Suffolk churches 46: Great Saxham, Debenham and Kenton (November 2017)

St Andrew’s, Great Saxham
Great Saxham
Great Saxham church was located to the south of the village on what seemed to be estate land, characterised by plentiful oak trees and meadows with grazing sheep. I found the church itself in a wooded area full of pheasants, a little uphill from the road. A brick wall enclosed both the churchyard and a couple of paddocks beside it, with a rectangular gravelled area that I guessed might be for horse jumping.

Despite good intentions to allow myself plenty of daylight, the sun was already low by the time I arrived, so I looked around first while there was enough light to take photographs. I enjoyed the little square stone and knapped flint decorations on the north wall (only described as ‘various emblems’ in the church guide), and lingered in the porch where the Norman doorway’s beauty was enhanced by the setting sun reflecting off the wall opposite.

Great Saxham north wall Great Saxham doorway

Great Saxham benchesInside the light was fading fast, but I had time to enjoy the medieval benches, old tiled floor and brass floor memorial in the chancel dated 1632 – remembering one John Eldred, apparently, though I had to resort to the guide for this information. There was a particularly elaborate carved bench end in the chancel, but I thought this was more likely Victorian than medieval. The final thing I looked for – as I had done in every church since reading about Troston – was medieval graffiti. I was yet to find a church without it. Here, for the first time, I found graffiti on the font, but aside from a few initials, I could decipher very little of it.

Great Saxham memorial Great Saxham bench end Great Saxham font graffitiGreat Saxham font graffiti 2

Great Saxham interior

I couldn’t find the light switches – they were probably behind a locked door – so I decided to set up in the space opposite the south door, near a large window, so that as the light gradually departed I could turn my music stand to face south, and if necessary open the door to let in more light. The Bach suite I was preparing seemed to provide enough of a workout to warm up my hands after half an hour or so, and I felt I was getting used to playing at colder temperatures – which, I assumed, would be necessary for my church performances in a few days’ time. The last week or two I had been playing through movements more frequently in order to test out my stamina and make sure that even if my hands became painful I would find a way to keep going, and I was relieved that my efforts seemed to be paying off.

As I was playing, I thought I heard squeaking coming from above my head. I stopped to listen. It was unmistakably the sound of bats, and lots of them: the first time I had actually heard them in a church, rather than simply seeing evidence of their presence. I rather liked the idea of having company, and I wondered what they thought of cello music.

Great Saxham sunsetBy the time I stopped at around 4.45pm, it was almost completely dark inside, and not for the first time I was glad that I had lately acquired a smartphone with a torch as well as a camera and plenty of other clever things besides. I often use it now to look for graffiti, as it has advantages over daylight: the shadows it casts when shone at an angle to a stone surface makes it far easier to see engraved letters and symbols.

As I left the church, the sun was just disappearing beneath the horizon and the porch window framed the pink sky. It wasn’t until I was driving back towards the village that I realised I had passed through a gateway without noticing – confirming that this was indeed estate land, or at least used to be. I found out afterwards it was the old gateway to Saxham Hall1. For a moment I had the odd sensation of having trespassed on private land without realising, but soon dismissed the idea as silly, and pulled my attention back to enjoying my pretty drive through the meadows.

St Mary’s, Debenham
Outdoor temperature: 12.6˚C; indoor temperature: 12.8˚C, humidity: 57%
Due to both inclement weather and lack of time, I had failed to take photographs of Winston church when I had visited back in August. As I was now rather belatedly writing about my visit, the matter had become pressing, and so one Saturday morning I decided to use it as an excuse to visit some more churches in the area. Dithering between going to Winston first, or Debenham, where I thought its large and attractive church might get busy if I left it too late, I decided on the latter. I had visited only once before, in early spring, during the period when I was unsure about starting my church project. I am sure it was an influencing factor in the project’s favour…

I was surprised more by the details I didn’t remember about the church than those I did (photos below). I remembered having to walk through two ‘rooms’ to reach the nave: first, its huge and beautiful entrance porch, west of the tower – apparently known as a Galilee porch – and then the dark tower, thankfully lit by an automatic light. Once I reached the nave, I turned back to see the huge Norman arch. I didn’t remember, however, its singularly unusual and beautiful floor – according to the notice, ‘composed of red and gault bricks, made in Debenham in 1871, set in squares with encaustic tiles in the borders and intersections’. Nor did I remember the rood beam still in place above the chancel arch – but that part at least didn’t surprise me, as such a detail would have meant nothing to me at that time.

Debenham sketch
Drawing of the Galilee porch displayed on the information board

Debenham floor
Debenham’s floor

Debenham door
Door from the Galilee porch to the tower

Debenham norman doorway
Norman doorway between nave and tower

Debenham interiorThe only person inside was a lady was sweeping the church, so after checking she wouldn’t mind if I played the cello, I went back to fetch it. I set up on the right side of the nave, where there was space in front of the piano. My hands were cold, and they took a while to warm up. But the fact they warmed up at all was a pleasant surprise: having finally remembered to bring a thermometer, I measured the temperature. I would have guessed that 13˚C would have been well below the point at which my hands would simply get colder the longer I played, rather than warmer. I am sure it was also an indication of the strenuousness of the piece I was practising, but nevertheless, it boded well for continuing to visit churches throughout the winter.

During my stay, a curious thing happened. The lady who was sweeping had told me she’d be leaving shortly, and no sooner did she leave than another lady entered the church and set about some tasks. When that lady had finished and left the church, another lady came in to set out candles. And the same thing happened again after that. A total of four ladies came into the church, one after the other; and I am sure if they had gone to great trouble to coordinate their timings precisely so as not to overlap, they couldn’t have managed it so successfully.

When I had finished practising and packed up, I was dismayed to find it was pouring with rain. The kind of fine rain you might expect in a drizzle, but in drenching quantities. I was annoyed with myself for not taking outdoor photos when I arrived, and for not going to Winston first, as I had originally planned. I knew rain was forecast, but for some reason assumed it wasn’t imminent. There was nothing for it: I would have to make another photo trip within the week. It was the second time I had visited Debenham church and still the only part of its exterior I had seen was its porch and the upper part of its somewhat stumpy tower. Resolving to take better notice of the weather in future, I set off towards Kenton.

I finally got my view of the church five days later, from the south edge of the churchyard. I was intrigued by the use of brick in the repair (I assume) of the flint south aisle wall. I rather liked the effect.

Debenham

All Saints’, Kenton
Outdoor temperature: 12.8˚C; indoor temperature: 11.4˚C, humidity 72%
Since the beginning of my recent acquaintance with the area around Debenham, I have thought of Kenton and Winston as siblings: the two oddly named villages in close proximity to each other. The lanes between Debenham and Kenton were new to me, which always adds a little thrill of adventure to my journey. I found the church apparently in the middle of the village, but in a very rural-feeling location with only a few houses opposite.

KentonKenton consecration crossKenton scratch dialKenton crossIt was a pretty church with a Tudor brick chapel (now south aisle) built on to the east side of the porch, with a charming brick doorway providing access from the porch (photo below). The doorway leading to the nave, however, was Norman, with a number of engraved crosses and a ‘scratch dial’ (sundial) – which must have been created before the porch was built.

Inside was a handsome 13th century font with a colourful display of small gourds and squashes at its feet. The church was rather dark, the outdoor gloom compounded by the coloured glass in the windows; so, despite the fact it was almost noon, I had to look for the light switches. Once illuminated, I was better able to appreciate the various consecration crosses around the church, the interesting construction of the rood stairs – the bottom step looked as though it may once have doubled as a seat – and the chancel bench rail, dated 1595 and initialled KG and MS (photos below).

Kenton doorway Kenton brick doorway Kenton font

Kenton bench railIt felt much colder inside than out, and being able to test out my perception of temperature still had the appeal of novelty: I was surprised that the great difference I felt was in fact less than 1.5˚C. It was sufficient for my fingers to refuse to warm up, however, and so began my (probably fruitless) ponderings about the effect of church size on temperature and humidity, the effect of humidity on perceived temperature, why it was colder and more humid here than at Debenham, and so on. Of course, without enquiring one can never know if a church has recently had its heating on, which – as I have discovered in my old farmhouse – can have greater (and longer-lasting) effect on humidity than on temperature.

Kenton interior Kenton rood stairs

Despite feeling cold, I managed to do a respectable amount of practice: the acoustic helped to cancel out the effect of cold fingers, and my cello helped to cancel out the noise of a chainsaw across the road – a sound towards which I have found myself suffering increasing intolerance, especially during church visits.

The rain eased off enough for me to take an outdoor photo during a break in my practice, but had resumed again by the time I had finished, so I abandoned any idea of going back to Debenham and Winston that day. But, despite failing on my photograph mission, I was satisfied that a more important goal had been fulfilled: I finally felt adequately prepared and stamina-trained for my two performances of the Bach C minor suite the following day.

Header photo: knapped flint emblems, Great Saxham church


1. Great Saxham church guide

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