Suffolk churches 16: Thorpe Morieux and Little Whelnetham (May 2017)

It was the morning of the annual plant sale at Thorpe Morieux village hall. I had never been with my friend Penny, only with her husband Jeremy and their boys, Sam and Tim, so I was feeling apprehensive at walking straight into an embodiment of Jeremy’s absence1. But I wanted to go, and was glad that Penny and Sam also felt able to; Tim had a more pressing engagement with his GCSE revision. I decided to take advantage to fit in some practice at the church before the arrival of guests in the afternoon.

Thorpe Morieux is near Brettenham, and only a few miles from my house. I have always been intrigued by its curious name (Morieux), which I have recently discovered is the name of a family who once owned the village manor, and taken from a place called Morieux in Brittany. Its associations for me are almost exclusively of childhood bike rides: we would stop there to visit the church and the llamas. I am glad to say the llamas (as well as the church) are still in residence.

St Mary’s, Thorpe Morieux
I left home in bright sunshine and drove straight into a storm cloud. I always enjoy approaching Thorpe Morieux from Old Buckenham Hall School in Brettenham: the church appears over the hill like a ship floating low in a green, gold or brown sea, depending on the time of year. On this occasion it was a furry, luminous green barley sea, better appreciated on my way home when the storm had passed and the sun had come out. But I hadn’t so recently appreciated the church’s setting at close quarters: nestled in the valley, it is surrounded by pretty meadows and gardens.

Thorpe MorieuxThorpe Morieux interiorAlthough I knew I had been inside the church many times, as usual I didn’t remember it. Stepping down into the church felt like stepping into a cave. It had just stopped raining, but the sky was ominous. Thunder was still rumbling and the church’s location at the bottom of a valley, as well as its relatively small windows, made it even darker. It had a comforting, musty, slightly damp smell that took me instantly back to the smell of my house when we used to arrive at the beginning of the holidays, after it had been empty for some weeks. Now it makes me sad to think of it ever being empty, but I loved that smell. I didn’t associate it with neglect or the house not being lived in, but with the feeling of breathing a sigh of relief and the happiness of greeting an old friend after too long an absence. I hadn’t thought of, or noticed, that smell in years.

Thorpe Morieux fontThe acoustic was wonderful. The rooks on the roof were making a din, but I managed to drown them out with my cello. After the thunder passed, the sun came out and thankfully it brightened up inside – I had been having trouble reading the music and couldn’t find the lights.

Penny came to collect Sam, who had accompanied me to the church while she went to Brettenham to visit Jeremy’s grave. Time was getting short, so I stopped playing to look around. I was glad finally to be capable of recognising a Norman font, thanks to Mark’s tutorial at Sudbourne church two days earlier, but my attention today was focussed on the memorials and plaques around the church.

Thorpe Morieux plaqueI started to wonder about all these people of whom only their age and year of death, sometimes also birth, are recorded: the curate of Thorpe Morieux parish who died aged 32 in 1871; Sarah Thomas who died in 1825. Her plaque, however, was uncharacteristically long, and she was described as: ‘exemplary in every Christian virtue. And most eminently so in a faithful and affectionate regard for her husband, and a tender and watchful care over her children, by whom she was greatly beloved and lamented’. After reading all of this, I somehow felt I knew hardly more about her than if only her date of death and family members were recorded. Underneath was a list all of her children, of whom 4 out of 7 died before her.

I imagined the dramas of these people’s lives, the agony of the parents in losing so many of their children, and the illness or misfortune that might have been the end of them. Almost certainly only the most important people in the parish are memorialised in churches, which of course means more details of their lives may be on record than is evident on such plaques; but nevertheless, only impersonal, factual information is likely to have been recorded, which is hardly a fraction of what interests me. And what of all the ‘unimportant’ people?

Of course it is impossible that the story of everyone’s life should be recorded, mounted on a church wall, or remembered by future generations, but in that moment it seemed a great tragedy that I could not know more about the generations of ordinary people to whom my only connection is locality.

It isn’t until writing this now that I recall The Diary of a poor Suffolk woodman (2004; ed. Pip Wright): a diary written by William Scarfe of Thorpe Morieux in the margins of a prayer book, covering the years 1827 to 1842. How odd that it should have been in precisely this place that I felt a strong desire to know something more about earlier generations of ordinary villagers, without remembering this unique book which I had leafed through several months before my visit to Thorpe Morieux church. The entries are mostly brief and record factual events such as funerals, but nevertheless the book provides a little of the insight into local lives and stories that I so craved. I shall now return to it with added enthusiasm.

St Mary’s, Little Whelnetham
Two days later, I went to Little Whelnetham church on my way to Bury St Edmunds, partly in order to ensure that I got my cello out: I was feeling tired and achy, and not like practising at all, and I knew there was little chance of it happening at home.

Little WhelnethamI had intended to stop at Little Whelnetham the day I went to Bradfield St George, but ran out of time. I wondered whether the huge pine tree I had seen lying in the churchyard would still be there: it had uprooted a few weeks before and narrowly missed one of the church windows on falling. But my first preoccupation when I arrived was an ant on my dashboard. I didn’t know how long it had been in the car, but thought it likely I had brought it from home. There was no guarantee I would find it again if I left it in my car till I got back later in the day; on the other hand, what would become of it if I let it out here, all on its own, miles away from its colony? There was no good option for the ant’s welfare, so I let it out with a worried farewell. It reminded me of the lost ant on Roger Deakin’s writing desk, for which he was as concerned as I was for mine, but his little unsuspecting ant somehow came to symbolise all manifestations of exile around the world.

When I reached the churchyard noticeboard I could see the tree surgeons – or perhaps parishioners – had been hard at work: the tree was gone and a pile of cut logs stood in its place. I took the scenic route through the churchyard, as the more direct path crossing the site of fallen tree was cordoned off. I was amazed: it always looked so dark and full of trees from the road, but up the hill, on the south side of the church, it was much more open and light, with views across the hills.

Little Whelnetham interiorOnce inside I forced myself to start practising. It was painful. To distract myself a little and get my fingers moving without engaging my brain or my reluctance more than necessary, I started to look at my surroundings. I particularly noticed the unusual eagle lectern and the roof. The latter had carvings on each support: complete figures looking down into the church, and strange, comical faces and creatures carved into the ends of the supports.

When I needed a break (which was pretty soon), I consulted the church guide to see if the roof was as special as it looked. It was: apparently Little Whelnetham possesses one of only 16 original, medieval ‘single hammerbeam’ church roofs in Suffolk. I didn’t know what a single hammerbeam roof was, or how it differed from a double hammerbeam roof, until I recently found photos of the two side by side, showing the hammerbeam to be the right-angled support on which the figures were carved. A double hammerbeam roof has another of these supports higher up on the same beam.

Little Whelnetham roofThe church guide recommended that the best way to appreciate the roof carvings was to lie face up on a pew. This sounded like a very good idea to me in my weary, backachy state. It felt a very disorientating but wonderful way to look at a roof. I loved the faces staring back at me, above all the fat-bellied creature in the corner (below far left), and I found my first damaged but recognisable Green Man (below far right).

Little Whelnetham carving Little Whelnetham carving Little Whelnetham carving Little Whelnetham figure Green Man

In the churchyard on my way out, I noticed a circular stone ruin at the east end of the church. I checked the church guide when I got home to find out what it was. Apparently even the experts have been baffled, but, whatever the building was, there seems to be some consensus that is a Saxon ruin.

My day’s cello practice was not thorough nor satisfying, but thanks to the discovery of unsuspected treasures in a place I pass so regularly, and carrying out the practice under the supervision of so many weird and wonderful faces, I left the church feeling much more sprightly than I went in.

Header photo: Thorpe Morieux church


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