At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John the Baptist, Wantisden

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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the last of winter

they call us lonely when we're really just alone spring comes to Suffolk Wantisden

consecration cross   Remote churches have a peculiar fascination for me. It is as if they are cut off in time as well as space. Things have happened at a different pace, in different ways. Sometimes, it seems as though they have been forgotten, and that much has survived. In Suffolk there are some lovely, unspoiled, remote churches. I think of Badley, I think of Little Wenham. But most of all I think of Wantisden.

It had been nearly twenty years since I'd last visited Wantisden church. And yet, I had thought of it often, and even passed it close enough to see it off in the distance. The church is located in fields about half a mile from the nearest road. This is not that unusual in East Anglia, probably a dozen others are equally remote. And St John the Baptist has always been remote, for there has never been a village of Wantisden. This church served the residents of Wantisden Hall, and their workers.

What makes the church remarkable however, is not its remoteness, but its location. Until the 1930s, there were just two little cottages about 400 yards north of the church, by a bend in the little river. They were called Bent Waters cottages. At the start of the second world war, this whole area was requisitioned by the military, and by 1950, USAAF Bentwaters was one of the biggest and busiest military airbases in the world. The site of the cottages is somewhere under the main runway now, the river long-culverted. The church was enclosed by the military area until the 1950s, when the new perimeter fence cut in and put it outside the base.

However, the only access to it was through the base (the fields were still cordoned off as tank training areas) so anyone who wanted to tend a grave had to have a military escort through the base. At this time, the modern top road didn't exist, and the nearest other road to the church was a mile away. When the fields were reopened in the sixties, the current top road was built, and a footpath was put in from it. In the 1980s, it was turned into a roadway, but it was still shown on OS maps as a footpath, perhaps because of its proximity to the airbase. It seems that Russia wasn't the only country during the cold war to put deliberate errors on maps to confuse the enemy.

St John the Baptist is a Norman church, with a 15th century Coralline Crag tower, one of only two in England. The other is about a mile off at Chillesford, where you can also see the medieval quarry from which the crag was dug. Simon Cotton tells me that bequests were made for this tower in 1445 and 1449. A derelict stable, presumably for the rector's horse, sits on the southern perimeter of the churchyard. Given the location of St John the Baptist, you might think that the church has been declared redundant, but it is still looked after as part of the Orford benefice, a tremendous act of faith and love.

You collect the key from the Hall Farm office at the top of the track (of interest to fans of the BBC TV show The Detectorists, for this is the depot where Lance works in all three series) and step in through the small Norman south doorway of the church into an organic space, close to the earth from which it springs, rough and ready and yet also lovingly kept. Above the doorway is a grinning grotesque headstone, probably a lion, an early medieval symbol of Christ. Turning east, the chancel arch is Norman, a rare beast in Suffolk. Above it, the 18th Century decalogue boards are in their original place, and a royal arms dated 1800 hangs on the north wall.

looking east looking east chancel

The bench ends are medieval, their figures entirely destroyed, although enough remains of one to show that it may well have depicted a fox preaching to geese. They probably came from elsewhere, but some crude 17th Century benches huddle in the north west corner, and this was no doubt their original home. The font is a great round tub of a thing, contemporary with the chancel arch. It is one of England's few surviving Norman fonts built of blocks of stone. Wall paintings on the south nave wall are indistinct, though you can still make out a consecration cross. The rood loft stairs still turn up from the south-east corner of the nave, whilst up in the chancel the wooden credence shelf survives in the 14th Century piscina.

Ann Comyn, on the north chancel wall, exchanged time for eternity in 1832. Mortlock observed that such a transition seems unremarkable in a place like Wantisden. Before that, Mary Wingfield lyved in ye trewe feare of God and died in the faith of Christ in 1582. Robert Harvie, one of the Harveys of Ickworth, was having no such truck with even such puritan sentiments as these when he died shortly before the start of the English Civil War in 1637, his inscription simply telling us that he died and was buried. Curiously, the inscription also records the death of his wife Marian, who died the - but there the inscription ends. Presumably it was installed before her death in full expectation that she would join him, but perhaps in the tumult and fury of the Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth she moved elsewhere, or was even forgotten.

who lyved in ye trewe feare of God and died in ye faith of Christ whoe died the

Outside in early spring, the wind ruffles the bare trees, and the churchyard begins to overgrow the mainly 19th Century graves. There is the Tunstall forest in the distance, dark and forbidding. But the most surreal view is to the west. Here, 20 metres or so from the tower, is the perimeter fence of the USAF base, abandoned in the early 1990s. When I last came here in 2000 the buildings were boarded up, the control tower had the cladding hanging off it, the runway, as wide as Heathrow's, was overgrown, and sheep grazed all around. Beyond were the nuclear missile bunkers, built to be indestructible. All this has now been replaced by mundane warehousing and storage facilities, poor neighbours to the thousand-year-old church.

I thought back to my first visit here in the early 1990s, watching from beneath as an F1-11 jet screamed into the sky. It was from this base that the Americans bombed Libya in 1987. And that same decade, while the brave women of Greenham Common were protesting about Cruise Missiles there (how long ago that now seems!) the US Airforce was quietly stockpiling nuclear warheads here. At one time, USAF Bentwaters is said to have stocked enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world 5 times over.

And accidents do happen. In a forgotten leaflet in the depths of Suffolk Libraries' reserve collection, I found a story that, in the 1940s, there was an accident at the nearby tank school. Several people were killed, and the cracks in the walls of Wantisden church are still there. But, this church survives, thanks to the loving care of the local faith community.

This is a strange place, like no other. It stands as a witness to a millennium of faith. The vivid sandy colour of the coralline tower, full of fossilised shells, rears primevally above the corrugated fields. When I came here in 2000, a couple of elderly parishioners were planting a millennium yew tree in the churchyard, grown from a cutting of a tree believed to be already a thousand years old, as old as this church.

Time passes. And there is still a great sense of permanence here, because the evidence is so close at hand that, as empires rise and crumble, as the violence of the 20th century sinks back into the silence of these ancient fields, as the years turn into millennia, faith endures. And so, of course, does love.
  prayer desk

Simon Knott, April 2018


looking west bench end (early 16th Century) font rood loft stairway
17th Century benches George III royal arms 1800
derelict stable

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