At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Margaret, Stoven

At the sign of the Barking lion...

 

www.suffolkchurches.com - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

 


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From the south.

The main entrance through the north door (Victorian).

The south door (Norman)

Looking east.

The chancel.

The font - oh, I say, Early English...

Looking west.

The strange, square EE-style pulpit

The pelican in her piety before the altar.

Wordy brass plaque on the south wall.

A narrow, intimate space.

 

St Margaret: inside every mock-Norman church there's a medieval building struggling to get out.

Here's a good storyline for The X-Files. In the second half of the 19th century, a group of aliens decides to take over the Earth. Sensing the authority of the Church of England, they decide to use this institution to disguise themselves. They will build apparently medieval churches to use as cover for their headquarters on the planet they hope to conquer. One alien finds a book of medieval architectural styles. Norman looks nice. They decide to build Norman parish churches so that the populace will think they are Vicars and choirboys, not aliens.

Of course, it all goes hopelessly wrong. By choosing the Norman style they have blown their cover wide open. They can just about get away with the doorways. But the collonaded windows begin to raise suspicion, and once you get inside the churches it is all pretty hopeless - the Norman stone pulpits, Norman stone lecterns, Norman pews, they are all sad and laughable. The aliens are exposed, and sent packing.

If you were filming this episode in Suffolk you could do worse than use Wissington as the setting, since all the features mentioned above are to be found there - installed by Victorians, I hasten to add, not Martians. Of course, you'd have to whitewash all the wallpaintings.

19th century restorations in the Norman style are almost uniformly horrible. By the early years of that century, many of Suffolk's churches were in a poor state, but to rebuild some of them in the Norman style was a dreadful mistake, and nowhere in Suffolk was the mid-century rebuilding as comprehensive as here at Stoven. Nothing looks less organic than a mock-Norman building. Here, the fine Norman south door has been used as an inspiration for the rest of the building, as if a new body had been cloned from a single cell.

At first sight, it isn't so bad. The graveyard on the north side is delightful, full of mature trees and 18th century headstones. The shape of the building is good, especially with the sun behind. It is only on approaching that the details make themselves known, and there seems to be no relationship between the styling and the proportions. And where did that tower come from? But there is a heartwarming story here that is worth telling.

In April 1987, this tiny parish was presented with a horrific 200,000 bill for repairs. The Diocesan architect, aware that this was an impossible demand, recommended that the church be partially demolished, enabling the parish to continue using a smaller, fitter building. Funding bodies and charities like English Heritage were unable to help, since the building was only listed at Grade II, and wasn't considered important enough for injections of cash.

Not surprisingly, the Parish Council decided instead to opt for making the building redundant. That way, they could move in with neighbouring Brampton, while the Redundant Churches Fund took over the headache of paying for repairs. The building would be lost to CofE liturgical use, but would be retained as a village landmark, and could also be used for community purposes.

The church was declared redundant in January 1989. However, there was bad news ahead. The Redundant Churches Fund decided that the 1854 rebuilding had been so drastic that they could not justify taking St Margaret on. Simply, there was just not enough medieval structure left to justify the expense. The Parish Council asked the Fund to think again. They did, and came to the same conclusion. So St Margaret was put up for sale by the Diocese, pending planning permission for residential or commercial use.

Unfortunately, nobody wanted to buy it. This should really come as no surprise, since few people would be prepared to splash out a six figure sum just to make a structure sound, before even thinking of converting it. The majority of churches sold off during the great wave of redundancies ten years earlier had mostly been in good condition. And now things got desperate, because included in the legislation that governs church redundancies is the clause that, if no no use has been found for a Grade II building within three years, it must be demolished.

Those three years went by, probably rather quickly in the eyes of the former Parish Council, and in May 1992 the Church Commissioners prepared the draft order for the demolition of St Margaret, Stoven.

This must have been a depressing time for villagers. They were presented with something of a fait accompli, but in any event a public meeting was held to discuss it, and representatives of national bodies like English Heritage and the Redundant Churches Fund attended. It was agreed that if there was any way forward it was in a thorough architectural examination of the church building.

Well, you may be able to guess what happened. It didn't take long to discover that to all intents and purposes this was a medieval building - rather than being demolished, the former church had been covered with a Norman skin. You can see this for yourself; the plaster has been removed in places on the south side, exposing the outline of the medieval window splays beneath.

As a consequence of this, the listed building status was raised by the Department of the Environment to Grade II*, and suddenly things looked a little brighter. In the short term, the new status qualified the building for English Heritage grant aid, and in the longer term the parish decided to refer matters back to the Redundant Churches Fund, which in the meantime had morphed into the Churches Conservation Trust.

And then something extraordinary happened. The survey for the newly-funded repair work showed that the total cost would be about 60,000, less than a third of the figure quoted six years earlier! You have to wonder quite how such a disparity occured, and if events would have been so traumatic if the revised figure had been quoted to the parish at the time. Suddenly, it seemed as if Stoven parish might be able to cope after all. At Easter 1996 the church opened for business again. The Redundancy order was rescinded, and a new Parish Council convened.

Since that time, work has continued on restoring St Margaret to fomer glories. And as an act of faith the door is open to visitors every day.

So you step in to an interior that is lovelier than you have been led to expect, and not wholly mock-Norman in style at all. The chancel arch is more restrained than some 19th century confections, the east end of the chancel is elegant, the tiling polite and the benches plain and fitting. Indeed, those aliens might have got away with it here; they leafed through the book to the Early English section for the font and the pulpit, both of which are more imaginative than many in the style, and most people nowadays would find the intimacy of this narrow building more pleasing than the usual wide-open spaces so beloved of the Victorians.

The people of Stoven must feel a sense of relief that they still have a parish church in the village, but the real irony is that it isn't how original the building is that matters at all. The Victorians restored in medieval styles to create a false sense of continuity; but the continuity is always there anyway. It lies not in the bricks and mortar but in the people of the parish who have used St Margaret as their touchstone down the long generations, both as Catholics before the Reformation and as Anglicans afterwards. Outside St Margaret, some of those people still lie in the ground.

Cardinal Newman defined tradition as the unending, slow process of development, and buildings like churches should always be changing to suit the communities that use them. Our understanding of God, the Universe and everything changes and develops from one generation to the next, and this will inevitably be reflected in the buildings in which we worship. If that sometimes involves razing them to the ground and then starting again, then so be it.

John Barnes Mary Sewell John Sewell

A perfect setting.

St Margaret, Stoven, is just to the east of the Blythburgh to Beccles road to the north of Brampton. It is militantly open every day.


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