Suffolk churches 39: Little Saxham, Ringshall and Battisford (August 2017)

St Nicholas’, Little Saxham
Little SaxhamLittle Saxham doorI had driven past Little Saxham church many times on a back route from Bury St Edmunds to Risby, but I had never noticed its round tower. From the churchyard gate, however, it was fully and marvellously visible, its ornate arches showing at a glance that it was a Norman tower – described, I later discovered, as ‘Suffolk’s finest tower, perhaps England’s’ by Simon Knott1; high praise indeed. I was excited to find such a church on a visit not in my mental category of ‘adventure’: it was the closest church, apart from the strange-looking Westley church which I had found locked, to my friend Penny’s house on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds, where I had stopped off after running errands in town.

Little Saxham interior Little Saxham chancel

Little Saxham coffin bearersIt seemed very dark inside, but I immediately saw that this could not be due to a shortage of clear windows; the fault must lie with the weather. The interior was as lovely and unusual as the exterior: it was a very long, tall and thin church, with a north aisle, and full of Norman arches of different heights and sizes. One, to the left of the entrance door, was barely five foot high, and not even the church guide could offer a definitive explanation for it. The tower arch was one of the tallest I had seen.

Little Saxham bench end 3Little Saxham bench end 2At the west end of the north aisle were two old wooden coffin bearers, which, to my disappointment, I did not find mentioned in the church guide: it is such ‘insignificant’ details that I find most intriguing and I would like to have known how old they were. Some of the benches were medieval, some Victorian2, and almost all of them were adorned with carved animals: dogs, lions, birds and even dragons.

The acoustic was glorious. Before long, to my relief, the dark clouds lifted and the church filled with sunshine, and I gradually became aware that the same transformation was taking place inside me: I’d had a stressful day, and being alone inside this ancient building, playing the cello and hearing the church come alive with the music, was the perfect antidote. Stillness, simplicity and beauty dispersed the thoughts in my head and the tension in my chest, and I left the church feeling renewed.

St Catherine’s, Ringshall
It was the August Bank Holiday Monday and I was due to play at a private wetland nature reserve in Monks Eleigh at lunch time. The morning’s rain was over, the sun had come out, and I was in the mood for an outing. There was no getting round the fact I had visited all of the churches near Monks Eleigh, apart from two that were kept locked, and I didn’t have the desire to go key hunting. So I settled on Ringshall: it was a detour, but only a ten-minute one.

RingshallThe destination didn’t fill me with excitement: I had no particular liking for Ringshall, despite occasionally visiting old acquaintances there. But, as has so often happened, visiting its church would change my feelings about the place entirely. I had no memory of driving past Ringshall church before, and arriving there brought Elmsett to mind: the church was some distance from its village, on a hill with an open westward view across the lane and the fields. It had a similarly beautiful porch, though with a greater quantity of timber, and I stepped in through the old doorway to a surprisingly wood-heavy interior. This might make it gloomy on a dull day, but today the sunshine enhanced its atmosphere.

Ringshall interior Ringshall interior 2

The acoustic was pleasant but not overly resonant, which, considering I was about to play in perhaps the most difficult of all acoustics – outdoors – was probably a good thing. When the tug of sunshine became too great to resist, I took a break to explore the huge, open churchyard that stretched eastwards. The smell that met me in the porch was as much a surprise on this occasion as it was the first time I encountered it in May. The fact that it was now the end of summer confirmed to me that the smell was of sunshine, not of spring, as I had originally thought. I am quite convinced that going inside a church for a while on a warm, sunny day, and then stepping out into the porch, should be prescribed as an endorphin rush, much like exercise or stroking animals. The effect is fleeting but startling, and, as far as I know, cannot easily be replicated without the use of a church.

Ringshall porch Ringshall door Ringshall door 2

At the east end of the churchyard, I found a long row of white military gravestones (see header photo). The reason for their presence was clear: Ringshall is adjacent to the military airbase, Wattisham Airfield. They were striking, of that much I was sure; but wasn’t there an aspect of anonymisation, a negation of individuality, in laying out so many identical markers of fallen men? Perhaps they were intended to replicate an image of the military: a line of disciplined soldiers, a symbol of pride in sacrifice; or perhaps the military only offers one type of headstone, for equality’s sake. But I wondered how the soldiers themselves would feel about them, or their families. They must have a symbolic meaning beyond mere cost and practicality, I thought; but what that meaning might be I could only guess at.

I was relieved to feel more or less ready to perform by the time I left Ringshall. Trying to find my way through the maze of winding and dead-end lanes around Wattisham Airfield was more of a challenge than I anticipated, but thankfully I arrived at the nature reserve in good time. Playing the cello there in the shade of the giant willows felt like playing in an outdoor cathedral, surrounded by miniature winged musicians who bestowed on me the highest honour by allowing me to join in with their song. It was an unforgettable, awe-inspiring experience.

St Mary’s, Battisford
It has never happened before that I have played in a church without really knowing what it looks like from outside. But so it was with Battisford. It was a cold, rainy day after the hot bank holiday weekend, and I hoped that practising in a church would lift my spirits as well as achieve something useful. I tried Little Finborough first, but finding it locked, turned around and went to nearby Battisford. I pass through Battisford regularly, and buy apple juice from an orchard there, but never had occasion to take the road looping to the north of the village. The church felt more integral to its village than Ringshall, but still very rural. A tall lime tree avenue, dark but dry underneath, led from the churchyard gate right up to the west end of the church, where a huge yew tree blocked the remainder of the view, and so I arrived at the little north door having seen very little of the church apart from the fact it had a bell turret in place of a tower – which I already knew from the symbol on my Ordnance Survey map.

Battisford interior 2It was unusual to enter a church through a porchless north door. It was propped open despite the rain, but an exterior mesh door was hooked closed. It had a large hole in it – rather seeming to defeat the purpose of a mesh door – at a similar height to the former hole in my own mesh door at home, leading from courtyard to garden. But the cause of the hole could not be the same: mine was caused by my two pygmy goats using it somewhat inappropriately as a scratching station. There was no sign here, however, of any creature having misused the door, beyond the similarly concave mesh around the hole.

Battisford interior 4 Battisford interior

Battisford pulpitI went in, relieved to be out of the wind and rain. It was a beautiful but simple interior, with a brick and pamment floor, bare flint wall at the back of the nave, medieval crown posts supporting the roof, an 18th century pulpit3, and a 19th century musician’s gallery from which I enjoyed the view.

I was fairly certain that the ancient-looking floor memorial must be the ‘16th century marble slab’ with ‘indents for brasses’ described in the church guide. Battisford floor memorialThe only part of the description that caused me doubt was the mention of marble: it did not look like marble, but there was no other floor memorial in the nave, and so I am persuaded to put this problem down to my own ignorance of stone types. Having now read that in stonemasonry, the term marble is used to encompass ‘unmetamorphosed’ as well as metamorphosed limestone, but finding no further easily accessible information nor photos on the subject, it seems I would have to take a crash course in geology to properly understand what this means. Until further enlightenment is forthcoming, I will assume this description includes the kind of marble used in the floor memorial, and stand corrected on the stone described as ‘Purbeck marble’ (a type of limestone from Dorset), which I originally thought wasn’t marble at all.

I went to set up at the front of the nave, where the very noticeable slope upwards from chancel to back of the nave was a little disconcerting. Battisford bell turretI felt chilly and damp from the rain, but whatever detrimental effect this may have had on my fingers, the acoustic more than made up for it, and both of my afternoon’s aims were soon fulfilled.

When I went outside during a break in the rain to see what sort of building I had been in for the last half hour or more, I decided that I could quite happily have lived without seeing the exterior. The bell turret and buttressing at the west end were attractive, but the large yew was far too close, and the lack of windows in the drearily rendered chancel did not improve its appearance on this gloomy day. It looked unnatural, somehow, like a face without eyes. The interior was endowed with an unfair proportion of the church’s beauty; an extreme imbalance I had never seen in a church before. But it didn’t detract from my experience: with only a few exceptions, I realise, it is church interiors rather than exteriors that have made the more lasting impression on me, and this interior was beautiful enough for them both.

BattisfordThe joy I found in Battisford church was just as unexpected as in Ringshall. I can no longer think of Battisford without remembering its lovely church, and my previously indifferent thoughts towards the village now possess an undeniable sparkle.

Total church count to the end of August: 99 + 1 former chapel

Header photo: Ringshall churchyard


2. Little Saxham church guide


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