon Cotton found some pleasingly quaint late medieval bequests to Shimpling church. In 1458 John Harleston left 40s and a little chalice to the church, the parson of Shimpling to have a best horse for a mortuary (ie: mass for the dead). The candlebeam and roodloft benefited from bequests in 1476 and 1485, while in 1487 William Samison bequeathed 2 bushels of wheat and 1 coomb of malt to the reparation of the bells. You step into a dimness, but one that is not unsuited.The font appears to be the same age as the rebuilt church, but is an oddity, a shallow bowl on a clustered collonade. Perhaps these things were once more common in Suffolk but were replaced by the great industrial wealth of the following century.

The 19th Century restoration here was the work of James Fowler, a vigorous restorer of Lincolnshire churches but not often encountered in Suffolk. The roofs and furnishings are all his, which together with the glass give the church the atmosphere of a gently faded Victorian opulence that it has today.

The relative dimness of the interior is a perfect foil for some lovely and interesting windows in the south aisle. The best depicts the Presentation in the Temple, Mary and Joseph standing before Simeon who holds the infant Christ. It is the earliest work in Suffolk by Henry Holiday, dating from 1864 when he was just 25 years old. After a moment, you might notice that Anna is missing, and in fact this was originally a three light window, set in the east end of the south aisle. This part of the church was a private pew for Eleanor Hallifax, the chimney from her fireplace here still rising high above the south-east corner of the nave. After her death it became her memorial chapel. The Holiday glass was moved out and Faith, Hope and Charity by Powell & Sons were put in their place, presumably at Eleanor Hallifax's request. The third light of the Holiday glass could not be reset, and it appears that it has now been lost. However, Holiday's angels are still in situ in the upper lights above the Powells' three virtues.

Mary and Joseph at the Presentation by Henry Holiday Simeon holds the infant Christ (Henry Holiday) Presentation in the Temple (two surviving panels of three, Henry Holiday, 1863)
angels (Henry Holiday, 1863) the infant Christ

Coming into the chancel, the east window is the earliest work in Suffolk by William Warrington, and the presence of windows by Warrington and Holiday in the years before they came to national prominence may be a testimony to the taste and money of the Hallifax family. Some 14th Century glass fragments have been collected and reset in geometric patterns on the north side of the chancel.

Some of the memorials are also to the Hallifax family, two of them by the Westmacotts pere et fils. The best is to Elizabeth Plampin, and shows her standing beside an urn. More memorable is Richard Westmacott Junior's memorial to Sir Thomas and Anna Halifax in the south aisle, which is an exact copy of his memorial to Henry Villebois of three years earlier at Marham in Norfolk. The two angels are perhaps a little alarming at this distance, and Sam Mortlock felt moved to describe this monument as banal.

A six-pointed star on the pulpit is perhaps intended by the 19th Century restorers to remind us that it is set where the medieval chapel of the guild of the Holy Trinity was, and as if to emphasise this a Holy Trinity symbol is also set in the upper lights of the window here. Up in the chancel, a memorial to Myles Cooper Bolton, the rector's only surviving son, records that he was killed in a railway accident at Moose Jaw, Canada in 1909.

This pleasingly atmospheric church had its day in the national eye in May 2002 when the temperamental supermodel Claudia Schiffer got married here. Schiffer lives at Coldham Hall, not far off in Stanningfield, and this church was chosen out of all the local churches for its isolation, possibly because Ms Schiffer and her husband-to-be wanted a quiet wedding, though that wasn't the way it turned out. Guests included Madonna, Brad Pitt, Boris Becker and Richard Curtis. The former footballer Vinnie Jones was an usher. One local told the reporter from the Daily Telegraph, disbelievingly, 'Nothing like this ever happens in Suffolk'. And standing here now, it does all seem a little unlikely.


Simon Knott, September 2020

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Shimpling sanctuary Shimpling
font (14th Century) Thomas Hallifax of Chadacre Hall (Richard Westmacott Jr, 1850) Thomas Hallifax Armiger 1842 (William Warrington)
Works of Mercy: Feed the Hungry/Clothe the Naked (Heaton, Butler & Bayne?, 1879) Faith, Charity, Hope Dove of Holy Spirit above Alpha and Omega symbols (William Warrington, 1842) reset fragments (14th Century)
benefactors to the poor of this parish Faith Charity Hope killed in a railway accident at Moose Jaw, Canada (1909)
Love is of God

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