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St Mary, Worstead
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As a measure of how civilised East Anglia is, it is a simple and cheap matter to explore the region by train and bicycle. There is a flat rate of nine pounds a day for unlimited travel between stations in Suffolk, Norfolk and East Cambridgeshire. You can take a bike on any train for a pound, although in reality conductors rarely charge for this service. This practice dates back to pre-privatisation days, and Anglia Railways and One Trains have continued to honour it, for which I am mightily grateful. The Suffolk and Norfolk Churches sites would not be so extensive without it.
I left Ipswich at twenty to eight. It was a thinly bright April morning, the sun without power beyond dazzling through the haze in the eastern sky. I was glad of my jacket, but also glad I had sun glasses with me - it was going to be a perfect day for a bike ride.
As the train plodded through Ipswich's monotonous northern suburbs, I examined the ordnance survey map. I flicked through Pevsner and Mortlock, as industrial units gave way to green fields, copses and the winding Gipping. Restless, I gazed out the window. A swan awoke on a lake near Needham Market, stretching itself and beating its wings into life. Crows raided a skip on rubble near the Stowmarket paint factory. Then we were really in the countryside, rushing headlong through the sleepy fields beyond Haughley and Mendelsham. Near Finningham, a large female deer cowered silently in the hedge, not ten metres from the track. A few minutes later, and a wise old hare huddled in a furrow, flat-eared, patient.
The train pulled into the gathering surprise of Norwich. I hauled my bike a couple of platforms over to the Sheringham line. Other people out for the day got on, including a couple dressed in vintage railway costumes. I assumed they were bound for the steam line at Sheringham. Again, the monotony of another city's suburbs petered out into agricultural business, this time in bright sunshine, and so it was that just after nine o'clock we arrived at Worstead station. I was the only person to get off. "See you later" called the conductor cheerily as I rode off of the platform into the lane, and of course he was right. There is only one train that shuttles back and forth along this line all day, and he was in charge of it.
I cycled from the station up into the village, a distance of about two miles. I didn't pass anyone, and here in the large village there was nobody about, just a fat cat lazily rolling in the village square. The sun was cutting the haze, the sky wide and blue. It was like being in France.
The church is absolutely enormous, and hemmed in a tight little graveyard. My resolution to take more distant shots went right out the window. Like Salle, and Southwold in Suffolk, St Mary was all built in one go, pretty much. This happened in the late 14th century. As at Salle, it is reflective of a large number of bequests from different people over a short period rather than anyone fabulously rich doing it on their own, and the money, of course, came from wool. Worstead is still the name of a fabric today.
I said it was pretty much built at one go, but there was still plenty of money about in the 15th century to raise the clerestory and install a hammerbeam roof. This seems to have been such an ambitious project that flying buttresses had to be installed on top of the aisles to hold the top of the nave up, an expedient measure that has left the building both interesting and beautiful.
Inside, I feared another Happisburgh, but it was gorgeous. Stepping out of the sunlight into the slight chill of a vast open space, I wandered around feasting on this stunningly lovely building.
As regular users of the sites will know, I don't always warm to big churches, but St Mary is so pretty inside that it is hard not to love it. This is partly helped by the removal of all pews and benches from the aisle. Those that remain in the body of the church are lovely 18th century box pews, quite out of keeping with the medieval nature of the rest of the building, but quirky and oddly delightful. The great tower arch is elegant, and is thrown into relief by the towering font cover. The ringing gallery under the tower is dated 1501, and is reminiscent of the one at Cawston. The tower screen below it takes the breath away, and you find yourself looking around to see where it could have come from. In fact, it is almost certainly a work of the Victorians, but it is pretty well perfect. The paintings in the dado are apparently copies of windows by Sir Joshua Reynolds at New College, Oxford.
Worstead is rightly famous for its screen, but this is more because of its height, elegance and completeness than it is its authenticity. The figures on the dado have been repainted so recklessly that it is rather hard to see who some of them were ever meant to be. As at Woolpit in Suffolk, the Victorians appear to have repainted them more with an eye to enthusiasm than accuracy. I stood there, fantasising, making up stories, until, alongside familiar figures like St Peter, St James and St Matthew, I had identified St Lassitude, the patron Saint of a quiet night in, depicted reading his book. Other Saints, identified by their symbols, include St Quirinus with his hamster, and St Obligamus with his golden pineapple. Or so it seemed to me.
Not much less odd are the two figures on the extreme right. The Victorians do not appear to have repainted them. The first shows a man holding three nails, and is probably St William of Norwich, more familiar from the screen at Loddon. The second shows a figure crucified, arms tied to the spans. This may be the infamous Uncumber, the bearded lady of early medieval mythology - she grew a beard to fend off unwanted suitors, although you can't help thinking there'd be a niche market for that kind of thing somewhere on the internet. Later, she was crucified, probably upside down. This figure is probably a woman, so nothing seems to fit better, although she isn't bearded as far as I could see. Situated on the extreme right, she is reflected by a crucified Christ as the Man of Sorrows on the extreme left.
Across the top rail, a dedicatory inscription winds, mysterious and beautiful.
Either side of the chancel arch and screen, the two aisle chapels are both in use, which is unusual and lovely. Both have small screens, each with just four figures. That on the north side is particularly lovely, and is where the blessed sacrament is reserved. The four figures are St Peter, St Bartholomew, St John the Baptist and St John the Divine. At least three of these are also on the rood screen, suggesting that either the images there are wholly Victorian, or these aisle screens came originally from elsewhere.
The south aisle chapel is simpler - it is here you enter the church through the priest door. The screen features another St Bartholomew, along with St Lawrence, St Philip and a Bishop.
St Mary is a building to wander around in, a place to enjoy for its great beauty rather than to interrogate for its medieval authenticity. As you turn corners, vistas open up; the view from the font to the south door, for example, or that back to the west from the chancel. All perfect, all stunning. The high church nature of the modern furnishings chimes perfectly with these architectural treats. And there are other significant medieval survivals - a fine brass of a Catholic priest, scraps of wall painting beside the chancel arch, and so on.
As at other churches in this benefice, the war memorial is complemented by photographs of all those commemorated. What a splendid idea, and what a labour of love. Also in common with other churches around here, St Mary has a second hand bookstall. As I explored the Worstead area, I found myself buying more and more of them, until by the time I got back to Ipswich station that evening, my rucksack was laden down with a dozen or more.
Simon Knott, April 2005
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