It is several weeks since I walked back to Bury St Edmunds from Stradishall- it seems a whole season away as then it was one of those late summer days rich in colour- and now there is steady drizzle. I have delayed writing due to activity to do with water meadows in Bury St Edmunds- for which I am also writing a sister blog: Wild Meadows
The bus to Haverhill stops by the lane to Stradishall, and it was no distance before I found the church. Sadly it was locked, but there were some splendid gargoyles dealing with the drains and also embedded into the wall at the West end. They reminded me of the current milieu in the House of Commons- things don’t seem to change.
I walked along a footpath towards Denston, passing by brambles in the hedge. The berries were at various stages of ripeness, reminding me of an illustration in the Bury Herbal
This wonderful book is a product of the Benedictine Abbey from around 1100- although the text was copied from existing texts it is likely the illustrations were drawn from life, and the text added afterwards. I am not sure what physicianly properties this plant was thought to possess and wish I could understand the text.
Coming into Denston I came across the unlikely scene of a woman wrestling with a large flag of the Isle of Man. By good fortune this turned out to be the Churchwarden, Fiona Evans, who was most willing to show me around the church. The first thing which struck me as we approached was its size. Denston is a tiny village, yet the church was enormous. A population of 120 was recorded on 2005. This has declined over the past 200 years, probably due to a change in farming methods and general migration to towns and cities:
Much has been written about Denston church already- there is so much interesting detail it is hard to know where to start. Whilst a church existed here in the 12th Century the main building was built in the latter part of the 15th Century, incorporating a “College” “To celebrate the divine offices day by day … for the souls of John Denston and Katherine Clopton his wife.. and of their heirs.. and for the souls of all the faithful departed.” The chantry priests survived the dissolution of the monasteries until Edward VI’s reign. Two beautiful brasses lay on the floor of the nave. I noticed that the woman’s cloak was decorated with scallop shells down the left border. A Pilgrim! We speculated as to whether the parts of the work left in bare stone had once been coloured in some way? And what is that man doing with another man wrapped around his head??
The most unusual, probably unique, feature of the church was the beautiful Double Cadaver Tomb. Professor Julian Luxford published a paper on this for the Journal of the Richard III Society in 2016 where he writes enthusiastically on the subject. He states that 175 cadaver tombs are known from the medieval period, most of which are in brass. I am familiar with our own stone John Barrett in St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds: John had the tomb made before his death in order to contemplate his own mortality. But a double tomb? The (very) elderly couple lie side by side, he looking more decrepit than her. Perhaps the artist- and his audience- found more difficulty in accepting the female image in a state of decomposition. It is not clear who the couple actually represent, although John and Katherine would seem most likely, given the tomb’s prominent position in the church. Their anonymity makes the art-work more universal. I mused as to whether the couple got on well in life, and how they had felt about lying together, forever, after death.
Another delightful feature were the medieval finials on the pews. One tried to represent an “elephant” but the artist had trouble knowing what to do- it ended up looking more like a duck.
The churchwarden also told me the extraordinary story of how one of the finials had been stolen, and then ended up on eBay in the USA 34 years later, complete with provenance! It was now safely reattached.
What a place. I was saddened to hear they have been without a vicar for nearly two years (along with the other 6 churches in the Bansfield Benefice). They still manage a Parish Magazine the “Parish Pump” and a service once a month thanks to its diminishing group of supporters.
Time was passing, and now I needed to walk back to Bury St Edmunds. The Clare walk lies only a couple of miles to the South East. I thought I would walk to Hawkedon and rejoin it at Somerton. The weather was lovely and I was in good spirits.
Two unfortunate things then happened. Quite unexpectedly I fell over. I was striding forward when a lace in my right boot caught a hook in my left boot. This sent me flying onto a gravel path, knocking off my glasses and grazing my face and right arm. I sat stunned, wondering if anyone was about, but there was no sign of anyone, so I had no choice but to get up and go on. The second thing was an energetic herd of cattle which blocked my path before I reached Somerton. They seemed to know by telepathy which stile I was aiming for and huddled around it. After trying various ways around them there seemed nothing for it but to head back to Hawkedon and follow the road to join the footpath up towards Brockley.
By the verge I noticed some saw-wort- the flowers were well over by now and had turned brown but the leaves were fresh. I picked them and put them in a dye pot when I finally got home.