Suffolk churches 181: Ashfield-cum-Thorpe, Helmingham and Icklingham (April 2021)

St Mary’s, Ashfield-cum-Thorpe
Ashfield 2When is a medieval church not a medieval church? Or more accurately, when is a Victorian church actually a medieval church? I’ve asked myself this question many times, and have come up with the wrong answer maybe once or twice. Usually any dispute is eventually settled by Munro Cautley’s Suffolk Churches, unless I choose to disagree with him, but even then it’s often not straightforward. A Victorian church built on the site of a medieval church ‘counts’, since it is still a ‘church of medieval foundation’. But the difficulty in this case is that the two villages, Ashfield and Thorpe, kept swapping between their two churches depending which one was in the better state of repair, Ashfield organuntil finally Ashfield was rebuilt and Thorpe left to go to ruin.

My dilemma lies in the fact that the ruin of Thorpe church still exists: a round tower languishing in the garden of Thorpe Hall, and really my preference would be to play there, rather than in a Victorian church. But Ashfield is included in Munro Cautley’s list, whereas Thorpe is not. These days I am hedging my bets, including any church that is remotely in doubt; moreover, Ashfield is open every day, which is not to be sniffed at, especially in Covid times. I will certainly continue my detective work on the ruins of Thorpe, which are on private property and unlocatable using my OS Explorer map; but I needed an outing, and I needed not to have to make any phonecalls to arrange it. So I headed for Ashfield and Helmingham one unusually sunny morning in mid-April, an extra spark added to my planned excursion at the thought of treating myself to my first pub lunch of the year.


The red brick building wasn’t the most attractive I’d seen, but neither was it wholly ugly; inside, however, I found a simple, light space with a brick floor, much more appealing than many a heavy, Victorianised, monument-filled medieval restoration. It had an acoustic to match: I thought what a lovely place it might be to give a concert one day. I practised my favourite music of the upcoming concert with my friend Rachel, to enjoy the acoustic to the full: Frank Bridge and Bach Inventions. I was reluctant to leave, wondering whether Helmingham, in all its medieval glory, could match up to the uplifting and healing experience of playing at Ashfield.

Ashfield interior Ashfield interior 2

St Mary’s, Helmingham
HelminghamThe view of Helmingham church from the entrance of the churchyard was magnificent: a handsome, long building with a view of Helmingham Hall in the background, enhanced by a chestnut tree in the foreground just coming into leaf. I have only visited the grounds of Helmingham once before, having many times intended to pay its gardens a visit. Somehow, knowing that they are only open on certains days and times of the year has had the unintended consequence of my never quite getting round to looking up its opening times, or its opening times not coinciding with when I remember to do so. Helmingham chancelPerhaps now its church is engraved in my mind, I will have more chance of succeeding.

I enjoyed the sight of a little window below the roof that looked like it belonged in a Tudor timber-framed house rather than a church, but on the inside this window was all but blocked by a monument. The whole church was full of them. Light was in short supply, there were painted words on the walls and arches, painted monuments to the Tollemaches – I have always been unable to appreciate such things, and so spend only the required minimum of time gazing at them – and a general air of gloom about the place. A very strange interior indeed; and I knew straightaway I preferred Ashfield. Perhaps this would spell the beginning of the end of my prejudice against the Victorians; though to be fair I didn’t know how much of the interior of Helmingham was also their doing. Maybe it was just a moneyed version.

Helmingham window Helmingham font Helmingham monument
Helmingham interior Helmingham interior 2

The acoustic was also less rewarding than Ashfield’s, but that conveniently meant I wasn’t tempted to divert my attention from the pieces I knew I really ought to practise, to those I enjoyed practising most; and my reward, I knew, was awaiting me at Cretingham pub.

I didn’t know another prize was awaiting me before I even reached Cretingham, however: my first swallow sighting of the year. I pulled over and got out of the car, thinking I’d seen one but not quite trusting my eyes. Then I saw two. And I was happy.

St James’, Icklingham
Icklingham St JamesFeeling unwell, I’d cancelled an appointment that afternoon with Mike, a sound engineer and friend of my friend Steve’s, to record some audio and video clips for Suffolk radio. But visiting a church alone is another activity altogether, and instead of feeling daunted and under pressure, it took on the aspect of an outing that might both cheer me up and distract me from pain and worry. Besides, I needed to practise for a live-streamed visit to Whitton a few days later, and I hadn’t taken my cello out for a while. I’d made contact with the keyholder to Icklingham – the second church in this village, the other being the redundant and beautiful All Saints’ – the previous September, so I had no worry about how my request would be received: another point very much in its favour as an outing destination.

Of course it couldn’t compare with All Saints’ down the road, but despite its Victorian ordinariness, all church visits felt special now, due to both the Covid-enforced break, and the knowledge that I had only fifty or so left to visit. I practised Bartok and Boismortier, the duets I would be playing with Steve at Whitton, for as long as I could muster the energy.

Icklingham St James interior Icklingham St James interior 2

My favourite aspect of the church was undoubtedly its 14th century chest with beautiful iron decorations, and outdoors I was intrigued by the steep falling away of ground in the west corner of the open churchyard, for which I have discovered no explanation yet. On the east side, I found my first emerging furry beech leaves of the season: my favourite of all spring leaves. Feeling a burst of joy in my weariness, I left the churchyard with my energy and spirits vastly improved.

Icklingham St James chest Icklingham St James flint
Icklingham St James safe Icklingham St James beech leaves

Header photo: Icklingham St James wall

Total churches to end April: 446 + 3 chapels

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