For our second outing of the year, we visited a local hidden gem, by recommendation from local historian David Burnett, and what a glorious event it was. As David says in his splendid book ‘Chilton, the first three thousand years' (and highly recommended by the way):
At first sight there is nothing of any great note about St Mary's, apart from its splendid brick tower. It is a humble building in comparison to the glory of the nearby cloth churches at Lavenham and Long Melford, yet the Church Monuments Society describes it ‘as one of Suffolk's best kept secrets', mainly because ‘this simple country church shelters elaborate medieval and Stuart tombs'. Who are we to disagree!
As we saw for ourselves, from the north and East St Mary's appears to sit in rural isolation, as indeed it genuinely did for centuries, but sadly this is an illusion - the late 20th C expansion of Sudbury led to much of the land round the church being zoned for the nearby industrial estate.
Peter de Chilton is the earliest recorded priest, in 1279, but David told us there was a church on the site at the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, probably founded in the 9th century, in the late Saxon period. St Mary's has been extensively reconstructed over the centuries, particularly in the late 15th century, with remodeling of the nave and chancel, and the adding of the (Robert) Crane chapel between about 1450 and 1500. As David said:
Robert's chantry chapel must have been an attractive and imposing structure when first built; the exterior brickwork had diaper work (decorative patterns to enliven plain surfaces) in over-fired bricks, with large tracery windows at each end and two attractive diagonal buttresses supporting the corners. Time and major alterations have drastically altered the appearance of the chapel, though its internal roof with carver timbers is largely intact. The west window was bricked up in the late 1620s to make space for Sir Robert Crane's wall monument inside (confusingly there were five Robert Cranes one after the other), with the brick infill being crudely done and poorly bonded with the surrounding stonework. There is also a later brick buttress propping up the north wall, perhaps added when the chapel became a vestry and an external doorway inserted (thereby weakening the wall which then needed extra support).
The most obvious external feature of the church is the impressive brick tower dating from the 16th century, with a massive stair turret on the south side providing additional support. David advised that the upper tower windows are an anomaly, being in the 14th century Decorated (Gothic) Style and thought to have been the work of Sudbury stonemason Edward Keogh, who worked on the church during the Victorian restoration. Bricks for the tower were made close by, as they were hard to transport due to their weight, and the sheer number required would, it is believed, have taken years to make. They would have been made in the summer months and laid the following year, after the frosts, to ensure the lime mortar set properly; the tower would therefore have been built in stages year on year.
The church was once full of heraldic stained glass, with figures and coats or arms of various Carbonels, Butlers and Cranes. This was according to William Hervey, Clarenceaux King of Arms [an officer of arms at the College of Arms (the official heraldic authority for Great Britain and much of the Commonwealth)] in his ‘Visitations of Suffolk' in 1561. As David pointed out to us, just two wonderful examples of 15th century stained glass have survived, high up In the east window, perhaps putting them beyond the reach of the reformer's attentions.
One shows the devil, a bright blue monster with horns, baring his teeth at St Michael, who is bestriding him with raised sword. According to Michael Archer, a stained glass restoration expert, the devil is ‘farting to emphasize his rude, noxious and grotesque character, and has a devil face on his elbow to make him look even more terrifying'. The other is an image of St Appollonia, an elderly deaconess and one of a group of virgin martyrs who suffered in Alexandria during a local uprising against the Christians prior to the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius. According to legend, her torture included having all her teeth violently pulled out or shattered, which doesn't bear thinking about, and for this reason she is now regarded as the patroness of dentistry and those suffering from toothache. The image depicted shows her as a somewhat younger maiden, recognisable by her ‘attribute' (or symbol), which comprises a large pair of pincers held aloft, with a tooth complete with roots in its jaws.
As everyone could clearly see, the two Crane table tombs are very obviously no longer in their original position which would be in the centre of the chapel. They were roughly shoehorned beneath one of the two arches dividing the chapel from the chancel, having been moved as part of the Victorian restoration work, sadly leading to the loss of a canopy above the Robert and Anne effigies. It was also evident that graffiti ‘artists' have left their mark, the earliest being in 1777, as an incised mark on Robert's torso testifies.
There were a number of other alterations over the years, the latest being a new porch added by the Rev. John Milner in 1930, in memory of his son who died at Archangel in 1919; at last parishioners had a place to their leave coats and muddy boots (reflecting the long walk across fields to get to the church).
St Mary's is still without electricity and relies on a hand cranked organ and oil lamps, which add considerably to the charm of this most atmospheric little church. Without electricity it has no heating, so must be rather cold over the winter months, but somehow the church is remarkably dry, with absolutely no hint of dampness anywhere.
Members thoroughly enjoyed their visit to this extraordinary church, but the outing was just half completed as we then trooped five or six hundred yards across fields to see Chilton Hall, and what a wow that was. Most of us had never seen the hall before, or even pictures, so the visage presented when we turned the final corner was a simply amazing view of a glorious old manor house completely surrounded on all four sides by a lovely moat, complete with moored rowing boat and large fish happily broaching the surface of the moat from time to time. With reference to the hall's List Entry in Historic England (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1036689):
Grade II* listed Chilton Hall sits completely surrounded by a deep moat occupying a similar but slightly different line to that shown on 1597 map. The Hall was built by Robert Crane, between 1550 and 1560, on the site of an earlier medieval house; the major part was possibly destroyed by fire circa 1800, leaving the east wing standing today. This is constructed of red brick, two storeys high with attics and cellars. The south gable has a moulded brick parapet with ornate detail added in the 1920s. The south-west corner has an octagonal buttress and the south-east corner an embattled turret, which was also embellished in the 1920s. A door in the east front is reached by a brick and timber footbridge over the moat. In the late C18 the west front was given a Georgian façade, with one and two light double-hung sash windows. A late C20 conservatory room has been added on this front.
The gardens cover approximately 2ha lying predominantly to the south and west of the Hall. Between the moat and the drive to the east is a simple lawn with clipped box and mature trees. The garden to the west and south of the Hall within the moat has a flagstone terrace and lawns planted with mature trees. Across the brick moat bridge to the south is a woodland garden planted with mixed evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs, together with the remains of walks lined with clipped evergreens. A sunken rose garden of red brick lies in this southern tip of the site, entered through a stone arch removed from the Parliament buildings before Charles Barry remodelled them. Two large pools between the rose garden and the south wall of the kitchen garden appear on the 1597 map and are of at least C16 origin, probably medieval fishponds. Adjacent to the southern tip of the eastern pond is a flint-edged flower bed, formerly a lily pond created in the 1930s, backed to the south by a curved stone wall and stone seat.
Members greatly enjoyed their visit to view the hall, albeit from a distance, and also the walk back across the fields to St Mary's, which provided great views of the church not previously seen. David was roundly applauded for making it possible for us to visit the church and to catch sight of the hall.
It is with great memories of two truly wonderful places that I sign off until our next event.
This will be on Wednesday 20th September, at 7.30 p.m. in the Parish Room, Church Road Little Waldingfield, and will be a presentation by Sarah Doig, local writer, researcher and brilliant speaker on "The A to Z of Curious Suffolk".
As described by Amazon: The book romps through Suffolk's rolling countryside and along its shingled coastline, unearthing the curious along the way. Sandwiched between ecclesiastical penances handed to adulterers and fornicators, and the odd porcelain incendiary bombs commemorating the Zeppelin raids, is an alphabetical cornucopia of strange, spooky and mysterious facts about the county.
It's going to be great, so please make a note in your diary.