At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Witnesham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Witnesham Surely the Lord is in this Place The Witnesham dead

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It was the year of the Great Covid Panic. The Church of England had hastily decided to close all its churches, without perhaps thinking through the consequences of its actions. Of course, it might well be that the worst pandemic for several generations would not have been a time when lots of people might have been grateful for the chance to sit in a church and talk to God about it. Various churches enthusiastically advertised their on-line presence, as if this was the evangelistic opportunity they had been waiting for, but for those of us who are not members of any particular congregation but who visit churches for a variety of other reasons, perhaps bringing a great grief or worry before God, or wondering at the powerful sense of the numinous that a visit to a church can bring, streamed internet services and zoom prayer meetings would never be a sufficient substitute.

Of course, most of Suffolk's country churches are open all day every day under normal circumstances, and it must have caused churchwardens and their local communities great sadness to be told to close their churches against the people of God (the several that I know of who refused to do so have great riches in store). But it probably didn't worry the congregation at Witnesham too much because this is a church that over a number of visits in the last quarter of a century I have never found open.

You might wonder at this, because Witnesham is not a small place. It is basically outer Ipswich suburbia, but from the busy main road it appears two quite separate villages, either side of the Fynn valley. Both sides are quite attractive, but the road in between is a wide, steep race track, and not at all recommended to cyclists. At the bottom of the dip is a narrow lane leading off into the woods and fields, and you are suddenly plunged into deepest rural Suffolk, with an old school, a field of horses and an overgrown churchyard. It is like stepping back a hundred years.

Although the church underwent a considerable 19th Century restoration, this was done fairly early on, and this is still substantially a large church typical of the 14th Century, with a clerestory raising the roof on the eve of the Reformation. A small aisle is tucked neatly into the side of the south-facing tower which doubles as the porch, as is common in the Ipswich area. The north side is starker, and if an aisle was planned beneath the clerestory, it was never built.

This remains one of fewer than a dozen Suffolk churches that I have not seen inside. Sam Mortlock suggests that the interior was restored with more taste than imagination, for the font was recut and the floor relaid. The woodwork is attributed to the great Henry Ringham whose fine work can be seen nearby at Great Bealings (the church there is already open daily again after the Great Covid Panic, incidentally). An interesting survival of the 18th Century is the set of painted texts in panels on the walls, as at Hemingstone.

One more thing. On the gate of the churchyard was a sign saying Sorry the church is no longer open for private prayer. I was very surprised to see this because I had not thought Witnesham church had ever been open for private prayer. Had there been a brief moment that I had not known of? Wondering if I had missed my window, I headed off to cycle back up the hill.

Simon Knott, August 2020

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sorry grief

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