At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Swilland

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Swilland Swilland Swilland Swilland  

a virgin shall conceive   Suffolk continues to surprise me. Some twenty years ago, when I first spotted St Mary across the fields, my mind couldn't make sense of what I was seeing. What was it? Some strange Victorian folly? A water tower, perhaps? It looks like nothing so much as if a giant hand had picked up a Tudor cottage, and threaded it delicately over a lantern spire and onto the stump of the tower. The hand, in fact, was that of John Corder, an Ipswich architect remembered by Corder Road, where several houses echo this Brothers Grimm gothick fairy tale. He also rebuilt Hepworth, although he seems to have kept his imagination under wraps there. Pevsner, in a rare moment when his sense of humour shows through, described it as French in character and vaguely of c.1500 in its motifs. Sam Mortlock, however, quite liked it, and called it 'beguiling'. He went as far as to describe the lantern spire as 'perky'.

The village runs into the larger village of Witnesham, which is outer-Ipswich suburbia really, but Swilland still retains a sense of its rural identity, and a feel of being a place where ordinary people live quiet lives. There is an excellent pub, the Moon and Mushroom. The name Swilland means 'a place where pigs are kept', although for miles around it is now barley which sprawls across acre after acre. The main street through Swilland is one of my regular ways back into Ipswich from cycle rides, and so I see this church often, but until the spring of 2008 I had never been inside it..

Swilland church used to be kept locked, but that has changed, and today it os open to pilgrims and strangers every day. You enter the porch and come to face with quite the most spectacular Norman doorway in the Ipswich area. I think it must have been recut a bit, which is a pity, but it reminds us that this church was already old before the 15th century tower and bell were installed, and ancient before John Corder came along.

My surprise cameas I stepped inside, for the interior of this little church is redolent of a gorgeous early 20th century Anglo-catholicism, and while this may no longer be the tradition at Swilland, it has left enough of itself to show what it was once like. The eye is drawn eastwards to a tall, gilt reredos much in the style of Ninian Comper at Wymondham, the gilt Saints filling niches either side of a crucifixion scene. I wonder who designed it?

reredos sanctuary INRI
angel St John the Baptist St James the Less crucifixion St Patrick St Simon 

East Anglia's two great Saints, St Felix and St Edmund, are majestic in a nave window with a brass inscription to JP Nelson, Priest, bolted beneath them. The brass grows into a Saxon cross inscribed with the words Jesu Miserere, which suggests that the Anglo-catholic tradition here was already established by the 1880s, probably by the Reverend Nelson himself.

The 15th century font is painted in a 15th century style, presumably also in the 1880s - you wouldn't have got away with that in the 20th Century. Curiously, directly opposite the Reverend Nelson's memorial is another one to a minister of twenty years earlier. Richard John Allen appears to have died in harness in 1867, when Tractarian attitudes and a snobbish attitude to Biblical fundamentalism were already firmly entrenched in the Church of England. Allen's memorial is surmounted by an open book with the words ye must be born again, a typically hardline reponse to Tractarian ideas about sacramental grace, and beneath we are told that he Faithfully Preached the Glorious Gospel of the Grace of God. And this just twenty years before Nelsons call for Jesu Miserere - it must have been quite a rollercoaster ride.

At the back of the church is one of the best carved sets of royal arms in Suffolk. As it is that rare thing, a set for Queen Anne, it must be counted one of the most significant in England.


Simon Knott, June 2008

south doorway looking east Jesu Miserere looking west font
Blessed Virgin and child Blessed Virgin and child St Edmund St Felix St David
the glorious gospel St Felix and St Edmund St David Blessed Virgin and child the swamping of a boat
royal arms organ banner St Anne teaching the Blessed Virgin to read St Anne teaching the Blessed Virgin to read Wordsworth & Maskell 
hail and farewell Swilland angel

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