Suffolk churches 92: West Stow and Culford (September 2018)

St Mary’s, West Stow
Indoor temperature: 18.5˚C, humidity: 63%
West Stow
I might have gone weeks thinking I visited Culford church, if I hadn’t met a lady there who, when we got chatting, asked me if I was from West Stow. After some bafflement on my part, eventually the penny dropped. What my friend Penny (unrelated to the previous) had told me a few days before about Culford church being within the school grounds finally made sense. She must have been even more confused than me when I said it wasn’t. I’d been there the previous week and found it locked.

I discovered my Ordnance Survey maps didn’t cover this area of Suffolk, and having just passed an entrance to Culford school, and seen no village sign to correct me, I naturally assumed I was in Culford. So confident was my assumption that I didn’t look for church signs, and there were none prominently on display.

West Stow interior West Stow interior 2

West Stow beechFeeling a little chilly for the first time since spring, I practised until the overpowering smell of cleaning spray and the indifferent acoustic sent me outdoors for some fresh air. That was when I met the lady who told me she was waiting for a number of other people to arrive in order to start arranging flowers for a wedding, and the point at which I discovered I was actually in West Stow.

I went back inside and carried on with my practice until the church started to get busy with flower arrangers, and then decided to go looking for Culford. Needing the loo only compounded my impatience with both the smell and the acoustic. I stopped long enough to look around, however, and found graffiti on the tower arch and doorway to the tower stairs. In the churchyard I found an impressive beech tree with a large fungus growing on its trunk. I failed to identify the fungus when I got home – the usual frustrating scenario when I attempt to broaden my knowledge about mushroom species. It only goes to show why mushroom identification guides shouldn’t be used for determining edibility…

West Stow door West Stow graffiti West Stow graffiti 2

On a positive note, however, I have just now found the answer to a question I was asked recently: why are there so many churches in East Anglia? The answer is that it was the first place in England to be settled, and Anglo-Saxon manors were small and each had its own church. The parishes are based on these manors, and parish churches mostly exist on the sites of the Saxon churches.

St Mary’s, Culford
Outdoor temperature: 17.5˚C; indoor temperature: 19.2˚C, humidity: 61%
Culford
The way to Culford church, once I entered the school grounds, was impressive. More impressive, I thought, was that members of the public were allowed to wander in to access the church, which is open every day. This hasn’t always been the case, apparently; and I increasingly appreciate the parishes that manage to make this happen.

I had once walked through the grounds of Culford School along public footpaths, perhaps 6 years ago. I remember it being very beautiful, with a stream – a tributary of the River Lark – running through it. I couldn’t imagine going to boarding school, but perhaps if it was in a place like this I wouldn’t have minded.

The church, however, was probably at the opposite end of the school grounds, in the manicured part near the school buildings, which I hadn’t seen before. Culford churchyard was enclosed by a low brick wall, outside of which was a pretty flowerbed. It looked strangely like it was a feature of someone’s garden. Or of a botanic garden, perhaps: opposite the churchyard entrance were two huge conifers (see header photo).

Culford flowerbedAs I entered the church, I suddenly worried that I’d made the same mistake as at Higham: that it was a purely Victorian church. But I was able to put my mind at rest straight away: in the chancel I found a memorial tomb dated 1656, Culford memorialas well as a few other 17th century memorials. From the church guide I found out that the church was almost completely rebuilt by the Victorians, but it had existed before that. The previous incarnation, however, was also post-Reformation. Whether it really counts as a medieval church, therefore, is not clear; but Munro Cautley categorises it as such, so I will go along with his diagnosis, as I have from the start. After all, I think one could still say accurately that it is a church ‘of medieval foundation’.

Culford chapelThe interior took me straight back to Nowton: there was almost no natural light inside. But, in contrast to Nowton, I was able to find the light switches relatively easily. The church felt a good deal warmer than West Stow, which is odd as the difference was less than one degree, according to my new digital thermometer (whose accuracy I am already beginning to doubt). In any case, the idea of finding churches of anywhere near this temperature ‘cold’ or even ‘cool’ will soon seem laughable.

Culford interior Culford interior 2

Once the lights were on, it felt cosy, and I could see the church was obviously well used by the school, which was pleasing. Its acoustic was also significantly better than West Stow, and I was glad to have abandoned my efforts there in favour of Culford. It may not have been my preferred kind of church in terms of style, history and light, but my visit was nevertheless enjoyable and productive.

Header photo: Tree outside Culford churchyard

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