At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter and St Paul, Wangford

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


Hover on an image to read the caption, click on an image to enlarge it:

View from the north east. Note the long chancel behind the tower. And the Rector's garage.

The tower from the north.

Sanctuary Angel.

Another angel, this time at the base of the lectern.

The remarkable pulpit, formerly of Henham Hall.

That curious tomb arch. Genuine, or Victorian conceit?

Looking east.

The gloomy Victorian sanctuary.

The reredos, designed for six candlesticks.

Looking west.

Acurious juxtaposition between Victorian and Medieval survival.

The churches of Suffolk

The churches of Ipswich

The churches of Lowestoft

The churches of Bury St Edmunds

The churches of Felixstowe

The churches of the Saints


St Peter and St Paul. Something happened here.

Spring didn't really happen in 2002. Day after day was overcast; rain blustered in from the west in waves, and the fair and fine spells were few and far between. The hay fever season lasted well into July, the poor trees unable to release their pollen as early as they'd like. It wasn't much of a time for cycling around Suffolk, and so I didn't.

I busied myself investigating medieval attitudes towards mortality and sexuality, which was more interesting than it sounds. I built a website for a series of translations of the medieval legends of the Virgin Mary. I pottered about in northern France. I fended off regular e-mails from people wondering what had happened to the site, asking if I was busy, or ill, or even dead. Nobody said 'I guess you just don't feel much like it', which would have been closest to the truth.

A friend was going to the seaside for the day, so I went along for the ride. When they stopped at Yoxford for the bookshop, I went into the church and took loads of photos. Then at Walberswick I took loads more. They were great photographs. I left them in a pile beside the computer for several weeks, and then tidied them away. When I went to look for them, I couldn't find them. I still haven't found them. Quite frankly, I was fed up with the whole business.

Then, one Saturday towards the end of June, at the end of the busiest, most stressful week I can remember, I caught the scent of oilseed rape in my nostrils, and a vision came to me of country lanes lined with angelica and ground elder. I went out to the garage, and found my bike under a pile of junk, dusted down, and got on it.

It was a perfect day. I came down from Lowestoft through the lanes I love, the lanes I'd remembered and imagined. Only one church was inaccessible, all day, because of a wedding. And then, towards the end of the afternoon, I shot out of the lane from Uggeshall, across four lanes of the busy A12, and into the lovely village of Wangford.

I had been here before, in the days when I didn't carry a camera. The village stretches along a street which once carried the main London to Yarmouth road. It must have been hell. Today, the village is bypassed, and the road is a cul-de-sac. This means the pub has closed, its former customers now storming frenetically up the dual carriageway to the west, but this seems to me a small price to pay for the peace it now has. And the shop is still open, so it could be worse.

The village is not to be confused with the ghost village of Wangford near Lakenheath, on the other side of Suffolk. St Peter and St Paul sits opposite the former pub in as wide a graveyard as you can imagine. The church rises above the flat expanse, looking quite unlike anything else in the county. The more you look at it, the stranger it appears.

I walked up the open path towards it. It looks like nothing quite so much as a North London Anglo-catholic creation of the 19th century, decked out in flint and trimmed with Suffolk features. And that is almost exactly what it is.

The church here was, like most in Suffolk, pretty near derelict by the mid-19th century. It was all that survived of a Cluniac Priory, a cell to the mother Priory at Thetford over the border, but must still have been fairly substantial, even after falling under the patronage of Henham Hall. The Hall, now gone, sat in its park in the hamlet of Henham a bit to the south, on the other side of the A12; but Henham never had a church, and so it was that the Earls of Stradbroke, owners of the Hall, set about creating a monument to themselves here - and a mighty fine one it is too.

The architect was A. L. Blackburne. First, all was demolished except for the nave walls. Next, an extraordinary turretted chancel was created at the east end, and beside it in the 1870s, even more extraordinarily, a grand tower. Dallinghoo, to the south, also has a tower at the east end, but that is because it is a former cruciform church which has lost its chancel and transepts. Here, the plan was deliberate, and successful. The top of the tower is finished in the 14th century Suffolk manner. So it sits there at the east end of the north aisle, while inside, the west end of the nave has a huge window, which may possibly be the refashioning of a tower arch. If you came across all this in the backstreets of Camden or Kentish Town, you would automatically think, well, they had to shoe-horn this church into a cramped site, and that is why everything is in the wrong place. And so it appears here - except, as you'll remember, the church is in the middle of a wide open space.

Pausing only to notice what appears to be the Rector's garage to the east of the church, and to look up at the curious colour bands in the slates of the nave roof, I entered through the north porch, which is the only other medieval survival. It seems to have had a side sliced off it by the buttress to the north aisle. I stepped into what, to all intents and purposes, appears an urban church, but one ruralised through the use of the last century and a half. Because of the width of the north aisle, the long chancel appears competely offset in the south-east corner. There are bands of tiles on the walls, and dramatic 19th century glass all around, although I understand that the whole piece was toned down by a redecoration in the 1960s, which seems a pity.

The sanctuary is still full-on ritualistic, however, with a mighty gilded stone reredos. Suffolk angels look down from the roof. I thought I could smell incense, but it was probably only the lilies in the flower displays.

The arcade has been refashioned, but one curiosity is that the penultimate bay before the chancel is lower than the others, as if it once had a tomb beneath it. I don't know if this is a Victorian conceit, or if it replicates something that was there before, but there is nothing beneath it now.

The most remarkable features of the church are probably the lectern and pulpit. The lectern is made of brass, and the column is surrounded by angels who appear about to take flight. They are absolutely gorgeous. The pulpit is quite different, and I've not seen anything like it before. Supposedly, it was brought here from the chapel at Henham Hall, and I'm told that it is 17th century Flemish, although that is more than I know. It is a glorious affair of inlaid wood and varnish. Images of both these pieces are among the photographs to the left.

The walls are lined with mementos to the Rouses, the family name of the Earls of Stradbroke, and they are all very good. But there is another memorial which is quite different. Up in the sanctuary, there is a charming little display of a lead tile inscribed with the name of the young boy who laid it. Movingly, his name has been traced through census returns, and a picture built up of who he was. A rather different touchstone to the 19th century than the huge, fine building that contains it.

St Peter and St Paul, Wangford, is to be found off of the A12 between Blythburgh and Kessingland. It is open during the hours of daylight.