My cousin was staying with me from Australia, and I wanted to take her on a walk to Rushbrooke Church. Plenty has been written on this before and here, emphasising its unusual features. We had to go!
We took my Iraqi friend, Nada, and set out despite a gloomy weather forecast. I took my rain-coat just in case. Walking out of Bury St Edmunds we went along the St Edmund’s Way towards Nowton Church. By good luck it was open, and once again we were able to admire the amazing tapestry of medieval and Victorian stained glass donated by Mr Oakes.
But there was something a little odd: not only was the church open but a pair of men’s trousers was hanging over a pew! Was there anyone else there? I sat down and filled in the visitors’ book, noticing there had been about a dozen entries since my last visit in February.
Outside I noticed how beautifully kept the front garden looked, with freshly planted wallflowers and weeded beds. Then a man appeared from behind a grave with a fork, and I felt reassured that he was the owner of the clothes in the church.
After some distraction picking wool off a gate we walked on and over the fields toward Sicklesmere. Only after a while did I realise I had left my raincoat in the church! I decided to collect it later, and we walked on. Over the Sicklesmere road and up a hill between high hedges, which felt like an ancient track.
As we entered the church we were met by a lady going the other way, and we got chatting. She had spent the morning cleaning and preparing it for the monthly service the following day. She explained she had been cleaning the church for 40 years and was the only one left to do it, with a congregation of very few left. She had arranged some flowers, which she had purchased herself. She expressed her sadness that so few people came, and her anxiety for the future as she herself was not well. My forthright cousin asked her why she still did it. It seemed to be a sense of duty and loyalty to the Rothschild Family who once owned the estate, where she had worked, as much as to God.
We admired her flowers and I set about exploring the church for all the little things which may be overlooked by official documents, but describe the effort and goodwill of the people who have contributed to both this church, and the many others like it whose future is uncertain in these secular times. There were numerous prayer mats which had been painstakingly sewn:
The church is a Grade One listed building, and there are many things to see, most famously the shield of Henry VIII on the ceiling with the words “Dieu et mon Droict” (sic)
Apparently this was not present in 1840, and could possibly have been replaced by Colonel Rushbrooke if it had been hidden and then found again. It is impressive, but not as lovely as the roundels of unicorns on the North side:
These are Flemish and connected to the roundels inserted into the work at Nowton. They fit perfectly into their environment in this church.
The other thing I could not resist as we went back into the entrance area (baptistry ), was the bookcase of fabulous books for sale in aid of the heating. I can’t imagine this covers the cost, but I was delighted with my purchases:
“The Queensgate Mystery ” is a “War economy standard” for senior girls aged 12-14y, with an improving verse as introduction:
“All things are possible to the girl who believes;
They are less difficult to the girl who hopes;
They are easy to the girl who loves;
And simple to the girl who does all three.”
“Brenda’s Homecoming” is a little later, published in 1947 under “Authorised economy standards” and describing itself as suitable Sunday School material for 8-12 year olds. I can’t wait to read them!
Coming back outside the weather had deteriorated and it had started to rain heavily. My raincoat was still sitting in Nowton church. We ate some chocolate biscuits and set out back for Bury St Edmunds, being directed back along a shorter track. By the time we got back we were all wet right through. The books had been stuffed under my clothes but were, I am sorry to say, rather damp.
I drove to collect the key to Nowton Church to retrieve my raincoat and explained about the gardener and the trousers. “That was the Church Warden”! exclaimed Mrs Finn, the keeper of the key. Two more examples of the often unsung heroes who keep things going.