e-mail simon@suffolkchurches.co.uk

 

St Nicholas, Wattisham

 

The incongruously rendered tower of St Nicholas looms through the rain.

  Suitably refreshed, I left the King's Head at Bildeston, and headed back up into the hills. The day that had started so crisply was melting into overcast mistiness. The freshly ploughed fields exuded their late autumn smell; rooks scattered and gathered miserably across the ridges. The year was once again headed irrevokably for its end.

Two miles out of Bildeston, the rain began to fall. I had no coat, but didn't mind too much, knowing that St Nicholas was only just ahead. And there it was, lifting its incongruously rendered tower above the encroaching trees. The dampest summer for 100 years has left Suffolk wild and fecund; even the autumnal branches were bold and thrusting.

I hauled my bike off the road, and through the stair-rods. The rain was hammering it down now, so I abandoned my vehicle among the graves, and scurried around the church to take shelter in the porch.

Well, it was locked. Now, I hadn't assumed that the church itself would be open, but making the porch inaccessible seemed mean and petty. It deprived it of one of its original functions, a place of hospitality to strangers.

I shook the handle hard in frustration, but it didn't open. I pressed myself against the church wall as the heavens opened onto mid-Suffolk. The overflowing guttering forced me into the elements, and I was soaked, the graveyard dissolving like tears around me. I thought, I could die out here...

Seeing it on a website rather than in real life, you'll notice that St Nicholas church is essentially a work of the 14th and 15th centuries, with much detail surviving, but the heavy hand of a Victorian restoration rather overwhelming it.

The tower reminded me of the one at Claydon. Looking westwards, I was particularly fascinated by the dormer windows, on both sides of the church.

These sit above the place where the rood screen would have been. You can see the same thing at St Nicholas in Ipswich.

They are like a cheap version of a clerestory, but are very attractive, and one can't help wondering why they weren't added more often - or perhaps they were, and many churches which are now clerestory-less actually had them at one time.

The church was declared redundant as part of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich PLC's lunatic act of corporate downsizing in the 1970s.

This is despite its distance from any other CofE parish church; indeed, Wattisham itself is a remote place, apart from the adjacent airbase.

Fortunately, St Nicholas did not fall into the hands of property speculators. It was, uniquely in Suffolk, taken over by a charitable trust, who use it for concerts and exhibitions, ploughing profits back into caring for the building.

Although this situation is clearly not ideal, it is better than that of any of the churches that are now private houses - they are lost to us for ever.

 

Stubby tower, rood loft dormer windows, and a very locked porch.

Of course, just because a redundant church is not a private house doesn't mean you can go inside and have a look, as I was now discovering.

That dormer window in full.

  As you can imagine, I wasn't feeling terribly charitable towards the trust, huddled under a bush in the ditch on the far side of the graveyard, cursing and swearing and saying things that my mother certainly wouldn't have approved of. I wasn't feeling anything, except miserable, frustrated, and very, very wet.

Eventually, the rain stopped, as it always does. As an act of mercy, the sun came out. I shook myself like an old dog, gingerly removed my camera from its case, and took these pictures.

What is St Nicholas like inside? Can't say, I'm afraid. The glass in the windows is all frosted Victorian; I could just about make out rows of modern chairs. In the 1930s, Cautley found little to interest him except an armorial shield.

He abhored the repainted roodscreen, with its melodramatic Victorian Saints. I've no idea if it still exists, although I do know that the reredos is now at Little Finborough, and many of the other fixtures and fittings are at Bildeston, where the south aisle chapel has been rededicated to St Nicholas.

In the 1950s, Dickinson's revision of the Dutt guide found an 18th century memorial to six people of the same family who all lost their feet because of gangrene, which would have cheered me up at this point, I think. However, I didn't get to see it.

Why was this church not needed? I suspect that, as at Rishangles, a thriving Baptist church in the village had something to do with it. So I cut my losses, and went and had a look at that instead.

St Nicholas, Wattisham, is just to the east of the B1115 Stowmarket to Hadleigh road, not far from Bildeston. I found it firmly locked.