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St Leonard, Billingford
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We headed back to Billingford in May 2007. We'd been border-hopping, working our way down the Waveney Valley visiting churches in both counties. We'd found all the Suffolk ones open, and standing in Oakley churchyard, gazing out across the valley to Billingford windmill, the copse of trees that enclose St Leonard's graveyard on the hill above seemed most enticing. We headed down the hill and across the narrow bridge, and climbed again the track to the church.
The pretty church revealed itself from behind the trees. The tower is capped slightly above nave level. Was it ever finished? Simon Cotton tells me that there was a bequest in 1527 for its construction - perhaps it was only begun before the Anglican Reformation intervened. The nave and chancel are a pleasing combination of Dec and Perp, and those big red roofs glowed handsomely in the sunshine that hadn't been predicted by the forecasters.
I was optimistic, and not just because of the sunny day. I had been told that, now, all the churches in the Scole benefice are either open or have keyholder notices. I think this may be due in part to the Diocese of Norwich having appointed an Open Churches Officer who happen to live in Scole. His name was Ralph Barnett, and although he had now moved onto another challenge he seemed to have made a big difference.
The great majority of Norfolk churches are, in fact, open every day, but those that are kept locked tend to huddle together as if in mutual misery - the area south of Norwich, the Thetford area, and, until recently, this place. It has to be said that St Leonard still isn't actually open, but it is certainly a step in the right direction to be let in without suspicion.
We stepped into a delightful, rural, rustic interior, quite the loveliest of little churches. It feels smaller inside than out. The 19th century restoration seems to have been more of a reordering than a refurbishing. The medieval font, in the typical East Anglian design, leads to medieval bench ends with grotesque faces on the poppyheads. An elegant 17th century font cover is matched by a pulpit of the same age on the other side of the range of benches.
Some ancient glass is largely heraldic, although there are fragments of other late medieval themes set around them. A great curiosity is the wall painting on the south wall. It appears to show several different scenes, perhaps once part of a larger scheme. In the clearest, several figures stand in a doorway. Could it be one of the Works of Mercy?
The pretty screen is very small, just two double lights either side of the centre, but it is imposing in this tiny space. The corbels that hold up the roofs are old too. It is all very pleasing; no outstanding treasures, but a harmonious whole bringing together elements of the late Medieval and the early Modern, crystallised sensitively by the Victorians. It is delightful.
One of the young men who set out from this tiny parish for the killing fields of the First World War received the Victoria Cross - as, indeed, did a soldier from neighbouring Scole. Billingford's was a man called Flowerdew, a name remembered elsewhere in the church from an earlier generation.
Simon Knott, June 2005, updated May 2007
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