At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Tuddenham St Mary

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Tuddenham St Mary

Tuddenham St Mary Tuddenham St Mary Tuddenham St Mary

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          Here we are in the orbit of Mildenhall, not a great area of Suffolk for open churches it must be said. But in a county famed for the late medieval period, St Mary is that rare beast, a church with considerable evidence of the days before the Black Death sobered us all up. Not only is the tower splendid, but the Decorated tracery in the east window is lovely too. The clerestory is a later addition, and is so late that the north aisle that would have gone with it was never built because the Reformation got there first. But if it hadn’t then we might have lost the lovely sequence of Decorated windows in the north side of the nave. Of course, we did lose the glass. Simon Cotton found a 1432 bequest that directed all the fruits of the rectory to the building or reparation of the chancel, which seems a late date for the east window so perhaps it was not altered. In 1461 John Passchelewe left eight shillings to the painting of the image of the Blessed Mary in the chancel, and as late as 1530, the start of the decade that such things started to be wound up, John Whyte left 3s 4d (which is to say half a noble) to the making of the rood loft. As you read these and others you begin to build up a picture in your head of what this church was like on the very eve of the Reformation: the great screen with its painted images of saints chosen by the people of the parish, the coloured glass depicting saints and stories, the side altars and shrines with candles flickering and the people kneeling in acts of devotion. All gone now, but they were what this place was built for.

It took some effort to track down a key when I first visited back in 2003, but I was driven on to do so because, as I wrote at the time, I look forward to visiting churches like this because I expect them to be a bit musty and dusty inside, full of intriguing little details and forgotten treasures. Unfortunately, this was not to be. After a good half hour of hunting and haggling we were let into a wide open space that had been almost entirely scoured, a great medieval treasure house destroyed by a combination of theology, neglect and misplaced enthusiasm. Modern chairs faced a raised platform at the east end of the nave, aluminium bar light fixings ran across the 14th Century window tracery, both no doubt well-suited to the congregational worship buildings such as this now host. The chancel didn't appear to be used much. You can't help thinking that some parishes find the medieval integrity of their buildings a hindrance rather than a help. "This must have been a fine church once”, observed my companion grimly. He was right. The grand battlemented entrance to the rood loft stair was a sorry reminder of the glory that had once been here. The font, too, survives, on a modern tiled base, but pretty much any other sign of the sacramental and devotional past life of this building has been completely lost to us.

High above, a handful of glum angels looked down, rather relieved to have survived the 1870 rebuilding of the roof perhaps, but wondering if it was worth it as they gazed at the glossy floor. They are outnumbered by Victorian replacements, who have no reason to look smugger. The screen that supported John Whyte's rood loft has gone, the chancel arch has been rebuilt. John Passchelewe's image of the Blessed Mary has long since gone, lost to the injunctions against images of the 1530s and 1540s. A 17th Century pulpit survives to remind us of the theology of that century, looking a bit beleagured now perhaps.

As I wrote at the time, how much better it would be if congregations could be honest and say something like “look, we know this old building is no longer suitable for the way we worship now, and hasn't been for half a millennium. We know that the main reason people nowadays want an old church is so it looks nice, they can have weddings in it, and they can be buried around it. We’re going to give the building to some organisation that will look after it and maintain its historical identity. It can still be used for weddings and plays and concerts and things. All the money we would have spent on maintaining it is going to be put towards a modern building near the centre of the village which is more suitable for our needs. We’ll take the light fixings and the stage with us. We’re sorry we broke all the coloured glass.”

Well, it is too late for Tuddenham. We turned to go. The sky had become overcast while we were inside, and didn't help my frame of mind. As my companion photographed the exterior I walked down away from the road, past the headstone of a young man who had died on the Western Front one spring morning in 1917. Just beyond this, an old man was quietly arranging flowers on a grave. Anxious not to intrude, I kept walking down to where the newer graves were beyond the fence, only to stumble across a young woman standing beside one of the newest headstones, sobbing and smoking a cigarette. Her grief seemed a mixture of anger and despair. I walked on, hoping she hadn't noticed me.

I walked along the line of the newest headstones. It did nothing to cheer me up. There were plenty of older people lying there who probably lived rich and fulfilling lives, but several were to children, and even sadder were those to men and women cut off in their thirties and forties, leaving families and loved ones bereft. One man had left four young daughters. He was exactly my age, to the month. Goodbye Dad, never forget U, love U always said part of the inscription.

The young woman had gone now, and I wandered along to where she had been standing. It was a stone for another young man, dead only for a few months. Perhaps this was the future for the Church of England, I thought. Sunday gatherings for the hopeful and faithful few, and the rest of the energy focused into hosting best-bib-and-tucker wedding ceremonies for those who want a fancy setting, and memorialising the local dead. Most other visitors I meet in churchyards these days are there to tend graves, or to stand and look at them. They don't go into the church, and in a place like this why should they, and how, if it is locked? This modern cult of the dead seems in a generation or two to have entirely displaced the way people used to wander into churches to say a prayer and perhaps light a candle. Perhaps, I thought in my gloomy mood, we should just rename it the Church of the Dead, and be done with it.


Simon Knott, December 2020

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font Ezekiel Sparke war memorial


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