At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Washbrook

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Washbrook Washbrook Washbrook

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There is a trick of making a place seem more remote than it actually is. And, my goodness, this place seems remote. You reach Washbrook just off of the busy roundabout where the A12 and A14 meet, and then climb away north from the pleasant little village, along secret doglegging lanes that become narrower and narrower. Hedgerows encroach, the roadway dips and rises dramatically, and it doesn't take much to imagine what it is like here in winter. Suddenly, you are directed up a muddy track by a little wooden sign, and down into an intensely rural bowl-shaped graveyard, a green sea of graves, within which St Mary is a ship, floating steadily. The wind ripples the trees, and rooks peel away over the ripening corn. We seem to be a very long way from anywhere at all.

St Mary is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, and this apparent remoteness was one of the contributory causes of redundancy being declared in the 1990s. Matters had come to a head when the single figure congregation were presented with a six figure restoration bill. Washbrook parishioners here must now go to the parish church at Copdock, which is actually closer to Washbrook village than this one. Washbrook and Copdock have been a joint civil and ecclesiastical parish for years, and they have shared a Vicar since the Reformation. As always, the CCT does a grand job here, maintaining this fascinating building, which retains much evidence of an interesting medieval liturgical life, as well as a good 19th century restoration. The restorer here was the great E. B. Lamb, and this is one of his three major works in Suffolk, the others being Leiston and Braiseworth. His are the striking red and black banding in the roof tiles, also his the porch on the south side, and what might be taken for a chapel (but isn't) to the north, which enfold the 14th century tower.

You step into devotional dimness, the lowness and narrowness of the nave, but this opens out into something most unusual in predominantly Perpendicular East Anglia, the collegiate chancel in the Decorated style. Stalls line the walls, all in niches with charming little heads between them. They were recoloured as part of Lamb's restoration, but there is no reason to think it wasn't the original design. The 19th century glass beyond lends more drama than it takes away, and there is a simply beautiful Easter sepulchre in the north side of the sanctuary. The whole piece, both Decorated and Victorian, is breathtaking.

Stepping back down into the cool dimness of the nave, the light from the south windows shafts across into what it becomes apparent is a baptistery. Lamb retained the medieval font and moved it into this little space, recutting it and flanking it with angel glass to create the right atmosphere, retaining at once a sense of its rustic identity and the full self-confidence of the period.

The best glass is on the north side of the nave, commemorating the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The glass royal arms are probably the best of the period in Suffolk, and VR is picked out in the quarries as if it was a sacred monogram, which in a way it was of course. There is another set of Victorian royal arms in plaster above the entrance to the baptistery. In the lancets either side of the nave are collected what appear to be 19th Century studio offcuts, including an infant Christ from a nativity scene. Odd things, they were probably intended to resemble the collected medieval fragments found in many East Anglian churches. Another curiosity is the 1820s heraldic glass reset beneath the tower at the end of the 19th Century. The central shield is flanked by a vine on one side, a cornstook and sickle on the other, in an entirely pre-ecclesiological style.

At the time of Domesday, Washbrook was known as Great Belstead, the current Belstead parish being Little Belstead. The brook which give the parish its modern name flows a winding course to meet the Orwell at Bourne Bridge. Like all Suffolk's rural parishes, Washbrook must have been a busy place in Victorian times. One of the buildings you pass on your way through the lanes is the former school. And going back further in time, Washbrook was big enough to maintain two parish churches before the Reformation, the other serving the parish of the hamlet of Felchurch, near to the Chattisham road. Hardly a trace of it survives.

I suggested to you that the remoteness of this church was an illusion, and I am afraid that it is. Climbing up the ridge, the silence and birdsong are effaced by the increasing noise of traffic at the busy junction below. When I reached the top, I looked down. Not a quarter of a mile away, the Tesco superstore shoulders Copdock Mill interchange, an illuminated Pizza Hut hovers like a ufo above B&M, here where the A12 and A14 twist in a knot around each other. Beyond, the Chantry housing estate loomed, home to 30,000 people, and the new space age Suffolk One building. And then the centre of Ipswich beyond, not three miles from where I now stood. Not far short of a quarter of a million people could walk here within an hour, now, but how many of them even know that it exists, I wonder.

Simon Knott, July 2019

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looking east Crucifixion flanked by Abraham and Isaac (Ward & Hughes)
Washbrook Washbrook Washbrook
royal arms of Victoria (1901) 19th Century studio fragments Arms of the de Greys, Barons Walsingham flanked by a vine and a cornstook (1829) 19th Century studio fragments dieu et mon droit (1901)
In thankful and loyal remembrance of Victoria Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1901) 1819 1901 Queen Victoria memorial glass Defender of the Faith Empress of India born 1819 came to the throne 1837 died 1901
baptistry entrance and royal arms of Victoria font font lion hourglass stand
collegiate stalls green man

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