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Christ in the house of Martha and Mary at Bethany (William Wailes, 1860s) | by Simon Knott
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Christ in the house of Martha and Mary at Bethany (William Wailes, 1860s)

All Saints, Stuston, Suffolk

 

Despite its proximity to the A140, this is a secret, silent place. The church is away from the village, set in woodland up a narrow lane which peters out into undergrowth on the edge of the churchyard. In summer, the close-flanked trees in the graveyard absorb all sound, or, at least, most of it.

 

The tower is probably early Norman at the base with a later octagonal belfry, so presumably 14th century. The body of the church appears a bit later, but in any case it is pretty well Victorianised. An old photo inside shows it pre-restoration, the east wall supported by tie-bars, a reminder of the parlous state many country churches were in before the 19th Century came along and saved them. There are two dated slabs, one on the south side with an ornate monogram for 1861, and a memorial stone to Osmund Clarke dated 1865 on the north side. So what was more a reconstruction than a restoration happened here in the 1860s, when exciting things were happening across the main road at Brome. The populations of rural East Anglian parishes reached their peak in the middle of the 19th century, and have been slowly falling away since, but it is hard to imagine that Stuston was ever a particularly busy place, even in those days. Half a mile or so north of the churchyard, the River Waveney forms the northern boundary of the parish, touching Norfolk and the town of Diss, but you would not know even today that you were so close to somewhere so urban.

 

You step into a typically simple, rustic, narrow nave which opens out into the east through a chancel arch with red, black and yellow banding, and a large north transept and windows picked out the same way. Back in 1961, Pevsner was rather sniffy about the interior, considering it 'truly terrible'. But Victorian architecture looked rather different half a century ago, and this interior is one of the best examples of a quality 19th Century restoration in the county. There is a chance that the architect here was the great Thomas Jekyll, who was working for Lord Kerrison across the Norwich road at Brome in the 1860s.

 

There is a little image niche in the eastern splay of a window, with its associated piscina. A nave altar was here once, focus of some long-forgotten devotion. The 19th Century glass was mostly paid for by the Clarke family. The east window is the work of Heaton, Butler and Bayne, that on the south side of the nave by William Wailes. The best window in the church is also in the nave, by J & J King and depicting the Flight into Egypt and the Presentation in the Temple with delicious Art Nouveau lettering. The date in the window, 1874, seems impossibly early for the style, but in fact, as James Bettley notes in the revised Pevsner the window was only installed in 1912.

 

Sir John Castleton, who died in 1704, has an opulent memorial in the chancel. Busts of him and his wife stand on a shelf in front of a marble slab depicting the three of their children who died before them in profile portraits, as if they were miniatures from the lockets of giants. The piece is wholly secular, as if the family photographs were being shown off.

 

The war memorial for this tiny parish lists the seven boys who were killed in the First World War, while another memorial beside it records the names of those who went to fight, and came back. When Arthur Mee came this way in the 1940s, he found a frame beneath the memorials containing faded poppies brought back from Flanders by the Rector. The memorials remain, but the poppies have long since gone of course.

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Taken on August 29, 2017