Suffolk churches 8: Clopton, Otley and Ashbocking (May 2017)

It was a little over a week since my walk in Captain’s Wood, and a visit to see the bluebells at Staverton Thicks was becoming more urgent. This time it wasn’t difficult to find an opportunity to combine a walk with church touring: my cello had developed an annoying buzz and I would need to leave it in Woodbridge for half a day to be glued back together. I arranged to drop it off one morning when I had time to continue to the Thicks, only 15 minutes beyond Woodbridge.

When I left home, it was warmer and sunnier than of late, but by the time I reached the Thicks it was runny nose and glove weather again. It was great to be back, nevertheless, and I was looking forward to the bluebells and some aimless wandering.

Somehow I was expecting the bluebells to be everywhere. Perhaps this was the only state of affairs that would have corresponded to the magical space the Thicks occupy in my mind. But, of course, had I thought it through logically, I would have realised this was unlikely. Bluebells grow in the shade, but not dense shade. Where the ground was always completely bare due to lack of sunlight, there were not going to be any bluebells; and, indeed, I found them only at the edges of the woodland where it was light enough for grass and bracken to grow. They were still not in full bloom, and, combined with their patchy presence, my anticipated bewitchment did not quite materialise. I would have to settle for the dependable enchantment of the woodland itself.

I decided to visit the oak tree that I had climbed on my first December visit eighteen months before. As its many burrs were already thick with foliage, I opted for a branch that spread low near the ground, enabling me to lie flat, after some wobbling, and take in the smells and sounds.

Staverton oak

The pigs in the adjacent field had gone, and the field was sown with arable crops. My friend Kim, who lives nearby at Butley, had told me on a previous occasion that the owner of the many pigs in the area rents fields from farmers to put his pigs on. Seeing the crops now made me wonder whether farmers were queuing up to have a pig stint on their fields, to remove the weeds and fertilise the soil. But then I realised that, although they would certainly remove the weeds, I knew nothing about the toilet habits of pigs – I didn’t know if their droppings would be spread evenly across the field and left there, whether they used just one area of the field or shelter, or whether the droppings had to be removed regularly. Here was yet another unexpected and slightly bizarre topic that I would need to research to satisfy my curiosity.

I tried to take a different route through the Thicks this time, to find new and wonderful trees, although I couldn’t be sure exactly where I had walked before. I started to follow a path. I couldn’t tell at first if it was animal or human, until it diverged, each new path forking again, leading in multiple directions, winding through the wood, between trees and under branches. Then I knew they must be animal paths – deer, most likely, and used by smaller animals too. I met a large herd of red deer several times on my morning’s wanderings. I had hoped I would: I had seen them on every visit and they were starting to feel like friends, if spirit-like and mystical, like the woodland.

I was also satisfied in my search for strange trees: I came upon a holly growing out of an oak stump, and another large oak still growing upwards although it was lying on the ground. Then I found an enormous fallen oak to perch on for a while: I was a full 1.5 metres off the ground when sitting on its trunk. I wondered how old it was, and how long it had been lying there – and what piece of history I was sitting on. There was a holly seedling growing in a trunk crack next to me. It reminded me of the cedar seedling I’d recently found growing in the nook between the three branches of a maple tree in my garden. I left it there as a curiosity, a sort of biology experiment.

Then I came to an area that seemed more than ever like an oak graveyard. I wasn’t sure if it reminded me more of a vast animal skeleton – a whale, perhaps – or of a wrecked ship. Then I started to wonder if there was really such a great difference between the two, except that one was made of bone, and the other of wood.

Staverton oak graveyard

Turning my attention now to finding my way out of the Thicks, I noticed little flowers – blossom – lying everywhere on the ground. I didn’t recognise it. I looked up to see where it came from, and saw the hollies were in flower. With surprise, I realised this was the first time I had noticed holly blossom. And yet holly berries are something we all take for granted…

Once I had rejoined the path back to the road – which I’m never quite sure I’ll manage to find – I received a phonecall from the violin shop to say my cello was ready to pick up. The timing was perfect: I could now spend the rest of the day visiting churches.

St Mary’s, Clopton and St Mary’s, Otley
CloptonOnce I’d picked up my cello I decided to make my way home via some of the churches I’d missed last time I drove this route. My first stop was Clopton, Burgh’s ‘twin church’1, on the hill next to the road between Grundisburgh and Otley.

I was starting to realise that visiting churches was not entirely danger-free: approaching by car could be perilous. Both Clopton and Otley churches were challenging to reach, Clopton because I was approaching a steep, awkwardly angled and narrow-gated driveway from the wrong direction; and Otley because, as a first time visitor, I missed the small sign off the road to the church and then struggled to get back to it, with poor visibility in both directions. I did eventually arrive safely at both churches, but only by the skin of my teeth. I made a pact with myself that such a seemingly innocuous activity as visiting country churches would not be my downfall…

OtleyBoth were light, pretty and well looked-after churches with pleasant acoustics. Otley church had a particularly pretty driveway approach, and I enjoyed its hidden away feel even though it was so close to the main road. Clopton church was in possession of some roof angels, and amazed me with what looked like a record office at the back of the church, with desks, chairs and files of information about the history of Clopton village. It was lovely to think of a historical building providing a historical as well as religious service to its community. I was also pleased to read of its thriving bat congregation.

Apart from these aspects, however, the two churches had few obviously outstanding features for an untrained eye, and my most interesting historical discovery came several weeks later: Burgh church, a few hundred metres away from Clopton church, is surrounded by ramparts and ditches from an Iron Age fortified settlement, long ago ploughed flat but still visible in aerial photographs2.

All Saints, Ashbocking
Ashbocking

Finding Ashbocking church, although it is signposted from the main road, also involved a few moments of confusion. I had forgotten that, travelling west, I had to pass through the village and out the other side before I would reach the turn-off to the church. I was on the point of giving up, thinking I must have passed it, when I finally spotted the sign. I was glad not to have missed it: a long way down the narrow lane, I reached a beautiful, brick-towered, brick-porched church set in a lovely churchyard. The light inside was faintly pink, and it took me a while to realise this was not due simply to the pink carpet: much of the window glass was lightly stained pink and mauve. It was a slightly dim interior, but with a pleasant, palatial atmosphere: red velvet curtains decorated the entrance to the chancel.

As always, though, it was a stunning old brick floor that won my attention. It was at this church that I decided I would create a new, private, category of churches to add to ‘wool churches’ and ‘angel churches’: ‘floor churches’. There will be many more churches in my new category than the other two, but you cannot have too many beautiful floors. The idea also occurred to me to start taking photographs of all the extraordinary church floors I encountered on my travels. This would enable me to create a collage at the end of my project, as a memento of my tour and a reminder of how lucky we are to possess so much architectural beauty, free to enjoy, on our doorstep.

Ashbocking floor


1. Simon Knott’s description of the two churches at suffolkchurches.co.uk

2. Newton, S. 2016. ‘The Forgotten History Of St. Botwulf’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History. Volume 43, Part 4.

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