At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Petronilla, Whepstead

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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niches window Whepstead

light   This is a sweet little church with a unique dedication: it is the only St Petronilla in England, but we'll come back to that in a moment. It sits in a tree-shaded churchyard on a hill, not far from the Bury to Glemsford road. This part of Suffolk is particularly hilly - we aren't talking Derbyshire proportions, of course, but certainly a challenge for a cyclist. Rede, the next parish over, is the second highest point in East Anglia.

A steep hill drops away to the west of the church, and this is the way to go to get the key. Unfortunately, of course, this also means you have to come back up the hill afterwards. As you huff and puff your way along the road, you might glance up and see the image niches on the western face of the tower, suggesting that once a lane ran along that side of it as well.

The south porch is on the sheltered side of the building, and as you walk around the tower you may feel that it is all a bit Victorian. The tower itself is a curious, stumpy shape, testimony to the loss of its spire in the 17th century. It fell in the same night as the one at nearby Dalham, supposedly on the night that Oliver Cromwell died. On this south side of the church there are a good number of late 17th and 18th century headstones, replete with splendid skulls and cherubs.

The inside of the church is bright and clean, and only recently renovated. The most unusual thing here, apart from the name, is the rood-loft stairway in the south wall. Not only is it cut into a window bay, as at Barningham, but on one of the steps there is a piscina drain, presumably to serve an altar set against the wall here. I have seen them in window sills elsewhere, and there is one high on a column at Bures, but this is the only one I know in a rood-loft stair. On a sunny afternoon, the heraldic glass set in the window above the stairway floods it with a kaleidoscope of coloured light, which I thought stunningly beautiful. The price to pay for this is that the Kempe glass in the east window is almost impossible to photograph in the same conditions, and so I shall have to go back. Other glass in the chancel includes St Peter and St Petronilla with their keys, a continental St Anthony with his tau cross, and some fragments of medieval angels, probably 15th century Norwich School.

Looking west, the space beneath the tower is filled with the glazed ringing platform, the space above filled beautifully with blue light. The best view is beneath the great Norman chancel arch which, alas, is not Norman at all. It was built by the Victorians, but, in its defence, it does look rather fitting.

The dedication is also a Victorian invention, presumably by some Tractatian Rector who had fashioned a devotion to the poor little Roman martyr. Much more interestingly, the original dedication was to St Thomas of Canterbury, whose cult was viciously excised by the Anglican reformers of the 1530s and 1540s.

  St Petronilla

Simon Knott, May 2008

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looking east sanctuary rood stair looking west Mothers' Union memorial
angel head St Peter and St Petronilla St Peter St Petronilla St Anthony angel head
memory keys P font
Annunciation war memorial Whepstead dead

skull and cherubs skull the Whepstead dead bricks