At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Wickhambrook

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

Wickhambrook

Wickhambrook doorway left out recycling 

   
   
man with a shield   2008: I had long been meaning to come back to Wickhambrook - the church, that is, because I often had reason to travel through the village in the nine years since I had last been to All Saints. I remembered it as particularly lovely, but it was one of the first churches I had visited on my first tour through the county, and having visited a thousand more since, I found I couldn't remember too much about it.

All Saints is a useful reminder that these are parish churches, not village churches, for Wickhambrook parish contains a scattering of hamlets set around a grid of lanes, and the church is away from the main one. Even coming back here it took me a while to find it after heading up the wrong lane.

I haven't changed much what I wrote nine years ago, but the photographs, of course, are all new.

1999: After cycling down the Cambridgeshire border from Dalham, I turned inland, so to speak, at Cowlinge, and the woods and winding river rapidly fell away behind me. The lanes narrowed, hemmed in by low hedges. The houses were scattered, and few; mainly Spanish haciendas, or 1960s yellow brick bungalows. It wasn't wholly attractive. Occasionally, there'd be something a bit more interesting, like a Victorian farmworkers cottage; but even these would be done up for professionals, a 4x4 sitting on the mock paved drive outside.

The lanes ran straight, doglegging for no apparent reason every half a mile or so. There didn't seem to be any passing places; God knows what happens when the 4x4s meet. The fields were generally fallow. It was like a temporary landscape. Suddenly, the tiny lane spat me out into a major road junction. A grand filling station across the way doubled as a supermarket, and a group of young mums were having a chat by the play area. I had arrived in Wickhambrook.

Again, there was not much here that was particularly attractive, except possibly some of the young mums. The houses were all functional, their gardens ridges of scarlet runner beans and boilings of pampas grass. Lorries thundered along the main road. I sighed, and consulted my map for the church. It was only at this point that I realised quite how big Wickhambrook is. It is easily the largest place in the Bury/Haverhill/Newmarket triangle. It sprawls, although not in an easy way; more in the manner of a bony man trying to get comfortable on a pebble beach. There are bits of it that aren't even joined on, and from the map I could see that it was actually several settlements that had grown together.

Would finding the church be to find the real Wickhambrook? Away from the main road, I went down a lane, and came out in a street of pretty cottages. The long pink line of a set of 17th century almshouses provided a beautiful western boundary to the graveyard, and then there was All Saints, in its pleasantly walled churchyard.

Now, this was more like it - I'm sorry to have moaned about the other bit, but I was in rural west Suffolk after all. If I want busy roads and Spanish haciendas, I'll go east of Ipswich, to Kesgrave or Martlesham.

  graveyard

Beside the church was a set of 17th century almshouses, It is a large, lovely church, of great age and dignity. The first impression is of the great swathe of 14th century aisle, with a pretty clerestory peeping above it. But there is significant evidence of Saxon work at the east end of the aisle, and so this must have been the site of the original church, the later chancel being built beside it, and the great nave and south aisle extending westwards. If you go round to the south side, you'll find an image protected by glass set in the wall. It is probably Norman, but may well be Saxon. It depicts a man holding a sword and a shield.

There are gorgeous Decorated windows set at the east and west ends. In a county more noted for Perpendicular, these are some of the best. I stepped inside, to a light, open interior, accentuated by the width of the chancel. The feeling is overwhelmingly of the late 19th century, but there are plenty of details that survive from earlier times.

Arthur Mee remembers the forgotten 19th century romance Golden Days by Edna Lyall, which is set in Wickhambrook. The hero visits this church, which he finds "plain enough and bare enough to please a puritan". There is certainly a sense of space, and the size may account for its bareness - although Lyall might have known the church before its considerable 1860s reordering. In those days, the pulpit stood at the west end, and the seats faced west rather than east. This was not unusual in puritan hotbeds, and it attempted to break the link between the eastwards view and Catholic sacramentalism. The same was also at Bramford and Little Bealings. Certainly, puritan staunchness seems to have dispensed with Catholic romanticism in this parish. Peter Northeast records that a new Vicar, arriving here fresh from the ferment of Tractarian Oxford in the mid-19th century, could not find a single person in the parish who knew the dedication of the church.

The view eastwards is a remarkable one, with the beautiful low window, and a low arch connecting north aisle chapel and chancel. The rood loft apparatus describes a winding path, and there is a fine railed memorial to Thomas Higham. He lies defiantly, sword in hand, as if ready to take you on in mortal combat, something he is, in fact, remembered for doing on more than one occasion.

behind bars staring out death sword in hand

There are a couple of puzzles. About two thirds of the way up the north aisle, on the north side of the arcade, is the springing for an arch. It seems complete incongruous, unless the north aisle is the site of the original church, and a chancel arch was intended here before they decided to build the church bigger. And the font bowl is a most unusual shape - I think it must once have been square, and was cut to its octagonal pattern to suit changing fashions.

A detail you might miss, it is so small, is the decorated border to the arch of the piscina in the north aisle chapel. It is exquisitely detailed, quite the loveliest of its kind. Was it carved by a local hand?

It was probably another local some 300 years later who carved the characterful skull on the gravestone now leaning on the porch window sill. He has a resigned, rather sad look. We looked at each other for a few moments, and then I stepped back out into the sunshine to head onwards, ever onwards, to the heights of Rede and Hawkedon, leaving civilisation behind, young mums and all.

  skull
   

Simon Knott, May 2008

Wickhambrook Blessed Virgin and child All Saints
 side altar looking west sanctuary font looking west springing for an arch 
memorial praying hands brass behind a grill arches Dec organ 
looking east arch Prosser

Henry Shave


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