Blessed Virgin and child flanked by St Francis and St Dominic (20th Century) in 15th Century image niches
St Mary, Huntingfield, Suffolk
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It was the first day of the 2019 Easter holidays, and what better way to spend a Monday morning than heading off for a church-exploring bike ride rather than going to work? I caught the train up to Halesworth, and then cycled off out into the hills. The villages and their pretty parish churches come thick and fast around here, and almost all of them are open to pilgrims and strangers daily. There is a good mixture too, round towers, square towers, hardly-any-left towers, reed-thatched roofs, beflinted-porches, and all manner of treasures inside. A fair number of East Anglia's best small churches are in this area. But even given this variety, there is nowhere else in East Anglia quite like Huntingfield church.
This is one of Suffolk's more obscure villages, but the Huntingfield name was that of one of the county's most significant families. Huntingfield is the nearest village to the great pile of Heveningham Hall, with one of the largest Georgian frontages in England. It was rebuilt by the Huntingfields in the 18th Century. Standing on the road and looking across the sheep-scattered lawns to the great building, it is easy to imagine the gulf between the landed gentry and their poor workers in those days. Sandwiched between the traumas of the 17th Century and the energy of the 19th Century, it was the landowners of the 18th Century who had every reason to think that their world was permanent and unchanging, that it would always be as they knew it. Farming sheep, collecting art, patronising musicians, tinkering with primitive science and technology, dispensing benevolent largesse to the poor on their estate - it is a world that is at once attractive and appalling. For them, the Church of England was both an arm of the state dispensing laws, justice and charity, and the setting for the weekly liturgical reinforcement of the puritan-refracted Elizabethan settlement.
But the Industrial Revolution would bring it all to an end, and in more ways than one. In the second half of the latter century, many parish churches were drawn by the excitement of the age into major reconstructions and revisions. Their impulse came from Oxford, where the Tractarians had a vision of the Church of England as a national Church, no longer a protestant sect but restored to the catholicity of its roots, and from Cambridge, where the ecclesiologists decided what a building of the national Church should properly look like. As the young men graduated and were presented to parishes across the country, their ideas spread like wildfire. They had come from their univserities to churches fitted out for protestant worship, with whitewashed walls and box pews focused on the high pulpit, the rarely-used altar gathering dust in the chancel or even discarded. Preaching houses rather than sacramental spaces, and any surviving traces of the building's medieval life survived, perhaps, simply because they were not understood.
Essentially, what happened in England between about 1830 and 1870 was a cultural revolution, a new wave of ideas and the reaction to them. The litugical changes proposed by the Oxford Movement were, at first, objectionable, and then merely controversial. But gradually they seeped into the mainstream, until by about 1890 they had become as natural as the air we breathe. Galvanised by the ferment of ideas and the possibilities of the industrial age, these young men convinced their rich patrons, revolutionised their buildings, and in so doing altered their parishes forever. They often looked to London stars like Scott and Butterfield, or local plodders like Phipson, or else mavericks like Salvin. The demands of the new liturgical arrangements, coupled with a renewed sense of the need to glorify God, led them into what was often a rebuilding rather than a restoration.
Internal decorations were, perhaps, the bespoke work of the architect, Witness Phipson's meticulous attention to detail at St Mary le Tower, Ipswich. Other restorers relied on the big picture, a vision that encompassed walls and floors, but left the fittings to others. By the centenary of the movement in the 1930s, one Anglican clergyman could observe "It is as if the Reformation had never happened". Well, not quite. And now, the pendulum has swung the other way, leaving the ritualists high and dry. But the evidence of the energy of those days survives, especially at Huntingfield, where William Holland, the vicar, drove the Oxford Movement through the heart of the parish, like a motorway through a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The Hollands were the patrons of the living, which gave them the authority and the money to reimagine Huntingfield church on a grand scale. Oxford and Cambridge universites were exclusively for men, of course, but it so happened that William Holland had an energetic and visionary wife. Between 1859 and 1866, Mrs Mildred Holland planned, designed and executed the most elaborate redecoration of a church this county had seen since the Reformation. For seven years, she lay on her back at the top of scaffolding, first in the chancel (angels) and then in the nave (saints on the ceilure, fine angels on the beam ends), gilding, lettering and painting this most glorious of small church roofs. Her husband kept a journal throughout this period, and there is no suggestion that she had any assistance, beyond that of workmen to raise the scaffolding, and a Mr E.L. Blackburne FSA, who was, apparently, an 'authority on medieval decoration'. J.P. St Aubyn was responsible for the structural restoration of this largely 15th century building, and it is very restrained and merciful. But you come here to see the painted roofs, which are perfectly splendid. You can activate the floodlighting with a pound coin in a box at the west end of the north aisle, and the illuminated work is breath-taking.
What else is there to see? Some 15th Century window borders in the east window of the south aisle depict hares and a little dog with a bell around his neck. And what is that at the bottom, a dragon, or a winged lion? Evidence of the church's continued High Church tradition into the 20th Century is in statues of the Blessed Virgin and child flanked by St Francis and St Dominic in a triple image niche set in a pillar of the north arcade. Was it originally for a rood group, perhaps above an altar? Any church is a palimpsest, history written and rewritten over its skin as a touchstone to changing liturgical imperatives and the long generations of its people. Across this canvas the enthusiasms and Huntingfield in Mildred Holland's time are writ large, and will last long.
And there is something else, and a great curiosity. Ann Owen, the Vicar's wife in the neighbouring parish of Heveningham, is also said to have been responsible for 19th Century work in the church there, this time in the form of stained glass. Visiting Heveningham, I am afraid it is difficult for me to find this convincing, although of course one likes to think it was so, and that the two women artists were friends, or possibly even rivals. But Mildred's story has been brilliantly captured in a recent novel, The Huntingfield Paintress by Pamela Holmes. Pamela tells me that 'it was a comment of yours about Mildred and Ann Owen which sparked my determination to write my first novel' which is very kind of her, although I am sure it was easy to be inspired when one stands here surrounded by Mildred Holland's work.
You might thnk that the towering font cover is also by her, but in fact it is her memorial, placed here by her husband, as is the art nouveau lectern. It is as if her art was a catalyst, inspiring others to acts of beauty. She died in the 1870s, predeceasing her husband by twenty years. They are both now buried by the churchyard gate. How fitting, that they should lie in the graveyard of the church they loved so much, and to which they gave so much of their time, energy and money.