St Margaret, Westhorpe
www.suffolkchurches.com - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
This church is one of my favourite places in England. It isn't Suffolk's finest church, but it has the great character of a much-loved old friend. It is ideosyncratic, scruffy and wise; it is not ashamed of its age, and doesn't try to hide the ways it has changed over the centuries. When I am an old man, I want to be a bit like this church.
You collect the key from a lovely lady across the road (there is another keyholder next door, who I am sure is equally lovely) and she immediately apologises for the state of the church. The reason for this is that St Margaret has what singer Peter Murphy of the pop group Bauhaus once called 'bats in profusion'. You let yourself into the little porch, and there's a notice - apologising for the state of the church. We can only clean the church once a week, it says. And as you know, when you have bats, you know you've got them.
Bats are a protected species. When you've got them, you are not allowed to get rid of them. Indeed, you can't even dissuade them from coming back. If you so much as suggest to the bats that they might be happier somewhere else, and would they possibly mind clearing off, the law will be down on you like a ton of hot bat poo, discolouring woodwork, staining brasses, and making unpleasant crunchy noises in the aisles. In fact, the law says that you have to encourage them to stay. So if you have bats, be cheery, or you might get into trouble.
Mortlock calls the church small but interesting - well, it is certainly the latter, but it doesn't strike me as particularly small. There is a trim clerestory and aisles, and the tower harmonises with them in a way that is most unusual. This is because they were probably all built at exactly the same time, 1419. In Suffolk, this is slightly late for a tower, slightly early for a clerestory, but we have Dame Elizabeth Elmham to thank for it, according to Mortlock.
You let yourself into a church that has Suffolk's, and possibly England's, most uneven brick floor. In places, green moss shows through the cracks. The west of the church has been cleared of benches, and a dramatic font sits on its pedestal in the middle.
In a thoroughly Victorianised church, with tiled floors, pitch-pine pews and recut stonework, bats are a bit revolting. But here, that whiff of bat urine is an essential part of the atmosphere. Westhorpe would be diminished without its bats.
Part of the charm and fascination of St Margaret is that it has the slight air of a theological junk shop. Every century from the 13th to the 20th has contributed a curiosity. A quick tour will have you going straight back to the entrance to make a slower one.
Firstly, there's the glorious painted parclose screen to the east end of the south aisle. It may have enclosed the Elmham chantry. The altar here is dressed for use, and in winter the damp collects in puddles on the uneven brick floor. It is utterly charming. Repainted rood-screen panels flank the altar, and there are others elsewhere in the church.
Nathaniel and Jane Fox are commemorated on a pillar of the south arcade; they died in the late 17th century, and their memorials are a glorious amateurish mixture of cherubs, skulls and schmaltzy verse: heavens voyage doth not over hard appear, she tooke it in her early virgin year.
Mortlock tells us that the pulpit is one of Suffolk's earliest, but you will be distracted by the east end of the south aisle. First, a board reminds you that this church was the Sunday local of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and grandmother of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey. She had actually been married to the King of France, her ruthless brother sealing a shaky and ultimately fruitless pact with France by so doing. He married his other sister off to the King of Scotland.
Her second husband was Charles Brandon, and they lived in the Hall here. Mary died in 1533. She's buried at Bury.
Surprised by this, you will be jolted further by the awesome memorial to Maurice Barrow, who seems to have had lots of money in the 1660s. Unfortunately, he died before he could spend it, as so many of us do. So this great tomb was constructed by the Shelton brothers, Maurice and Henry (Henry finishing it when, as the inscription observes, Maurice was suddenly snatched out of this world). Barrow reclines in great splendour behind contemporary spiked iron gates. Perhaps he thought someone might otherwise disturb his rest.
Up in the chancel there are more quirky fascinations. An earlier Barrow, William, sits at the breakfast table with his two concubines, while the servants look on. He doesn't really. He's reading prayers with a Laudian air, facing across to his two wives Elizabeth and Frances (he married them separately, of course). They wear amusing hats, with sticky-outy bits, as if participating in a party game that has long-since been lost to us. Their children watch. But it is a curious little piece.
The big six candlesticks sit on the altar. Westhorpe was very much in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and there are ancient notices in the north aisle explaining the sacraments and the significance of lighting candles. Quite how much this enthusiasm is still reflected in the liturgy here, I couldn't say. When the candles are alight, they must reflect brilliantly in Richard Elcock's wall-mounted brass memorial of 1630.
Elsewhere in the church, there are delightful little details; painted walls, shields and coffin lids, forgotten decalogue boards stacked up, a set of Royal Arms that has been overpainted twice. There is a lonely 17th century box pew that may have come from here, but seems quite out of character with the rest of it. Barmy Arthur Mee was convinced that it had been Mary Tudor's family pew.
All in all, exploring this church is a bit like being inside someone's head.
The tiny graveyard was full of birdsong and cowslips as I stepped outside. Recently, the cowslip was declared Suffolk's official flower, and the ground around seemed to validate this. That Spring day, I had seen them lovely and fair all across mid-Suffolk, but nowhere as lovely and fair as this, bats and all.
St Margaret, Westhorpe, is at the east side of the village on the road to Walsham-le-Willows. It is kept locked, but there are two keyholders and visitors are actively encouraged.