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font and font cover

font and font cover
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St Mary, Worlingworth, Suffolk

North Suffolk is a lattice of lanes, which meander as if they are so ancient they have forgotten their purpose. Worlingworth is a large village, and it comes as a surprise. The church of St Mary rears its 15th Century head above the pretty cottages, and you step through a gate into the tight, verdant graveyard, so tight that external shots are near impossible without a bit of trickery.

From the churchyard, the sheer scale of the Perpendicular windows is accentuated by the lack of a clerestory. You can see straight away that this is not going to be a dark church. The porch disguises the size of the church, being large in proportion. In fact, as there are no aisles, this is the second largest span of any church roof in Suffolk, after Laxfield.

As is usual in this part of the county, St Mary is open every day, and it is always a pleasure to step into the charming and interesting interior, with much to see. Simon Jenkins famously described the parish churches of England as one vast folk museum, and he might well have been thinking of Worlingworth in particular. Here, there is a real sense of the life of ordinary people in this parish over six centuries or more.

Best of all is quite the loveliest set of 17th century box pews in the county. Their doors are carved with the familiar arch, the wood burnished with the patina of age. The date 1630 can be seen at the front. Their sheer quality is perhaps a mark of burgeoning Laudian piety, but undoubtedly they serve their purpose so well that no later century has seen a reason to replace them. The effect of standing among them beneath that great roof is a little like being in a forest.

Some medieval fragments of glass survive in the nave windows. Those in the north side of the nave look so similar to some of the fragments incorporated into the east window at Yaxley that I wondered if they might have come from the same collection. On the south side are a series of familiar 15th Century Saints from the Norwich workshops, including St Apollonia, St Margaret, St Mary Magdalene and St Anne teaching the Blessed Virgin to read. Curiously, all are headless, as if the 16th Century iconolasts had felt it sufficient to, quite literally, deface them.

But perhaps the most interesting survivals here are more recent. In the south aisle, a huge picture shows the Worlingworth feast on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of George III in 1810. The church you are standing in can be seen to the left. If you look closely, you'll see an ox being roasted on a great spit. Turning to the north west, you can see the spit itself leaning up in the corner. In recent years the painting has been joined by another, depicting Worlingworth's Golden Jubilee feast for Elizabeth II in 2002. How's that for continuity?

In front of the spit is the famous Worlingworth fire engine, dating from the year of George III's accession, 1760. Once, these were a common sight, in churchyards or in the yards of stately homes. Mortlock says that this one was last used on Guy Fawkes Night, 1927. On it is the name of the makers, Newsham and Ragg of Cloth Fair, in the city of London. Sir John Betjeman spent the most creative years of his life living in a house in Cloth Fair, so I wonder if he knew of the Worlingworth fire engine?

The font cover is famous for its size and decoration. Only Ufford and Sudbury St Gregory surpass it, although there is something particularly lovely about its mannered early-18th Century restoration. The Victorians seemed to think that it had been brought here from Bury Abbey after the Reformation, but there is no evidence for this - in fact, surely the evidence points to exactly the opposite. It must have been designed for the space it now fills.

There are so many fascinating little details at Worlingworth. On the north wall, part of the St Christopher wall-painting survives. Prayers to St Christopher asked for him to intervene to preserve the supplicant from sudden death, an urgent priority in the years after the Black Death when so many had died unshriven. Once, almost every church had one of these. The painting was usually opposite the main entrance, so parishioners could pause in the open doorway to offer their prayers before going about their daily business. At Worlingworth the Saint has gone, but you can still see the fish, going about their business around his feet.


The chancel is made grand with memorials, several to the Major and then Henniker family of Thornham Hall, including one to the Dowager Duchess of Chandos, a Major daughter, depicting Faith and Hope. The royal arms consist of nothing other than the charged shield, with no supporters, crest or motto, of George III. There are some charming and poignant ledger stones around the font. The grandly named William Nelson Buckle, second son of the Rev. Charles Buckle, died on the 6th of August 1787, aged just five months, Relieved from Woe, Disease and anxious Care, with all those Passions which perplex us here... Next to him, James Barker to his dearest wyfe Susanna doth this last office of love, for she was Religious, Chaste, Discreet, Loveing... underneath, added almost as an afterthought, he observes that Her rest gives me a rest-lesse life, because she was a vertuous wyfe. But yet I rest in hope to see that Daye of Christ, and then see thee.

A more recent century has given brass plaque memorials to two men of the French family, rich patrons of this parish, who were killed in action during the First World War. Reverend Frederic French was the Rector of this church, and he lost a son and a grandson, less than a fortnight apart. Noel Lee French, the only son of the Rector's oldest son, Edward, who might one day have been heir to the French family fortunes, was killed in Egypt on the 27th of February 1915. As if this was not unbearable enough, the Reverend French's youngest son, William Cotton French, was killed near Neuve Chapelle thirteen days later, on the 12th of March. The plaques are set apart in the chancel, a large medieval consecration cross keeping one of them company. Other French memorials on the south side of the chancel include one to another son of the Rector, Hugh Davis Day French, a Conservator of Forests for the Indian Forestry Service, who died in Lucknow in 1903, and another to his brother Thomas Harvey French, who also died in India five years later.

One quiet medieval survival might be easily missed. This is the original dedicatory inscription on the font. It asks us to help ease the passage through Purgatory of Nicholas Moni, a request that may have gone unanswered in these last 450 years or so, but which has survived as he intended. It begins Orate pro Anima..., 'Pray for the Soul of...'

William Godbold gave the almsbox in 1622, and his inscription also survives.
Date: 2017-10-01 17:04:08



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