Saturday, 22 March 2014

Suffolk Churches: Sheep, fornication and Viking passion...

Silly Suffolk they call it – and who am I to contradict them? Obviously no idea who ‘them’ is, but I was brought up as a polite middle class boy and it was instilled in to me that it is rude to contradict anyone. Not really on. Not British. Not done. Indeed, had the German army actually made it over the channel in 1940, demanding allegiance to the thousand year Reich and insisting on coffee at breakfast, rumour has it that members of my family were ready to repel them with hard stares, bristling facial hair and mumbled expression of “not on, dear chap”. Where was I? Ah yes, silly Suffolk.
Well the Suffolk survey has begun. The border was crossed and no resistance was met. You’ve seen the website, admired the cheap graphics and, I hope, taken a good long hard look at the amazing graffiti. And it really is amazing. Suffolk has some amazing churches. Some really fantastic medieval monuments to money, power and sheep. Churches such as Long Melford and Lavenham, built with the profits from the wool trade, soar above the landscape. Delicate lace-like tracery mingled with the hard brutality of Barnack stone. The slabs of dark grey roof lead flattening the golden walls that vault towards the sky, carried by stone angels, anchoring them and squashing them back on to the earth. They are, in short, pretty darned good. Quite nice. Bit special.

However, for me the real gems of Suffolk – silly Suffolk – are not the great stone cathedrals of Long Melford, Bury and Lavenham. Indeed, despite their grandeur and history, they really leave me a little cold. They are too rich, too well maintained, too restored. They have a beauty, but it is a remote and detached beauty. It is impersonal, exquisite and largely barren of emotion. Whilst Simon Jenkins might get unnaturally excited viewing their soaring pinnacles and fornication (look it up), I find them dead and empty monuments. Like an empty display case in the British museum. The right thing, in the right place - but with nothing inside to engage the emotions or interest. Sorry Simon.
For me the real gems of Silly Suffolk are the small out of the way churches. Churches rarely visited by the coach parties and guidebook followers. They are the churches that have, despite plague, flood, famine, fire and the idiosyncrasies of Victorian clergy, survived virtually un-touched. They are the churches where medieval hands carved deep into medieval stone, leaving us a record of a past that never made it to the manuscript bestsellers of the day. Churches like Troston, where demons stalk the chancel arch, Parham, where a fleet of medieval ships continue in their centuries long voyage, and Weybread, where a medieval knight still battles an unseen dragon across the stonework.  They are the churches that never attract much attention, never make the front pages (unless the vicar has been particularly inventive), and have just remained. They have just remained as they are. Cared for by a few dozen local people, proud of their own little medieval gem, and continued to exist. And they are all out there waiting for us to rediscover them. Hundreds of secret time machines to the past.
And here’s the thing. Despite the fact that Suffolk and Norfolk are, as it were, joined at the hip (or the Waveney if you must), there is a difference in both the churches and the graffiti within them. It isn’t a massive difference. It isn’t even obvious. But there is a difference. Different patterns of distribution, different uses of symbols, different subject matter. Take windmills for example. Suffolk churches appear to have a good few graffiti windmills, whilst Norfolk has almost none. The same is true of astrological symbols. Suffolk appears to have a wealth of them, but few have been found in Norfolk churches. That said, if you want graffiti curses and the ‘evil eye’ come to Norfolk – the dark sibling…
As the surveys progress in both counties I am sure that these similarities and differences will become more apparent. We are the same – but different. Neither one better than the other, but with strange and intriguing local oddities. Rather says it all about East Anglia I feel. So is it really Silly Suffolk? Well I’ve never thought of it as so. When the Danes first landed here, intent on pillage and conquest (but with an option on rape should the opportunity present itself), they saw it as a blessed place. A place of lush greenery and wealth. A place that, in the end, they adopted as their own.  Where dynasties and families grew alongside each other, that resulted, eventually, in the building of our many hundreds of medieval churches. Those first Danish invaders, landing their longships on the golden sands of our East Anglian beaches, called it the Summer Country. It would be rude to contradict…



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