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All Saints, Alburgh
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Alburgh is not a place I have ever thought of often. But now, in the crisp air, I stood in the graveyard and looked across the country at the scattered village and its setting. Beyond the houses was the ancient field pattern, the beech trees on the ridge and the rooks wheeling above them. I thought of a song of the early eighties, Pete Wylie's Story of the Blues, and his declaiming, towards the end, the words of Kerouac's Sal Paradise: the city intellectuals of the world are divorced from the folk-body blood of the land, and are just rootless fools. I had been born in a place like this, tiny and remote in the Cambridgeshire fens, a world away from now in the 1960s. But we moved to Cambridge when I was two, and I had lived in urban areas ever since. I was a city intellectual, and I stood now and looked around at the land, a rootless fool.
Everybody seems to love Brighton, and they can't understand it when I say that I don't, but I was too miserable there. I don't mind if I never go back. Brighton, for me, will be forever associated with debt, and with the transience of being a student. There has never been a time in my life, before or since, when I have been so poor. And then, extraordinarily, a brief, doomed relationship, a love affair, became the one vivid thing, a brief, sweet memory of my year in that brash town.
She came from Alburgh, and at first I thought she meant Aldburgh in Suffolk, and she said it again, Ar-brer, and showed me on a map. How narrow was the single bed we shared, how intense those brief few weeks. And she loved me more than I could possibly have loved her, for I had already met the woman who would become my wife. And so it was messy, and then it ended. But Alburgh still existed, of course, and so coming here I remembered.
The church and the school survived, but only because this was now a commuter village. Every morning, hundreds and hundreds of white-collar workers left their identical modern houses and piled up the A10 to Cambridge. I knew nobody there anymore - my grandmother was dead, and all my relatives had left, or were lying under the frozen turf of the little cemetery. It made me sad. I thought that perhaps this was what growing old was, seeing change and resenting it. I was entering my mid-forties, which seemed like some kind of rubicon, although of course none of us can ever go back. And so I liked Alburgh because it appeased my sense of loss, as if something might survive after all.
The west front must have been rather grand once, with massive niches flanking the window, but the canopies of the niches have gone, either vandalised by protestants or simply worn away by the passing of the centuries. The south porch seems bigger than it is, because the nave is not large; a 1463 bequest for the porch by the Wright family is recorded, but it now looks all of its Victorian restoration.
And so, I am afraid, does the inside of the church, a big 19th century barn with a lot of the anonymity you'd expect of this date. And yet, there are neat, local, rustic touches; surprisingly, the roof is old, and it spreads impressively across the wide, aisleless nave. A beautiful gilded rood screen dado is almost defiant in the face of all the restoration. There are pretty little gilded gesso Saints in niches on the buttresses along the front, but I think the colour is wholly modern.
Echoing it, perhaps inspired by it, insipid apostles flank the altar and its simple reredos, a William Morris-style hanging. Turning back, the tower arch lifts tall and dreamily, light from the west window flooding the reset font below, the space becoming an echo of the wide chancel arch at the other end of the great roof. There's a pleasing harmony to the whole piece, and I began to see what the Victorians were getting at.
Simon Knott, March 2006
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