e-mail: simon@suffolkchurches.co.uk

Congregational Chapel, Walpole

  This remarkable building can be found beyond St Mary's church 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.

Non-conformism at a tumultuous time. The early 18th century pulpit, canopy and windows betray a Dutch influnece. Was it from the English churches in the Netherlands where congregational ministers had taken refuge after the restoration of Charles II? Research continues.

  Most of the 'saints', as they styled themselves, who led the Walpole congregationalists, had been fellow-students at the puritan Emmanuel College in Cambridge. Some of them were Fifth Monarchists, a sect who believed that the saints should seize political power in trust for the time when Christ would return.

Several of them were local puritan Anglican clergy, including the vicars of Heveningham, Cookley and Walpole. These were the sort of beliefs that would get them on the front of a tabloid newspaper today, but in the years after the civil war this community worshipped in the local parish churches.

You step into a cream and brown interior. Numbered family pews are arranged around the south and east walls, facing the pulpit and reading platform to the west. Gorgeous, open arches, just like those at Ipswich, flank the pulpit.

This building was used by the community after the restoration of the monarchy and Church of England. The ministers were expelled from the once-again Anglican parish churches, and with their congregations had set up this chapel by 1689, making it one of the oldest non-conformist meeting houses in the country. The Winthrops of Groton had fled to the New World; these people, with their experience of a gathered church surviving on home ground, decided to stay; they were rewarded with full legal toleration after the accession of William III in 1689.

  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.