At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Willisham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Willisham Willisham

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Leaving Ipswich through Bramford and Somersham, you reach the Limeburners Inn at Offton. Beyond there the road forks, one way dipping down into the valley of the Channel and then up to the mazy wooded lanes of south Suffolk, the other road climbing the hump-back up into Willisham. The tower of Offton church peeps above the tree-line in the valley. Like many around here, Willisham is hardly a village at all. Houses straggle along the road here and at nearby Willisham Tye. Willisham parish church is one of the first buildings you see, and it is visible from a long way off.

Its prominent position makes up for its lack of a tower, and hides the fact that this is a small church, and, perhaps, rather an undistinguished one. But it is set in a beautiful churchyard, and the setting is dramatic. If anyone ever tells you that East Anglia is flat, bring them here on a summer day to look out over the drama of the valley which swallows all sound except the birds in the hedgerows.

It was built in 1878 to the designs of diocesan surveyor Herbert Green, who was also responsible for the church at Darmsden above the Gipping to the north. The two little churches are broadly similar with a little bellcote at the western end, although here the west window is a pair of lancets rather than a rose as at Darmsden. I'm told that Willisham church retains the medieval font of the former church on this site, but I have to tell you that in all my visits I have never found this church open, and although there was a keyholder notice on one occasion I came here back in 2008, this has now gone. But I am sure that nothing inside it can possibly match the splendour of the setting.

Churches and villages like Willisham's are easily forgotten once you jump on your bike and pedal off, but about twenty years ago I got talking to a man in the churchyard here who brought the village vividly to life for me. Maurice Taylor, known as 'Razor' in these parts, had lived in Willisham and Offton all his life. He remembered, at the age of six in 1934, climbing the hill across the meadow from Offton and seeing Willisham Hall in flames. The Hall was beside the church, where hi-tech offices stand now. The Fiske family who lived in the Hall would have burnt to death if it hadn't been for a 'backhouse boy', Ron Robinson, who raised the alarm and saved them. But the Hall, a medieval timber-framed and thatched building, was completely destroyed, and was never rebuilt. Part of the main road through the village is named Fiske Pightle, and this was where Mr Taylor now lived.

Ron survived the fire, Mr Taylor told me. For many years he'd run a garage in Ipswich. He'd died in the 1990s, and was buried in Willisham churchyard. Mr Taylor showed me his grave. This was one of the first warm days of spring that year, and the churchyard was alive with wild nature waking up. Mr Taylor's father had been a shepherd, and he remembered herding his father's sheep up here to graze the churchyard when he was no more than seven years old. I said that I'd seen sheep grazing several churchyards the previous year, at Brome, Sotherton and Frostenden. He nodded. "Best thing for it, sheep, best thing for churchyard grass".

We walked around the churchyard. Mr Taylor pointed out another grave, with a large, heart-shaped display of pink flowers. It was his wife's. He had known her virtually all his life. When she was five years old, he used to meet her at the churchyard gate to walk her to school. "Now she's nearly back where we started", he said. The Willisham churchyard hadn't been flattened and trimmed to a bowling green neatness as had happened at neighbouring Offton. Here, the unevenness of the hillside was the pattern of history. The molehills I'd come across in so many churchyards this year were here, too. I mentioned the huge ones I'd seen at Bromeswell. We wondered if it might be because of the mild winter. "See that bump there?" said Mr Taylor. I looked at a low ridge in the long grass, about a metre long. "Pauper grave. Saw the parish bury a child there." The wind from the valley ruffled the grass. "I was always here or hereabouts," he said. "I was a choirboy here. Got a crowd of fifty or more in those days. Not more than five or seven now. Still, that's the way it is".

He remembered as a child clambering on the grave of poor Sarah Lambert, who had died in childbirth aged 36 in 1910, leaving six children to mourn her loss. "There were many like her," he said. "You were lucky to stay alive in those days." He showed me Sarah Lambert's headstone which for years had lain in the long grass, forgotten. But Mr Taylor had recently lifted it up and brought it back to near its original position at the churchyard gate. "She's nearly home now", he said quietly. "She's nearly back where she started".

Coming back on one of those beautiful days in September 2020 and standing looking out across the valley, it was possible to completely forget all about Covid and Lockdowns, if only for a moment or two. And then, pottering among the graves looking for Sarah Lambert's headstone, I instead found Maurice 'Razor' Taylor's, beside that of his wife which he had shown me twenty years before. As a late-afternoon blackbird began to pipe and the wind picked up in the trees, I paid my respects. He was nearly back where he'd started.


Simon Knott, March 2021

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The view south from Willisham churchyard


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