e-mail: simon@suffolkchurches.co.uk

St John the Baptist, Wantisden

  There is a peculiar fascination about remote churches. 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. This is probably an over-generalisation, but in Suffolk there are some superb, unspoiled, remote churches. I think of Badley, I think of Little Wenham. But most of all I think of Wantisden.

St John the Baptist, miles from anywhere. But what's that long, low building to the left?

 
  Wantisden church is located in fields about half a mile from the nearest road. This is not that unusual in Suffolk, and I can think of a dozen others that are equally remote. It has always been remote, there has never been a village of Wantisden.  
 

All is revealed. Wantisden church, and the airbase behind. It was from here that we bombed Libya.

  What makes it remarkable however, is its location. Until the 1930s, there were 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, USAF 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 is still shown on OS maps as a footpath/track, perhaps because of its proximity to the airbase. Russia wasn't the only country during the cold war that put deliberate errors on maps to confuse the enemy.

Is this church worth going to see? Yes, it is. It is a superb Norman church, with a 15th century Coralline Crag tower (one of only two in England). Simon Cotton tells me that bequests were made for this tower in 1445 and 1449.

There is a wealth of treasures to see inside. My most recent visit was on annual spring-clean day, 2000. I arrived to find the church being lovingly tended; and the fact that this church has survived, and has never been declared redundant, is a mark of the tender care that has been lavished on it.

It defies all earthly logic that it should prosper - and yet, it does, with regular services (about one a month) and a sense of a living, breathing faith community.

 

The coralline crag tower. There's only two in England - the other one is in the next village.

 
 

Grinning grotesque on the stop of the door arch.

  So, what is there to see? You step in through a small Norman south doorway, with grinning grotesques as stops and a headstone. The one above the door is probably a lion, an early medieval symbol of Christ.

Immediately inside is one of England's few surviving early medieval fonts built of blocks of stone, cemented crudely together. Mortlock thought it twelth century. The font was smoothed and shaped after construction, with a little frill around the middle. Inside, a little lead plug protects the drain.

 
 

The stone block font - one of only three in England.

 

Font detail.

 
  Turning east, we see Suffolk's narrowest chancel arch, with nave altar squints either side of it. It is a fine Norman archway, and the ceilure inside it has been painted blue, probably in the 18th century. The squints are interesting, because they are different from each other. At Gedding and Chevington, we find matching pairs; at nearby Chillesford, there is another pair, but they are Victorian. The squints enabled a priest celebrating Mass at a nave altar to co-ordinate his own elevation of the host with that at the high altar.

The arch and squints. Note the image niche to the north.

The northern squint is geometric, set within an arched splay, and has an image niche beside it; it may have been an altar to Our Lady, or perhaps to St John the Baptist (or, possibly, to St John the Evangelist - Cautley seems to think this was the correct dedication, as do some other guides I've come across). The southern niche is squarer, less ornate, but has been glazed, possibly in the 18th century as well. It may have been for the Lady altar, or perhaps a chantry altar for the local lords of the manor.

 
  The chancel beyond has been heavily Victorianised, but this probably saved the church from ruin and abandon. It is not done badly, and the wooden reredos is most fitting. Only the off-the-peg tiles jar somewhat.

A roodloft stairway climbs up in the south wall, its original steps of stone and rubble quite uneven. It is interesting to see how the loft would have squared off the arch. The roof beam at this end of the nave probably served as a rood beam.

Above the beam now, Victorian decalogue boards are barely legible in the gloom.

The wall paintings on the north wall of the nave are obscure, but seem to be framings of pillars and vines as we find surrounding the sequences of Hagiographies and Lives of Our Lord at Wissington and Thornham Parva.

It is less likely it was a St Christopher, although there is no way of telling now. There are also two surviving consecration crosses, their roundels either side of the tracery. Here, the original nave would have been annointed with oil and fire by the consecrating bishop.

   
 

The piscina is recut, and probably reset (although note the sedilia beside it). However, the credence shelf is probably original.

  Most fascinating of all, perhaps, is the wooden credence shelf in the recut piscina up in the sanctuary.

It is clearly much older than the 19th century, so is probably the original medieval shelf, a unusual survival in the county; there is another one at Flowton.

It is a pity that the Victorians recut the frame, but good that they didn't replace it, although it seems to have been reset. One wonders how many others survived the years of darkness, only to fall victim to restorers n the 1860s and 1870s.

A memorial in the north chancel wall observes that Anne Clerk, a former vicar's wife,'exchanged time for eternity' in 1838. As Mortlock observes, this transition seems unremarkable in a place like Wantisden.

 
  The royal arms here are like those at Nettlestead, where the lion and the unicorn emerge from behind the shield rather than supporting it. Their appearance here is rather more dramatic than at Nettlestead, where they seem to have just woken up after a long sleep.

The nave is full of medieval benches, although these have suffered the fortunes of time, being reshaped, sanded and varnished several times over the last 500 years.

   
  Outside, the wind ruffles the barley, and the churchyard overgrows the mainly Victorian 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. The buildings are boarded up, the control tower has cladding hanging off it, the runway, as wide as Heathrow's, is overgrown, and sheep graze all around. Beyond are the bunkers, built to be indestructible - they will never be demolished.

The view from the west. Sheep graze around the runway where Thunderbolts once screamed into the sky.

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 supposed to have stocked enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world 5 times over. This was in the local paper, which is prone to exaggeration, so perhaps it was only 2 or 3 times over, really.

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. What possible sense can that make to the property developers at Diocesan House, I wonder?

Whatever, this is a strange place, like no other. The vivid sandy colour of the coralline tower, full of fossilised shells, rears primally above the waves of green. A couple of the spring-cleaners were planting a Millennium yew tree in the churchyard, grown from a cutting of a tree believed to be a thousand years old. And there is a great sense of permanence here; 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.

St John the Baptist, Wantisden, is at the end of a half-mile metalled track from an unclassified road running from the B1078 near Tunstall towards Butley. It is kept locked, and the key may be obtained during working hours from the office at Kemball's Farm, nearer to Butley on this same unclassified road. You can phone ahead on 01394 450588.

To find out more about USAF Bentwaters, visit Linn Barringer's excellent DebenWeb site.