At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Somersham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Somersham 13th Century porch entrance

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Somersham is a proper old-fashioned village, with its High Street, shop, pub, garage, church and school. So many settlements out here are scattered and centreless, or huddled little hamlets, so it is quite a contrast to the narrow lanes that snake through the hills around here, a domesticated place compared with the wild beauty of adjacent parishes of Nettlestead and Little Blakenham. But it is a pleasant setting for the church nonetheless, and the unbuttressed tower, as you approach it, keeps the church hidden like wings tucked behind its back, giving it more power than the 14th century usually allows.

This is not a glamorous building. But it is a church full of interest. The large brick buttress in the north wall is the case of the former rood loft stairs. The great splays of the wooden porch were cut from a single piece of wood in the 13th century, and so this must be one of Suffolk's oldest porch entrances. You step down into a disproportionately long interior, for like most around here this is a small church. As is usual around here, there is no chancel arch. The feeling is mostly of the late 19th Century, although perhaps the most striking survivals are from a century earlier, the pairing of Moses and Aaron set either side of the reredos and east window. They are perhaps in their orignal positions, but would once have been separated by the decalogue boards.

Moses, 18th Century Aaron, 18th Century

St Mary has a lot of what Pevsner calls 'curiosa' still in situ. Perhaps the most interesting, if least spectacular, can be found on the most easterly tie beam, above the sanctuary. The two pieces of wood that stick up from it are the stirrup of the medieval sanctus bell, used during the consecration at the Mass. In a small church like this, a bell in the tower was usually nominated for this purpose, so perhaps this was the result of a bequest. It is an unusual survival.

The next tie beam west most probably served as the rood beam. Following the line of the wall plate of the roof to the back of the church, you'll notice wooden pegs sticking out of each side. Cautley, in a fit of the medieval romanticism to which he was occasionally prone, thought them garland hooks, used for suspending a crant of flowers, as a symbol of virginity, at the funeral of a young girl. However, as there was a gallery here from the 17th to the 19th century they might more likely have been cloak and hat hooks.

On the west wall hangs a grand Charles II coat of arms, with a hatchment to the Bacon family to the north of it. Beneath the hatchment, in a glass case, is a bomb dropped from a Zeppelin onto the parish in World War I. There's another coat of arms, for George IV, above the pulpit on the north wall. This is a beautifully cut piece of fretwork, probably produced locally. On the opposite wall is a curious rectangular recess, about a metre long, which has been pressed into service as a noticeboard. I've no idea what its original purpose was. A modern counterpoint opposite to it is the half-roundel 1990s glass by Suffolk artist Surinder Warboys set in the top of the former north doorway depicting the four seasons of the Ever-Circling Year in a variety of Suffolk wild flowers.

I wandered back outside into the trim graveyard, and set off west again. looking back, the church had folded its wings and huddled back behind its tower. Heading out from Ipswich, Somersham strikes me as the last sign of semi-urban civilisation. Beyond here, wild Suffolk awaits.

Simon Knott, November 2019

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looking east Four Seasons by Surinder Warboys, 1994 font
George III Royal Arms Charles II royal arms sanctus bell stirrup
Blessed Virgin and Child Behold the Lamb of God war memorial


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