At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Andrew, Wissett

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Wissett: venerable and beautiful (click to view)
north side Norman north doorway Norman north doorway (detail) collapsed

harvest cross   Coming down the narrow lane from Spexhall, I saw a handwritten sign on a piece of cardboard telling me that there was a flower festival at Wissett. A couple of years back, I would have groaned inwardly, because it is very hard to get a feel of a church if you visit it for the first time when there's a flower festival on. But I knew Wissett well, and had been looking forward to revisiting it ever since I'd owned a digital camera. It had been one of the first churches I'd visited for the Suffolk Churches site some eight years previously.

It is such a lovely church that I had been able to engineer a couple of fleeting visits since, but now I was headed back with a camera and intent. I knew that flower arrangements would be unlikely to disguise the church's significant features, and it might even enhance them. Most of all, though, the loveliest thing about St Andrew is the feeling of a wel-loved and welcoming rustic village church, and flower arrangements were unlikely to disguise that.

Wissett is a curious place. The horrible road from Halesworth to Rumburgh and Flixton, far busier than its little yellow line on a map would suggest, goes right past this church. It is not a cyclist's road. But the church is set back well from the road, and a deep drainage ditch separates it from the traffic. This ditch has been cut back again in the last 20 years, with good reason. A wooden bridge crosses to the church from the road, and unless you are coming in from the direction of Chediston your first sight of this building will be from the north. The full loveliness of the church reveals itself as you walk around to the south side, a pleasing assemblage of Perpendicular-elaborated Norman. It's a delight. A clockwise walk back to the south porch will take you past the Victorian chancel. The east end is even newer, having been built to replace that damaged in the Great Storm of October 1987. The church at nearby Uggeshall lost its east wall completely.

Well, the people were very welcoming, and I was happy to pay my 2 entrance fee. The theme was 'Frocks and Flowers', a history of weddings in Wissett, which was much more interesting than it sounds, and I was glad I'd gone in. I stepped through the Norman south door, its mouldings filled with madly grinning faces. Mortlock describes this range as 'splendidly pagan', and the very name "Wissett" may come from a Norse word meaning 'pagan temple goers'. It is not too fanciful to think that the tower may have been built in the lifetimes of people whose grandparents had told them of the pagan days.

The font is one of the finest of those typical East Anglian fonts with lions on the stem and angels on the bowl. The lovely pammented floors offset it perfectly, and the long, narrow aisleless church leads the eye from there to the chancel, which opens out in a haze of light. All this was offset by beautiful, restrained flower arrangements. There is so much light in the church because there is so little coloured glass, and what there is is uncommonly good, especially the cluster of 15th Century Norwich School work in a nave window. Three angels are joined by a venerable St John the Baptist, who looks as if he is tickling his little lamb.

Angel (15th Century) St John the Baptist St John the Baptist
Angels Baptista (Norwich school barleycorns) Angel (15th Century)
Angel Angel (15th Century) St John the Baptist

 

Floods plague this little church. You may discern the evidence of the 1968 flood in tide-marks at the base of the nave walls. The organ was destroyed by this flood, and the current one was brought here from Brantham in 1970. There are several little survivals to show the original liturgical uses of this church, including a holy water stoup (which an earlier guidebook curiously suggested was so 'the faithful could wash themselves'!), image niches and a sawn-off rood beam. There is one other curious little detail: a hinge remains in the lower roodloft stair door frame.

Much more contemporary, and rather lovely, is the straw cross hanging in the chancel arch, produced for the 1973 flower festival.

This struck me as a mark, not only of continuity, but of resilience. Another reminder, if we needed it, that the main destiny of our medieval churches is not to be contemporary worship spaces, but to be the soul in stone at the heart of their communities, and as witnesses to larger truths. As the Church of England declines, and other denominations rise to take its place, our historic churches continue to be beacons of Faith just by raising their heads above the rooftops and above the fields.

Under the tower, the original First World War roll of honour is framed proudly on the wall, and hanging beside it on this May day was a wedding dress, which had been used in this very church in the last decade of the 19th century. Silent touchstones, defying us not to be moved.

  Suffolk: for king and country

Simon Knott, 2007

   

looking east font looking west sculpture chancel
sanctuary brick floor brick floor font 
eagle George William Oxborough L Cpl W Kemp Holy Trinity

loos in the village hall 


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