north aisle screen: Baruch and Hosea (15th Century)
St Edmund, Southwold, Suffolk
I kept meaning to come back to Southwold - the church, I mean, for I found myself in the little town from time to time. I finally kept my promise to myself in the summer of 2017, tipping up on a beautiful sunny day only to find the church closed for extensive repairs. The days got shorter, and by the time the church reopened it was too late in the year for me to try again. In fact, it was not until late October 2018 that I made it back there, on another beautiful day.
Southwold is well-known to people who have never even been there I suppose, signifying one side of Suffolk to which Ipswich is perhaps the counter in the popular imagination. Some thirty years ago, the comedian Michael Palin made a film for television called East of Ipswich. It was a memoir of his childhood in the 1950s, and the basic comic premise behind the film was that in those days families would go on holiday to seaside resorts on the East Anglian coast. In the child Palin's case, it was Southwold.
The amusement came from the idea that people in those days would sit in deckchairs beside the grey north sea, or shelter from the drizzle in genteel teashops or the amusement arcade on the pier. In the Costa Brava package tour days of the 1980s, the quaintness of this image made it seem like something from a different world.
I remember Southwold in the 1980s. It was one of those agreeable little towns distant enough from anywhere bigger to maintain a life of its own. It still had its genteel tea shops, its dusty grocers, its quaint hotels and pubs all owned by Adnams, the old-fashioned and unfashionable local brewery. In the white heat of the Thatcherite cultural revolution, it seemed a place that would soon die on its feet quietly and peaceably.
And then, in the 1990s, the colour supplements discovered the East Anglian coast, and fell in love with it. The new fashions for antique-collecting, cooking with local produce and general country living, coupled with a snobbishness about how vulgar foreign package trips had become, conspired to make places like Southwold very sought after. Before Nigel Lawson's boom became a bust, the inflated house prices of London and the home counties gave people money to burn. And in their hoards, they came out of the big city to buy holiday homes in East Anglia.
Although they are often lumped together, the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk are very different to each other (Cambridgeshire and North Essex are also culturally part of East Anglia, but the North Essex coast is too close to London to have ever stopped being cheap and cheerful, and Cambridgeshire has no coastline). Norfolk's beaches are wide and sandy, with dunes and cliffs and rock pools to explore. Towns like Cromer and Hunstanton seem to have stepped out of the pages of the Ladybird Book of the Seaside. Tiny villages along the Norfolk coast have secret little beaches of their own.
Suffolk's coast is wilder. Beaches are mainly pebbles rather than sand, and the marshes stretch inland, cutting the coast off from the rest of the county. Unlike Norfolk, Suffolk has no coast road, and so the settlements on the coast are isolated from each other, stuck at the ends of narrow lanes which snake away from the A12 and peter out in the heathland above the sea. There are fewer of them too. It is still quicker to get from Walberswick to Southwold by water than by land. Because they are isolated from each other, they take on individual personalities and characteristics. Because they are isolated from the land, they become bastions of polite civilisation.
Between Felixstowe in the south, which no outsiders like (and consequently is the favourite of many Suffolk people) and Lowestoft in the north, which is basically an industrial town-on-sea (but which still has the county's best beaches - shhh, don't tell a soul) are half a dozen small towns that vie with each other for trendiness. Southwold is the biggest, and today it is also the most expensive place to live in all East Anglia. Genteel tea shops survive, but are increasingly shouldered by shops that specialise in ski-wear and Barbour jackets, delicatessens that stock radicchio and seventeen different kinds of olive, jewellery shops and kitchen gadget shops and antique furniture shops where prices are exquisitely painful. Worst of all, the homely, shabby, smoke-filled Sole Bay Inn under the lighthouse has been converted by the now-trendy Adnams Brewery into a chrome and glass filled wine bar.
If you see someone in Norfolk driving a truck, they are probably wearing a baseball cap and carrying a shotgun. in Suffolk, they've more likely just bought a Victorian pine dresser from an antique shop, and they're taking it back to Islington. Does this matter? The fishing industry was dying anyway. The tourist industry was also dying. If places like Southwold, Aldeburgh and Orford become outposts of north London, at least they will still provide jobs for local people. But the local people won't be able to afford to live there, of course. They'll be bussed in from Reydon, Leiston and Melton to provide services for people in holiday cottages which are the former homes they grew up in, but can no longer afford to buy. Does this seriously annoy me? Not as much as it does them, I'll bet.
So, lets go to Southwold, turning off the A12 at the great ship of Blythburgh church, the wide marshes of the River Blyth spreading aimlessly beyond the road. We climb and fall over ancient dunes, and then the road opens out into the flat marshes, the town spreads out beyond. We enter through Reydon (now actually bigger than Southwold, with houses at half the price) and over the bridge into the town of Southwold itself.
Having been so critical, I need to say here that Southwold is beautiful. It is quite the loveliest small town in all East Anglia. None of the half-timbered houses here that you find in places like Long Melford and Lavenham. Here, the town was completely destroyed by fire in the 17th century, and so we have fine 18th and 19th century municipal buildings. One of the legacies of the fire was the creation of wide open spaces just off of the high street, called greens. The best one of all is Gun Hill Green, overlooking the bay where the last major naval battle in British waters was fought. The cannons still point out to sea. The houses here are stunning, gobsmacking, jaw-droppingly wonderful. If I could afford to buy one of them as a weekend retreat, then you bet your life I would, and to hell with the people who moaned about it.
At the western end of the High Street is St Bartholomew's Green, and beyond it sits what is, for my money, Suffolk's single most impressive building. This is the great church of St Edmund, a vast edifice built all in one go in the second half of the 15th century. Only Lavenham can compete with it for scale and presence. Unlike the massing at St Peter and St Paul at Lavenham, St Edmund is defined by a long unbroken clerestory and aisles beneath - where St Peter and St Paul looks full of tension, ready to spring, St Edmund is languid and floating, a ship at ease.
Southwold church was just one of several vast late medieval rebuildings in this area. Across the river at Walberswick and a few miles upriver at Blythburgh the same thing happened. Blythburgh still survives, but Walberswick was derelicted to make a smaller church, as were Covehithe and Kessingland. Dunwich All Saints was lost to the sea. But Southwold was the biggest. Everything about it breathes massive permanence, from the solidity of the tower to the turreted porch, from the wide windows to the jaunty sanctus bell fleche.
Along the top of the aisles, grimacing faces look down. All of them are different. The pedestals atop the clerestory were intended for statues as at Blythburgh, but were probably never filled before the Reformation intervened. At the west end, above the great west window, you can see the vast inscription SAncT EDMUND ORA P: NOBIS ('Saint Edmund, pray for us') as bold a record of the mindset of late medieval East Anglian Catholicism as you'll find.
As at Lavenham and Long Melford, the interior has been extensively restored, but not in as heavy or blunt a manner as at those two churches. St Edmund has, it must be said, benefited from the attentions of German bombers who put out all the dull Victorian glass with blast damage during World War II. Here, the interior is vast, light and airy, and much of the restoration is 20th century work, not 19th century.
Perhaps because of this, more medieval interior features have survived. Unlike Long Melford, Southwold does not have surviving medieval glass (Mr Dowsing saw to that in 1644), but it does have what is the finest screen in the county.
It stretches right the way across the church, and is effectively three separate screens. There is a rood screen across the chancel arch, and parclose screens across the north and south chancel aisles. All retain their original dado figures. There are 36 of them, more than anywhere else in Suffolk. They have been restored, particularly in the central range, but are fascinating because they retain a lot of original gesso work, where plaster of Paris is applied to wood and allowed to dry. It is then carved to produce intricate details.
The central screen shows the eleven remaining disciples and St Paul. They are, from left to right, Philip, Bartholomew, James the Less, Thomas, Andrew, Peter, Paul, John, James, Simon, Jude and Matthew.
The south chancel chapel is light and open. The bosses above are said to represent Mary Tudor and her second husband Charles, Duke of Brandon. The screen here is painted with twelve Old Testament prophets, and Mortlock suggests that they are by a different hand to the images on the other two screens. Here on the south screen, some of the figures have surviving naming inscriptions, and Mortlock surmises that the complete sequence, from left to right, is Baruch, Hosea, Nahum, Jeremiah, Elias, Moses, David, Isaiah, Amos, Jonah and Ezekiel. Further, he observes that the subject is a usual one for the English Midlands, but rare for East Anglia, and that perhaps this part of the screen came from elsewhere. The same may be true of the other two parts - it is hard to think that the central screen was deliberately made too wide for the two arcades.
The north aisle chapel is reserved as the blessed sacrament chapel. The screen is harder to explore, because the northern side is curtailed by a large chest, but it features angels. Unlike the screens at Hitcham and Blundeston, which show angels holding instruments of the passion, these are the nine orders of angels, with Gabriel at their head, and flanked by angels holding symbols of the Trinity and the Eucharist. Mortlock says that they are so similar to the ones at Barton Turf in Norfolk that they may be by the same hand, in which case the central screen is also by that person. They are, from left to right, the Holy Trinity, Gabriel, Archangels, Powers, Dominions, Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Principalities, Virtues, Messengers, and finally the Eucharist. The Holy Trinity angel still has part of the original dedicatory inscription beneath his feet.
If part or all of this screen came from elsewhere, where did it come from? Possibly either Walberswick, Covehithe or Kessingland, the three downsized churches mentioned earlier. More excitingly, it might have come from one of the churches along this coast that was lost to the sea, perhaps neighbouring St Nicholas at Easton Bavents, or, just to the south, St Peter or St John the Baptist, the two Dunwich churches lost in the 16th and 17th centuries. We'll never know.
If you turn back at the screen and face westwards, your eyes are automatically drawn to the towering font cover, part of the extensive 1930s redecoration of the building. The clerestory is almost like a glass atrium intended to house it. Also the work of the period is the repainting and regilding of the 15th century pulpit (a lot of people blanch at this, but I think it is gorgeous) and the lectern. Beneath the font cover, the font is clearly one of the rare seven sacraments series, and part of the same group as Westhall, Blythburgh and Wenhaston. As at Blythburgh and Wenhaston, the panels are completely erased, probably in the 19th century, an act of barbarous vandalism. Given that Westhall is probably the best of all in the county, we must assume that three major medieval art treasures were wiped out. Astonishingly, vague shadows survive of the former reliefs; you can easily make out the Mass panel, facing east as at Westhall, the Penance panel and even what may be the Baptism of Christ.
Stepping through the screen, the reredos ahead is by Benedict Williamson and the glass above by Ninian Comper, familiar names in the Anglo-catholic pantheon, and evidence of an enthusiasm here that still survives in High Church form. There is a good engraved glass image of St Edmund to the north of the sanctuary, very much in the 1960s fashion, but curiously placed. On the wall of the chancel to the west of it, the high organ case is also painted and gilded enthusiastically.
As well as the screen, Southwold's other great medieval survival is the set of return stalls either side of the eastern face of the chancel screen. They have misericord seats, but the best feature are the handrests between the seats. On the south side, carvings include a man with a horn-shaped hat and sinners being drawn into the mouth of hell. On the north side are a man playing two pipes, a monkey preaching and a beaver biting its own genitals, a tale from the medieval bestiary, apparently.
What else is there to see? Well, the church is full of delights, and rewards further visits which always seem to turn up something previously unnoticed. St George rides full tilt at a dragon on an old chest at the west end of the north aisle. There is good 19th century glass in the porch and at the west end of the nave. A clock jack stands, axe and bell in hand, at the west end, a twin to the one upriver at Blythburgh. This one has a name, he's called Southwold Jack, and he is one of the symbols of the Adnams brewery.
As Mortlock notes, there are very few surviving memorials. This is partly because St Edmund was not in the patronage of a great landed family, but it may also suggest that they were largely removed at the time of the 19th century restoration, as at Brandon. One moving one is for the child of a vicar, and there are some interesting pre-Oxford Movement 19th century brasses in the south aisle.
High, high above all this, the roofs are models of Anglo-Catholic melodrama, the canopy of honour to the rood and the chancel ceilure in particular. But there is a warmth about it all that is missing from, say, Eye, which underwent a similar makeover. This church feels full of life, and not a museum piece at all. I remember attending evensong here late one winter Saturday afternoon, and it was magical. On another visit, I came on one of the first days of spring that was truly warm and bright, with not a cloud in the sky. As we drove into town, a cold fret off of the sea was condensing the steam of the brewery, sending it in swirls and skeins around the tower of St Edmund like low cloud. It was so atmospheric that I almost forgave them for what they have done to the Sole Bay Inn.