Suffolk churches 171: South Elmham St Margaret’s, Homersfield and Stradbroke (March 2020)

I felt odd this morning. Part of me was sorry to be going home today, not knowing when I might get out again; and part of me was anxious to get back to the safety of home. I had intended to go for a walk and leave late morning, but a phone call from my friend Joost changed my plans: he had suddenly panicked that London would be locked down by the weekend and he wouldn’t be able to leave, so he had decided to pack his bag and get on a train. He had already missed the opportunity to get to the Faroe Islands where his partner and dog live, and felt a horror of being stuck in London for an indeterminate period without any work. We had discussed it a few weeks previously, and I had offered him the option of ‘self-isolation in Suffolk with goats’, which seemed to him a far preferable alternative.

I told Joost I would be passing Stowmarket station mid-afternoon and could pick him up, so he booked his ticket accordingly. Despite my lack of walk, it was too late to fit in four churches: I now had a time limit and was also slow to set off, distracted by the whole strange situation. Still, I thought it would do me some good to blot out the world for a while with some cello practice.

St Margaret’s, South Elmham
St Margaret South Elmham
St Margaret’s was the very last of the ‘Saints’ churches, so called because the 11 villages – as I thought – of Ilketshall and South Elmham, in northeast Suffolk, are named after Saints. But I have now read that Homersfield church is also called St Mary’s, South Elmham, bringing the total to 12. All the Saints have their own church, apart from St Nicholas’ church which has disappeared. Although you might more accurately say that the villages only exist insofar as they each have a church: most of them consist only of a few scattered houses.

St Margaret South Elmham interior St Margaret South Elmham interior 2

St Margaret South Elmham memorialSt Margaret South Elmham stocksI had tried St Margaret’s once before and, inexplicably, found it locked. All the other Saints churches had been open. But I had no trouble getting in this time, and it was worth the wait: it was a beautifully simple and light church, with a Norman doorway and window, part of its medieval rood screen tucked in a corner, and some interesting graffiti above a door by a John Sellynge, apparently dating from the late 16th or early 17th century1 (see header photo).

It was a good place to soothe worry and get lost in practice. It also felt good to fill in the last gaps in this area of my church map, like filling in the last pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

St Margaret South Elmham font St Margaret South Elmham window St Margaret South Elmham door
St Margaret South Elmham screen St Margaret South Elmham graffiti

St Mary’s, Homersfield
Homersfield church was in a lovely setting on a hill, beside a community wood. I saw the church first to my right up a steep hill, and followed the road round to the village. After waiting for an elderly Alsatian to remove himself from the road in front of me, I took a right turn up a dead-end road. At the end of this were the church and woodland entrance, the latter happening to be the destination of the Alsatian and his apologetic owners, so we chatted briefly before going our separate ways.

Beside my car I noticed alexanders growing all along the verge – as abundant as the cow parsley would soon be in my area – and remembered that I wanted to try cooking them. I couldn’t remember which parts of the plant one was supposed to pick, but knew I could quickly find out, thanks to modern technology. Church first though, I thought.

Homersfield interior Homersfield interior 2

Homersfield fontThe first thing I noticed inside the church was the font: was it new or old? I couldn’t work it out. Reading about it afterwards, my confusion was explained: this was a Victorian copy of a Norman font. In fact, most things in the church were apparently replaced by the Victorians, but this didn’t stop me liking it; nor did it stop the floor and pews being rather wonky and leaning down towards the outside walls, which only endeared it to me further.

Before leaving Homersfield I made use of the phone signal at the top of the hill to look up alexanders and find out which parts were good to eat. Pretty much all parts of the plant, it turned out, but the leaves and stems were better eaten young. I wasn’t going to dig up any plants (which is not strictly allowed in any case), and it was a bit late in the season already for young leaves and stems, which are best harvested before the plants come into flower. I was rather surprised to find them already starting to flower in mid-March, but maybe that was an indication of the mild winter we’d had. Flowers it would be: I picked some buds and some open flowers, not knowing which would taste better. I knew Joost would be excited by the prospect of some culinary experimentation, and it seemed a positive way to begin our homebound existence.

All Saints’, Stradbroke
I had been looking forward to visiting Stradbroke for a while. My friend Penny had mentioned it on several occasions, and the last time I had driven through it, back in late summer, I thought the village looked nice. It was a large village with a large church. I had definitively given up on a fourth church now – I had tried the Athelington key holder twice and got no answer, plus Joost would be waiting for me at the station for half and hour anyway.

Stradbroke interior Stradbroke interior 2

Stradbroke fontI perhaps didn’t do justice to my last church visit pre-lockdown. I needed to get a few things from the village shop before heading for Stowmarket, so I didn’t stay long. In any case I was tired and distracted by now and not really in the mood for cello practice, nor the entirely different atmosphere of a large, thoroughly Victorianised church. Intimacy was replaced by grandeur. Still, I was glad to share a little music with it before heading homeward to greet whatever calamity lay ahead.

Homersfield alexandersThe alexanders were a success: tempura with a soy-based dipping sauce. The buds and newly-opened flowers were definitely my preferred ones; beyond a certain stage, it turns out, they develop an offensive smell and taste that could easily put me off them for life…

Header photo: Graffiti at St Margaret, South Elmham


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