Suffolk churches 51: Haughley and Higham (November 2017)

St Mary’s, Haughley
Outdoor temperature: 14.3˚C; indoor temperature: 12.2˚C, humidity 66%
It was a warm day, and I thought I should take advantage of it. Haughley church was one of few churches left within a fifteen minute drive from home, and for some reason I thought it was located some distance along the high street, which isn’t on my usual route to north Suffolk. As soon as I looked at the map, however, I realised that it was in fact at a junction that I pass every time I go through Haughley, and – inexplicably – I hadn’t noticed it. It never ceases to amaze me the things that you see regularly but never see.

HaughleyHaughley stairsHaughley bucketsI entered through the tower, where a handsome and ancient-looking brick staircase led up to the bell-ringing chamber, and a series of old buckets, dated 1757, hung over the door to the nave. The church guide informed me that they were leather fire buckets, and that the church possessed 34 in total. Both the church guide and the Suffolk Churches entry that I read afterwards suggested that these buckets were no longer kept on their hooks over the door, so I felt lucky to see them back in their rightful place.

A little girl with a lady – her grandmother, I assumed – were inside the church when I arrived, and the inner door was open. A gale was blowing through it, so that I thought there must be an open window in the church, but I didn’t find one. By the time I returned with my cello, the pair had left.

Haughley interior Haughley chancel

The church was large, smart and Victorian-looking, with huge, clear windows. The chancel was high – the highest I had yet seen – with four steps leading up to it. I could find no enlightenment in the church guide as to the reason for the height of the chancel, nor afterwards online. I did, however, find some discussion of the rather odd layout of the church1: viewed from the southeast corner of the churchyard, the different parts of the church looked bolted on, as though they didn’t quite belong to each other. Discovering that the south aisle was a later addition to the nave made sense of my impression, insofar as it showed that the tower must have originally stood independent of the church, and was only joined on to it by the addition of the south aisle.

On the north side of the chancel was another, modern, ‘bolt-on’: I thought maybe it was a vestry, but exploring inside afterwards, I could see it was an extension constructed solely to house the organ. I wondered where the organ lived originally; but I found out from the church guide that extension was built when the organ was first installed in the church: in 1878. In the life of a church, I suppose that is modern.

Haughley fontI decided to play at the front of the chancel, for the novelty of sitting so high up. I felt as though I was on a concert platform. The acoustic was wonderful, and I had no problem practising at that temperature – though it did surprise me that one warm day could have such a quick effect on a large church. Perhaps the wind had something to do with it: though I didn’t feel a draught once the door was shut, it was very loud and I thought it must be getting in through the cracks somewhere. Still, I was glad of the relative warmth, and managed my first proper cello practice in a while. I also got into the spirit of Christmas a little, practising some carols that we (a group of four cellists) were due to play in Framlingham church in less than two weeks.

On my way out, the font in the southwest corner of the nave attracted my attention. It was quite something. The elaborately carved creatures were of course the focus of my admiration…

St Mary’s, Higham
Outdoor temperature: 11.5˚C; indoor temperature: 13˚C, humidity: 60%
The following day, my destination was determined by the need to return to Great Wenham church to take photos. Confusingly, there are two Highams in Suffolk, almost at opposite ends of the county. This was the Stour Valley Higham, on the Suffolk-Essex border.

Higham 2Higham interiorI found the church signposted down a private drive, with a notice beside the drive stating ‘no unauthorised parking’. I hoped that either the church would have its own drive beyond the private one, or that there would be a church car park. But I was out of luck. I managed to find a patch of grass behind a hedge where I thought I would be out of the way of any farm vehicles needing to pass, but still, I felt I was probably trespassing, and my visit never quite emerged from the shadow of anxiety and frustration this caused me, irrational though it was.

The sun was shining, however, and the church and its churchyard, surrounded by meadows and enclosed by a low brick wall, were beautiful and peaceful. Moreover, it was bright and almost warm inside.

The interior was largely Victorian, but I found a number of fun and historical details: a mythical bench-end creature (possibly a griffin, but from the descriptions I have read of griffins, its creator must not have met one…), carved roof decorations, the remains of an old font, and a piscina. I also noticed that the nave was out of alignment with the chancel arch, as at Combs church, except there it was the chancel rather than the nave that was out of alignment. I have never found any mention or explanation of this phenomenon. Perhaps it simply a result of different parts of the churches being constructed at different times; and perhaps symmetry wasn’t considered particularly important.​

Higham griffin Higham font
Higham roof Higham roof 2 Higham piscina

Higham doorThe prospect of playing the cello in the light-filled chancel was a pleasant one. I practised Handel – a trio sonata for two cellos and keyboard that I was due to play in two weeks’ time at Woolpit church – and enjoyed it thoroughly. It was approaching lunchtime, however, and soon hunger prompted me to pack up.

But there were two little mysteries still awaiting me: the first was the entry in the visitors’ book immediately before mine: ‘Stewart and Corind – Rolling Stones visiting England’s churches’. I didn’t know the names of the members of the Rolling Stones, whether they were still alive, or even whether the group was still going. The second was an inscription on a gravestone in the churchyard, to John Howells, ‘psychiatrist and clematerian’. Pondering these clues, I took a tour round the sunny churchyard, where I admired some beautiful mottled stonework around the chancel doorway, and tried, unsuccessfully, to decide whether I liked the modern oak south door.

Once I got home, I set about solving the mysteries. I had no luck as far as the first was concerned: there was once a member of the Rolling Stones called Stewart, but he was dead; and Corind drew a blank. Perhaps it was a case of two Rolling Stones fans following in the steps of the band. As for the definition of clematerian, even Google was almost stumped: I was presented with only four results, three of which were in foreign languages. In the absence of any other logical possibilities, however, I eventually concluded that John Howells must have been a clematis aficionado…


Header photo: Higham churchyard


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