At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John the Baptist, Snape

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Snape porch niche Snape 

font   Like many medieval churches in Suffolk, St John the Baptist is remote from the village it serves. Or, it would be more accurate to say, the village is remote from the church, since the church stands on the main road from the A12 to Aldeburgh, and the village is off this road, a mile or so to the south. The position of the church probably reflects the fact that it is high, firm ground, while the village is in the marshes.

This is not to say that the village is not a busy place too, of course, for just across the River Alde, and actually in Tunstall parish, are the world famous Snape Maltings, once the dockside and railhead of the Garrett industrial empire, and now home to the Aldeburgh Festival. Ironically, the tourists that flock the craft shops, galleries and cafes of the Arts Centre, and go for walks along the reed-banked creeks and across the marshes, probably don't make it up to the busy top road and the church, which is a pity.

The building today looks pretty much like the 1820 drawing of the church reprinted on the cover of the guidebook. The Victorians didn't do much restructuring here; there was no building of aisles, transepts or trimmings. The only real change is the eastern wall, rebuilt in 1920 to replace the heavily buttressed, yet collapsing, original. This is a simple, aisleless church, with no clerestory. The roofline on the tower shows that it was once thatched. It is a typical country church. The tower was built as the result of a bequest in the middle years of the 15th century, and the battlements added later, in the style of the 1520s. The porch is contemporary with the tower. The nave and chancel are earlier, probably 13th century, and although they have been patched up over the years, there has been no wholesale rebuilding.

Inside, however, the modern age has been busy. But you step into an utterly charming interior, full of light, with white walls and brick floors. At the cleared west end is the church's great treasure, one of the most beautiful fonts in the county.

It bears a dedicatory inscription to the Mey family, and dates from the late 15th century. Strange animals lurk around the foot of it; the stem bears the Evangelists with their symbols, interspersed with kings. But the most animated figures are those on the bowl. Seven of them hold a long scroll that goes right around the bowl. The eighth panel is a rare representation of the Holy Trinity, which was particularly circumscribed by iconoclasts in the 16th and 17th centuries, and even meets with disapproval in some quarters today. It shows God the Father seated on his throne, with the crucified Son held in front of him. The Spirit descends in the form of a dove. On either side kneel the donors of the font.

font Holy Trinity angels with a scroll King

David Davy, visiting in the 1830s, said that the whitewash had been recently removed from the font. Perhaps what he meant was that the figures had been covered in plaster, which would explain their survival. Certainly, the puritan iconoclast William Dowsing saw nothing to incur his displeasure when he came here in 1644, and almost certainly the Anglican reformers had plastered it over a century earlier, the usual way of dealing with the problem of removing images while not actually destroying the font, which was still required by the new religion.

The views to east and west are beautiful, the colour of the east window perfectly poised and balanced. In the top half, Christ breaks bread at supper at Emmaus. below, two angels flank the River Alde at Snape Bridge. It dates from the 1920 restoration, and is by Mary Lowndes. Below it, there is a beautiful altar frontal - it elaborates on a line from Eliot's Four Quartets. The church used to have a 15th century brass of five little girls. Davy made a rubbing of it, which is in the British Museum; but the brass has been stolen since, probably in the 1920 wholesale refurbishment of the chancel.

Outside in the graveyard, the war memorial is one of the most extraordinary in Suffolk, a broken-down classical feature looking down the road to the village. Unfortunately, it is not a pleasant walk, because of the traffic, but there a couple of good pubs, and the walks across the marshes beyond the Maltings are certainly worth the effort. Not far off is Snape Mill, bought by the young Benjamin Britten as a place to write, and to which he returned from America at the height of the War. He had read an article about George Crabbe's poem Peter Grimes, and knew that back home in Suffolk was where he had to be.

  River Alde

Simon Knott, September 2008

Beloved looking west west end looking east sanctuary
angels the reapers Christ at Emmaus are the angels South doorway
dragon Christ at Emmaus the still point for ever to poor housekeepers
rood loft stair modern art door handle

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