At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Lawrence, South Cove

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


Hover to read captions, click to see enlarged images:

The four-square tower.

Ah, a clue! The Norman north doorway.

Despite the busy road, as rural as its neighbours.

Looking east - note the rood screen on the right.

Looking west.

The font. By no means Suffolk's best, but very rustic and fitting for this place.

The mysterious rood stair 'doorway'.

St Michael.


St Lawrence - undeniably Norman.

I have visited St Lawrence three times; all three times I was late. The first was in deepest December 1998; I was cycling towards Southwold, and the light was fading fast. It was about 4pm, but I had no lights, and the rural darkness in Suffolk is intense. My plan was to be picked up by the cavalry on Gun Hill, but rather than risk the next three miles in darkness I wimped out, and rang them from the churchyard to come and get me. I was surprised to find the church open - after all, it was dark. It was dark inside as well, but I fumbled about and found the lights, and for the first time I saw the extraordinary painting of St Michael on what appears to be the rood-loft door - but we'll come back to that later.

The second time I came here was at two o'clock one morning in the Summer of 1999. I happened to be passing - if it's okay with you, I won't go into details - and I just wondered if the church would be open. It wasn't.

And then we fast forward to July 2003, and DD and I arrived here at eight o'clock in the evening. I had been trying to convince him all day that the Halesworth/Southwold area is churchcrawlers' heaven - all the churches are accessible, virtually all of them actually open - at least 50 within ten miles of Halesworth. I think he might have been putting me to the test. We shot through the narrow lanes from Westhall in his Lotus Elise, took the number-plate off in the church car park, tried the door of the church, and found it open, God bless it.

This little building is situated just to the north of Southwold and Reydon's urban sprawl. Actually, that makes it sound rather suburban, and it isn't at all; the tiny lanes that spread between here and the unfortunately named Frostenden Bottom are as narrow, overshadowed and remote as any you'll find up here in the north east. The village here is called South Cove to distinguish it from Covehithe, formerly simply Cove, rather than from North Cove which is away on the Norfolk border. There isn't really much of a village here at all, and when I visited in 1998 there was only one service a month. But this is as pretty and as well-cared for a church as you could wish, and despite its location on the busy Southwold to Wrentham road it has a lovely setting beside a farmyard, and like all thatched churches looks very fine. If you've ever seen the film Iris, you may recognise it as the church where she gets married.

You step from the trim churchyard through the fine Norman south door into a thoroughly Victorian interior, reminiscent of Uggeshall and Sotherton. It has aged well; someone with imagination worked here. The interior is narrow, with a fine medieval roof, and the Victorianisms shouldn't distract us from the fact that this is essentially a Norman building, with much surviving evidence.

Isn't it strange how you can never really disguise a Norman church? You can punch its walls with Dec and Perp windows, you can add an elaborate tower at the west end, you can fill it full of pitch-pine pews, but it still retains that essential Norman-ness. It's something about the proportions, I guess.

There's a typical East Anglian font, in pretty poor condition. The central gangway widens towards the west, which is rather pleasing. The modern reredos includes a gridiron, the instrument of St Lawrence's gruesome torture. Part of the medieval roodscreen survives, with apparently medieval painting at the top, but no images on the panels of the dado.

The great treasure of the church has been well-preserved. It is a large piece of wood, two planks in fact, set in the entrance to the rood loft stairs, and on it is painted St Michael fighting a dragon. It may well have been that rood loft stairways originally had doors - indeed, hinges survive at some churches. But there is no getting away from the fact that this does not look like a door. There is no handle, and no hinges, for a start. So, what is it?

I think we would be correct to assume that the 16th century reformers were keen to get rid of rood loft stairs, either out of theological expediency, or simple embarrassment that they could ever have fallen for those papist tricks. As anyone who has dabbled in DIY will tell you, the easiest way to block up an entrance is to close the door and plaster over it (I ought to add that I've never dabbled in DIY - I asked someone.)

If there isn't a door, then you fit panels into the space, and then plaster over it. I'm guessing here, but I think that when the Victorians went about their business resacramentalising the churches of England and Wales, they deliberately opened up rood loft stairs to restore a sense of the medieval. Some stairway entrances had been filled with rubble. But mostly, they'd been covered over, and plastered. You'd find them by the hollow sound when you tapped them. The Victorians stripped back the plaster, removed the panelling, burnt it, and thought no more about it.

Except here. The Victorians seem to have discovered something rather remarkable and exciting (it simply isn't credible that this image survived the long puritan nightmare of the Church of England on display). I think this image spent several centuries under plaster - note the damage done by a sharp instrument. At first sight, you might think that this is an example of protestant iconoclasm. But it isn't. A professional plasterer friend of mine tells me that this is what you have to do to wood to get the plaster to stick to it.

So, we must ask ourselves: what was this panelling originally? Was it a door? Or was it put there in the 1540s to block the rood loft off? And if so, where was it taken from? Was it originally from a doom typanum, as at Wenhaston? I suppose we'll never know.

St Lawrence, South Cove, is on the B1127 between Wrentham and Southwold. It is open in daylight hours.

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