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In praise of parish churches

PUBLISHED: 11:54 01 September 2015 | UPDATED: 11:54 01 September 2015

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beauty and historic significance of Suffolk’s many churches, says Tony Redman

East Anglia is blessed by the greatest concentration of buildings of heritage significance in Europe, and probably the world, and most of these are parish churches.

Out of the 478 parish churches in Suffolk 95% of them are listed as being of national heritage significance and 20% of these are listed grade 1, which means they are in the top 12% of the nation’s historic buildings.

Every September, the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust encourages us to get on our bikes and raise funds for their upkeep. In our village, a spritely 70-year-old used to knock on my door sometime in August, and ask me to sponsor him. He would tell me about his gammy knee and his asthma, which would severely curtail his ability to cycle round the countryside, and this encouraged me to sponsor him well, per church, in the anticipation that he might do 10 or so before his condition got the better of him.

After the bike ride he would knock on my door again, this time looking considerably spritelier, and announce that he had done 50 this year. Call me a mug, but he did this every year, spinning a tale of increasing decrepitude, until last year, well into his late eighties, he announced that he was giving up his bike, because his wife had told him that he wasn’t safe on it anymore.

The Suffolk Historic Churches Trust, one of the most successful in the country, was associated with the Rev Canon John Fitch, vicar of Brandon, who died earlier this year. He was horrified by the state of Suffolk churches and sought to work out which ones were worth supporting.

As a result of his research he encouraged the formation of the trust in 1973, and 10 years later, the indomitable Frances Parkinson started the bike ride as a way of raising money for their upkeep. It’s become a national event. Half of what you raise goes to the church of your choice, and the rest goes to the trust to make grants to other churches in need.

The wonderful collection of Methodist and Roman Catholic churches, village chapels and meeting rooms are all eligible for trust funds and many will be open on September 12 just for the bike ride.

But churches are not just for bike ride day. Many of them are open throughout the year and you don’t have to be religious to appreciate them. Most are the oldest buildings within their communities, and before the Reformation were used more as community halls, with markets, local law courts, and village breweries.

If you look closely you can still see evidence of village life in many of them. Your imagination can run riot at what has caused the lumps and bumps on the walls, or the change in finish in the floors. The grandest were funded on the sheep’s back.

The biggest of them, like Long Melford and Lavenham, Woolpit and Mildenhall show the wealth and piety of local entrepreneurs. But it is the more humble ones which often surprise you the most. My favourites include Ampton with its tales of wealthy patrons, outlaws and pilgrim fathers, Great Saxham with its memorial to the man who introduced nutmeg, Charsfield chapel with its 19th century coat hooks and fish shaped font, Walpole chapel and Lawshall Catholic churches disguised as cottages, and St Helens in Ipswich with its tubular bells. The inspiration to Mike Oldfield, maybe?

Tony Redman is a conservation accredited chartered building surveyor and Anglican priest.

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