Congregational Chapel, Walpole
building can be found beyond St
on the road out of Walpole, towards Halesworth. It is often compared with its
contemporary, the Unitarian chapel in Ipswich, although here we
see something of the same kind in a thoroughly domestic
setting. This church is recognised now for the great
treasure it is, thank God - so many of its cousins around
the country have been destroyed in the last fifty years,
as their denominations have shrunk to virtually nothing.
Love and care being lavished - Walpole Old Chapel in the summer of 1999.
From the outside, this is obstensibly a pair of early 17th century cottages, but inside, the interior is a grand furnishing of the mid-18th century. The worshipping community here was actually much older than that, dating itself back to 1649, and the ferment of millennial ideas at the end of the English Civil War. Anyone interested in this period of history is recommended to read The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill. The Walpole congregationalists were only one of hundreds of weird and wonderful sects that flourished at this time, including Grindletonians, Muggletonians, Claxtonians, Salmonists, Brownists, Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Sea Green Men and The Family of Love. Some of these sects, including the Quakers and the Baptists, have survived and flourished in the years since. Most have completely disappeared, and it is mind-boggling to read about them now.
|The interior was much
plainer at the start, and we see it now at the height of
its popularity and influence, the 1750s, by which time it
had become a respectable dissenters' chapel.
The ground-floor pews were designed for those who could afford to rent them. There is a balcony for the poorer folk at the time I visited, this was inaccessible, but it has since undergone repair. There was obviously an advantage to a non-conformist chapel hidden away in the countryside, but the late 18th century evangelical revival stole some of the congregationalists' thunder.
The preaching platform, and the great central column, allegedly from a Southwold ship.
The community could still count more than 50 members at the start of the nineteenth century, but by the 1870s only a couple of families sustained it. These families, and interested adherents, kept the chapel open for another 100 years, ministers being supplied by other congregationalist communities, first at Cratfield, and then at Halesworth; but the worshipping life of this chapel finally came to an end in 1970.
However, annual services are still held here, and the building is now in the care of the wholly admirable Historic Chapels Trust, a sort of equivalent of the Churches Conservation Trust for synagogues, Catholic churches and non-conformist chapels.
To step into this chapel is an awe-inspiring experience; one of the rare opportunities left to us to obtain a sense of what it was like to be a proud, yet marginalised community in 17th and 18th century rural England.
Walpole Old Chapel is on the B1117 Halesworth to Laxfield road, just on the Halewsorth side of Walpole village. It is regularly open on Saturdays 11-4 from early May to mid-September. In addition, however, for those who can make advance arrangements, there is a willingness to open at reasonable times for parties or those individuals seriously interested in seeing the place. Bookings should be made by calling 01986 784412 or 01986 784571.