At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Blaxhall

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Blaxhall

Blaxhall Blaxhall blaxhall

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          The countryside of the east of Suffolk is perhaps not as lovely as that of the south-west of the county, but it is quieter and more rambling, and you never have to cycle more than a couple of miles before you come across another church. Seen on a map, you might think that this area is hemmed in between the A12 and the sea, but the gently rolling heathland seems wilder and more remote than just about anywhere else in East Anglia. Take Blaxhall, for example, a sprawling parish with a small village centre, no more than a few houses and a pub, really. The church is off on its own in the fields, and the sandy soil of the parish is cut across by narrow, ancient lanes which seem to lead nowhere in particular. One of them heads off from near the world famous Snape Maltings complex, which is actually on the Blaxhall side of the river in Tunstall parish, but Tunstall church is miles away, and you would never know.

As you mght expect, Blaxhall church dominates its landscape, first seen from far off looming over the trees, a focus for the sandy lanes that cut across the heathland. An avenue of chestnuts leads up to the east of the church, clusters and scatterings of 19th Century graves on either side. Off to the south, the modern graveyard is trim, but to the north the ancient graves are a glorious wilderness of wild flowers and grasses in high summer, the tomb tops peeping above the tufts as if they were going down for the third time. Red brick infills the flintwork walls of the tower, and you can see that something happened here. Either a collapse, or the neglect common to medieval churches before the Victorians found them and rescued them. Perhaps, the red brick was a patch-up job of the early 18th Century, and evidence inside seems to suggest this. The battlements were probably renewed later. Or possibly, the patching up was an even earlier job, back in the early 16th Century, contemporary with the red brick outlines of the nave windows. The intention would then have been to rebuild the tower at the expense of a bequest, but the Reformation intervened and it never happened.

In normal times the church is open to pilgrims and strangers all day, every day. A sign on the door tells you that This is God's House! Be welcome whoever you are, whether of this household or another way. Be welcome! And St Peter is a church of great interest, and perhaps little known. A hint of this is to be found when you step into the porch, for Blaxhall was the home parish of the Ropes, that extraordinary creative family of farmers, artists, engineers and religious. The work of Dorothy, Ellen and the cousins Margaret Agnes and Margaret Edith Rope can be found in churches and cathedrals all over the world, and they are widely represented in Suffolk, and especially here, The first sign of this is Ellen Rope's sentimental side window in the porch, depicting the parish's Sunday School children.

sing we merrily! sing we merrily! Sing we merrily!

Arthur Rope, Margaret Edith Rope's nephew, tells me that it is unlikely that Ellen actually made the window herself, for it would be her only known stained glass work. It is more likely that one of the Margarets made it up in the London workshop to their Aunt's design.

You step into a cool interior. Blaxhall has one of those typical 15th Century East Anglian fonts, familiar from many other churches, a large octagonal bowl supported by figures on the stem, in this case the evangelistic symbols. Otherwise, the overwhelming sense is of a good rural 19th Century restoration, everything neat and crisp. But there is more to it than this, from both before and after. Above, there is as good a medieval hammerbeam roof as you could hope to see in a small country church. The angels on the corbels have all lost their wings, but their features are so primitive that you can't help thinking that they were carved by local villagers.

The nave below is a gallery of Rope family work. The bronze war memorial is by Ellen Rope, as is the angel and child bas-relief with its delicately coloured background. The Ropes sometimes used real people as models for their work, for example the child in this bas-relief is a local boy, David Savage, who lived in Blaxhall all his life and is now buried in the graveyard. The angel leading a child and the lettering below it on the 1904 memorial for seven year old Alfred Bates are also by Ellen. The other bas-relief memorial of 1936 to Majorie Wilson, with an angel comforting mourning children, is by Dorothy Rope, elder sister of Margaret Edith Rope.

war memorial by Ellen Rope Angel and child by Ellen Mary Rope Angel and child by Ellen Rope He that Liveth in Love Dwelleth in God by Dorothy Rope

The glory of Blaxhall is the 1912 east window. It is the work of Margaret Agnes Rope, in collaboration with her younger cousin Margaret Edith and made in the Fulham Glass House. At centre, Mary and the infant Christ sit attended by shepherds and saints. A sou'westered fisherman stands to her right, while behind St Philip is a shepherd with his sheep. This is a common Rope motif, the interleaving of fishermen, farmworkers, and so on, along with scenes of Suffolk rural life, among the Gospel stories. It is curious that the bottom right panel is so crowded - the others contain only one main figure. Arthur Rope tells me that his brother Richard believes that this panel was altered twenty years after its installation and replaced to include the figure of St Michael. Margaret Agnes Rope sometimes use the face of her brother Michael in her stained glass work, and he is the St Michael in this window. Michael Rope was an engineer with the Air Ministry and was on the ill-fated flight of the R101 airship, which crashed near Beauvais in 1930 with no survivors. The church of Holy Family and St Michael at Kesgrave on the outskirts of Ipswich was built in his memory. His widow was still alive at the time of my first visit there, a wonderful old lady with many memories of her sister-in-law and the other Rope artists.

east window by Margaret Agnes Rope, 1912 St Philip and a shepherd by Margaret Agnes Rope, 1912 Blessed Virgin and child St Luke by Margaret Agnes Rope, 1912
Dove of the Holy Spirit by Margaret Agnes Rope, 1912 St John the Evangelist by Margaret Agnes Rope, 1912 St Joseph Michael Rope as St Michael and St Peter by Margaret Agnes Rope, 1912

You step out of the chancel, back out of the 20th Century. A monument of 1621 on the nave wall has some of its dates missing. Presumably, it was prepared before the death of one of the intended parties, and then never filled in. It reads: Here lye the bodyes of Frauncis Saunders of Blaxhall in the County of Suffolke, Gentleman, whoe dyed the 21 daye of Janu. in the 69th yeare of his age, Ao Dni 1618. & of Katherin his wife daughter of John Soone of Wanesden (Wantisden) Wthin the same Countye, Esquire, who when shee had lived maried with the sayed Frauncis her husband 42 years and after his decease BLANK yeares widdow, dyed in the BLANK yeare of her age Ao Dni BLANK.

By them also lyeth here interred Frauncis Saunders sonne of Valentine Saunders Esq one of the sixe clarks of his Mties High Court of Chauncery, who died in the 19th yeare of his age Ao Dni 1604. In memory of wch three (his brother, sister in awe & eldest sonne) the sayed Valentine Saunders Esq erected this monument Ao Dni 1621.
Perhaps it is safe to assume that the chaos of the Civil War years intervened, separating Katherin Saunders from her home and family. She must lie elsewhere now. Perhaps she remarried, and was known by a different name.

John Ropper was churchwarden here as the 17th Century became the 18th, and his name, inscribed in 1711 in a roundel on the west wall of a nave, was put there to mark the restoration of the tower. This was often the case, affording churchwardens a kind of immortality after all that hard work. Romatically, a modern twin to this inscription, dated 1998, remembers Frank Shaw, who had been churchwarden for 38 years.

The Ropes are not the only brush that this parish has had with artistic fame. The parish is also central to the books of George Ewart Evans. Evans was a Welshman who moved to Suffolk after the Second World War. His wife was the village schoolmistress here, and he spent his days talking to the 'rum old boys' of Blaxhall and writing down their memories. The first of his books about Blaxhall, Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay, was published in 1956. There would be ten more.

There is a strong feeling of nostalgia in Evans' writing. Even in the 1950s, he knew that his books were essentially elegaic and valedictory. He was out on the end of an event, having survived it, and he said of the ordinary villager that his knowledge is not a personal knowledge but has been available to him through oral tradition which is the unselfconscious medium of transmission. It is in his bones, you could say, and nonetheless valuable for that.... It was here at this time, and with the dressing and elaborating on it later, that I transposed the Blaxhall community in my own mind into its true place in an ancient historical sequence, keeping the continuity that was for ever changing, and for ever remaining the same, until an irreparable break substituted the machines for animal power, and put an end to a period that had lasted well over two thousand years.

         

Simon Knott, January 2021

font looking east Rope window
14 VIII 1998 - Fran Shaw, Churchwarden for 38 years 1711 - John Ropper, Church warden Saint Peter's Blaxhall
Christ comforts a dying soldier - war memorial detail by Ellen Rope Late Captain in the West Suffolk Militia for thirty years occupier of the Lime Tree Farm
EM Rope 1904 DAA Rope 1936

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