man in a cloak playing double shawm (15th Century)
All Saints, Chevington, Suffolk
Chevington is one of those fat, comfortable villages, of which west Suffolk has so many. The church is away from the centre at the end of a long lane which sets off in the direction of Ickworth House. This is not a well-known church, but in its way it is remarkable, a building that it is as beautiful as it is interesting.
All Saints is a large church, in a wide, trim graveyard, and rather fortress-like with its red brick battlements. The south side appears stark, though not unpleasing. The spirelets on the 15th century tower were later additions, intended to provide a 'view' from Ickworth House, as at Westley St Mary. The true age of the nave is obvious from the south doorway, which is a grand Norman affair. It was obviously considerably heightened in the late medieval period. Was an aisle intended, and even a clerestory? The chancel appears low and functional beside it.
You step into the surprise of whiteness and light. Everything is perfectly arranged, everything engages the eye and lifts the spirit. The use of whiteness and space creating a sense of the numinous. The chancel was reordered in the 1980s, and no punches were pulled in creating a fitting and purposeful space for late 20th century worship. It is reminiscent of many Catholic churches of the period in the way it has dispensed with clutter and created a sense of openness, and although this is a CofE parish church, the spirit of Vatican II has been warmly embraced. The whole piece feels devotional, and prayerful.
Ironically, this is one of the few Suffolk churches that was not thoroughly restored in the second half of the nineteenth century. This is due to an accident of history. A restoration here in the 1820s took away the roodloft stairs, as well as the remains of the rood screen, and was therefore probably structurally necessary. A major restoration then took place in 1910, at which time a heavy wooden screen was put across the chancel arch. This, thank goodness, has now been removed, and one of the most delightful chancel interiors in the county is revealed. The floor had been lowered at the end of the 17th century, and now a horseshoe of bricks was built up as a communion platform.
A new altar was put in place, along with a reservation pillar, affirming the Anglo-catholic tradition of this parish. The east window, an unusual date of of 1697, contributes to this sense of simplicity and lightness. The lightness of this space is enhanced by the openings either side of the chancel arch. Something similar exists a few miles off at Gedding. These would once have had altars in front of them, giving a view of the high altar. They date from the 13th century, so would have pre-dated any rood system. You can still find a piscina beside the southern one.
This quiet spirituality has a dramatic counterpoint, however. In common with several churches around here, the font shows signs of iconoclastic attack. The panel on the west side has had a great chunk taken out of it, probably with an axe, and crude graffiti in a 17th century hand has been scrawled in one of the shields. As the font carries no religious imagery, the iconoclasm must have been intended as an attack on the idea of infant baptism itself.
But the 17th Century has left its treasures as well. Under the chancel arch are two similar ledger stones: a winged hourglass and a cherub flutter over the inscriptions Sin shall be no more: Blessed are ye Dead which Die in the Lord. There is a quiet simplicity to them, fitting in this church, and the theme is continued by a sequence of simple memorials on the chancel walls: in 1901, Cyril Miles died aged twelve and a half from the effects of a gun accident in New Zealand. The following year, the Rector's son George White fell in the moment of victory while gallantly leading the storming party at Gumatti Fort in the Waziri Expedition. In 1915, his nephew John White, son of the next Rector, was killed at Gallipolli at the age of 24, three illustrations that the early years of the last century were dramatic in their effect upon a rural East Anglian parish.
The best is yet to come, for as you return westwards you will find the surprise of a range of 15th Century bench ends, depicting musicians and other figures, and it is hard not to think they may have been based on the late medieval inhabitants of this lovely village.