At the sign of the Barking lion...

For all the Saints
a general introduction to the churches of Ilketshall and South Elmham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


St Dorothy   The Saints are a group of villages in north-east Suffolk, in the area between Bungay and Halesworth. They are all styled either South Elmham or Ilketshall. The area is wide, remote, scattered and traditionally lawless. Between them, South Elmham and Ilketshall have eleven medieval churches, and the shadows of two more. Thirteen altogether, as many as Ipswich, and more than Cambridge, Chester or Leicester. Here, in the wild flatlands of north east Suffolk, there is the opportunity to see how a great medieval city grew up from an agglomeration of villages, by exploring one that didn't. Perhaps it is not impossible to compare the Saints with Norwich, 15 miles to the north. Norwich has 36 medieval churches, more than any other city in Britain. Some of these are in the tight-knit heart of the old city, its parishes 'packed like squares of wheat'; others are clearly former village churches, within the outer wall of the city, but serving long-subsumed communities. If one of the Saints had been a port, or a defensive fortress, or had become a busy market, then the same thing might have happened here.

The four Ilketshall churches are St Andrew, St John, St Lawrence and St Margaret. The first three are to the east of the Roman Stone Street, now the A144. St Margaret is to the west, among the South Elmhams. There are eight South Elmham churches. These are All Saints, St George, St James, St Margaret, St Mary, St Michael, St Nicholas and St Peter. One of these, St Nicholas, has now gone, its site marked by a cross, and the parish combined in modern times with that of All Saints. St George's village is called St Cross, a corruption, perhaps, of the medieval St George Sancroft, or perhaps a reminder of the dedication Holy Cross, found across the border in Norfolk. St Mary is in the village of Homersfield.

South Elmham takes its name from the Deanery of South Elmham (North Elmham is in Norfolk) which was, coincidentally, all land owned by Almar, Bishop of East Anglia. Usually, Deaneries had a variety of land owners, and their villages took on a variety of names. Later, the Bishops of Norwich had their summer retreat here, and seem to have found the area more attractive than, perhaps, it is today.

The churches of the Saints have a subtle charm, one that is not at all apparent to some people. Here, there are no famous monuments, no historic rood screens and few other medieval survivals. Fragments are scattered; an Easter Sepulchre and dado panels at St Margaret, the castellated roof brace that must have been part of the canopy of honour at St John, the bells at St Peter. There is also the ruin of what is usually referred to as South Elmham Minster, a church in the woods in the parish of St Cross, half a mile from the nearest road. It is an amazing place, set in the middle of an ancient, possibly Roman, fortification. It was probably not a Minster, but its origins are shrouded in mystery.

  mine today, yours tomorrow
lion   Apart from the churches, there are only two buildings of note; these are South Elmham Hall in the parish of St Cross, part of the former summer retreat of the Bishops of Norwich, and St Peter's Hall, former home of the Tasburghs, a local landed family, in the parish of St Peter. The beauty of the Saints is in their bleakness, their remoteness. There are no shops, no pubs. Only three of them have proper villages at all. Instead, we find scatterings of modest farmsteads, 19th century cottages, farmworkers' council houses. And entirely rural village churches, of which only one, incredibly, has been made redundant. There is something trainspotterish about visiting them all, I suppose; it is a challenge at once both physical and mental, since a decent OS map is essential if you are to find them all.

I've now visited the lot of them in a single go three times. When I first did it ten years ago, I found most of them locked, and some with no keyholder. Today, thanks in no small part to the energy and determination of Richard Thornburgh, the Rector who holds most of the Saints in his care, they are virtually all open. Only Ilketshall St Andrew is still kept locked, and even that is accessible.

However, two are way off the road, and the roads themselves don't amount to much, being prone to flooding and soil drift. In winter, the landscape is unfriendly; and this is a lonely place, with few people outside of the two St Margarets and Homersfield. The wide parish of St Peter has just seven houses. The narrow lanes can become ratruns, as the occasional local finds a shortcut to Bungay or Halesworth. Cycling the Saints could not be described as a pleasure; but it is an adventure.

Setting out from Bungay, a tour of all the 13 churches may be made by bicycle or car as follows: St John, St Andrew, St Lawrence, St Margaret Ilketshall, St Peter, St Michael, St James, St Nicholas, All Saints, St Margaret South Elmham, South Elmham Minster, St George, St Mary - and then back to Bungay via Flixton. This is a journey of about 30 miles. About two miles of this will need to be done on foot. The distance will be reduced by a third if you miss out St Lawrence and St James. Take waterproofs, wear sensible shoes, and be aware that you will always be cycling into the wind.


Simon Knott, July 2008

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