At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Withersfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Withersfield south door leaning crosses Withersfield

St Cecilia   It is an irony that some of Suffolk's prettiest villages are around a town which has an undeserved reputation for poverty and shabbiness, but partly as a result of this a lot of the Haverhill area is now Cambridge commuterland, unfortunately. Why buy a terraced house in east central Cambridge, when for the same price you can afford a thatched cottage in one of the Bradleys or the Thurlows, and a car into the bargain? However, Withersfield still has the feel of a proper working village. The parish forms part of the little peninisular jutting out of the south-west corner of Suffolk, touching Cambridgeshire on one side, and reaching out to Essex on the other. The pretty name of the village comes from the ancient practice of enclosing a large area for wether sheep (that is to say, castrated males kept for their wool) to roam fairly freely during the summer months. The prefix occurs three times in Suffolk; here, again at Withersdale in the far north, and also at Withermarsh in the south east. In all three cases, it is open ground near to a larger settlement.

St Mary is set in the heart of the village near to an ancient crossroads. It always unnerves me slightly seeing Cambridge on a roadsign when I know I've got to cycle back to Ipswich before nightfall. The church begins a theme that will be common as you move east of here; the stair turret rises above the battlements of the 15th century tower, which, with the dedication, will become a motif of the Stour valley.

Unusually for the Haverhill area, the church is kept open for visitors during the day, and the parish is to be congratulated for this. Not least, because St Mary is quite the most interesting church in the area (I think Cowlinge and Denston are far enough away to have escaped Haverhill's orbit). Seen from the road, the southside arrangement of battlements, clerestory and aisle appears the very model of Suffolk perpendicular. In fact, this is an illusion; just about everything you see is Victorian, only the clerestory being medieval. Even the chancel was rebuilt at this time, so we must be thankful that quite so much has survived inside.

The oldest survival in the entire building, however, can be seen without even going inside. The door handle, with its two Harry Potterish dragons, survives from the 13th century church.

St Mary is most famous for its bench ends, of course. They line the north ends of the south nave benches. The most easterly is the image of St George defeating the dragon; the serpent writhes in agony beneath the knight's horse's hooves. At the west end is St Michael weighing souls; a man kneels in the right hand bucket of the balance, and his sins are measured against him in the left hand balance in the form of a malevolent little creature. Although this image is familiar from medieval dooms, it is particularly interesting here. For a start, the evil deeds are supposed to be heavier than the man (his sins weigh him down, you see). But on the Withersfield image, it is the man who weighs the balance down. Look on the extreme left, and you'll see why; the devil has appeared on the scene, and is holding the evil side up. Only the power of prayer will get the just man out of this, and so he clings tightly to his rosary beads. Or perhaps the man is a hypocrite, and his sins have found him out. I wonder if post-Reformation Withersfielders took the image to mean that such Catholic ritualist practices as praying with a rosary would be bound to land a man in hell.

St George and the dragon mermaid St Michael weighing souls bears fighting
weighed in the balance weighed in the balance weighed in the balance angel with a shield 

There is a super modern image of St Cecilia in the east window of the north aisle; Mortlock tells us it is by Pippa Heskett. A memorial brass to the donor of the north aisle shows us that it is genuine 15th century, and the south aisle copies it fairly faithfully. Guarding the entrance to the Victorian chancel is one of the best 15th century rood screens in the area. The doors, a feature of this area, are similar to those at Cowlinge. The screen has been repainted in the rather gaudy fashion of the 18th century, but it is full of little details in the carving, including mythical creatures and what look like 18th century cherubs. That is because they are 18th century cherubs. I wonder where they came from. Interestingly, this restoration of the screen suggests that the chancel was in use for worship in the 18th century. Another mystery is up in the roof of the nave. This was entirely reconstructed in the 1980s, but the hammerbeams survive from the medieval roof, and appear to be unfinished; a couple have figures on, but one has an unfinished figure, while another has curious markings and what may be the fixing for an angel.

There is nothing mysterious about the north aisle roof; this is a mellow, beautiful piece, with interesting bosses including a mans face which is deliberately aslant and an eagle. It dates from just after 1480, and the brass at the extreme east is for the donor, Robert Wyburgh.

Elsewhere in the church, I was struck by the elegant tower arch rising above the Norman font, Miss Heylen's plaque claiming the front bench for Hanchet Hall in 1810, and a typically rustic parish charity board, which is rather charming because the parish name appears to have been painted out at some point, probably during the Second World War. Also, there is a great curiosity behind the south door. It appears to be an arcade capital turned into a holy water stoup. It must be earlier than the north arcade, so perhaps it was put in place at the time the north aisle was rebuilt in the 1480s. Or, perhaps, this symbolises the great Victorian enthusiasm for this place, in which case then I think it was all done rather well.

  Hanchet Hall pew

Simon Knott, December 2011

looking east screen looking west screen from the east
font banner font leaning crosses
fish eagle berded man in a hat orate pro anima


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