Our Christian Heritage
St Bartholomew’s Church, Orford
YOU may think that a place off the beaten track which can’t decide if it is a town or a village, has only a ruined chancel for its church and has no sea to go with its quay might not be the best advertisement for the beautiful coastline of Suffolk.
Yet the guidebooks stand in line to extol the virtues of Orford.
As soon as a few other ingredients are included in this intriguing mix, one can begin to understand why.
The iconic lighthouse, for example, which has stood guard over Orford for over 200 years; an island with a wonderful nature reserve; the famous composer Benjamin Britten and the equally famous Aldeburgh Festival. There’s also oysters and smoked salmon to die for, not to mention mysterious goings- on of a highly secret military nature during two world wars.
Add to all this the legend about the monstrous merman of Orford, a ghost story or two and the more believable tales of smuggling in this neck of the woods, and it becomes obvious why Orford has been, and no doubt always will be, one of Suffolk’s outstanding coastal attractions.
Along with the lighthouse, the other jewels in Orford’s crown are undoubtedly its castle and its church, both built over 800 years ago, during the reign of Henry II.
Simon Jenkins writes that the road from Snape to Orford is as lovely as any in Suffolk, and enhancing the beauty of this road is the tower of St Bartholomew’s Church, which dramatically comes into view on your approach.
On catching a glimpse of the tower, no- one could argue with Jenkins for including the church in his book, “England’s Thousand Best Churches”, which puts St Bartholomew’s up there with the fine Suffolk churches of Long Melford, Lavenham and Framlingham.
Let us first look at the aforementioned ruined chancel. Ruins, yes – but what ruins! One expert has said that what is left of St Bartholomew’s chancel represents some of the finest Norman remains in the county.
Standing on the briny turf behind the present church and looking north, one can see the remaining four north bays of the chancel, consisting of zig- zagged arches above scalloped capitals. These
are supported by dog- toothed piers three feet in diameter, which used and refined the incised decoration seen at Norwich and Durham cathedrals.
Between the present nave and the chancel there was once a transept with a crossing topped by a tower. However, as the nave is a much later building, nobody can say what the original must have looked like.
In fact, opinion seems divided about whether the original builders ever got around to constructing a nave at all. I like to think that they did, if only to be able to imagine St Bartholomew’s as a huge, intact, 12th- century cruciform church, with a magnificent central tower rivalling King Henry II’s castle and keep over the way.
It would have borne a wonderfully multi- coloured prospect within, extending from the west door, a long nave and chancel to the square east wall in the distance.
Entering today’s church, you can use your imagination again to picture the father of Suffolk’s own poet, George Crabbe, using the large attractive porch as a schoolroom, where he taught Orford’s children in the 18th century.
Could any other schoolroom boast such a delightful 14th- century door, leading from the porch into the church, with its delicate shafts and mouldings?
The inside of the church, in the words of its guidebook, is wide, lofty, airy and spacious.
Its near- square shape, along with its height of 70 feet, reaching up to a very good modern roof, adds to its beauty – even if the idea to divide the nave to create a chancel space by means of a huge screen in the style of the 15th century doesn’t meet with everyone’s approval.
Famous art historian Kenneth Clark once said that “to sit in Orford Church where I had spent so many hours in my childhood dutifully awaiting some spark of Divine Fire, and then to receive it at last in the performance of ‘ Noye’s Fludde’, was an overwhelming experience.”
Benjamin Britten had a long association with St Bartholomew’s, and both his “Three Church Parables” and his work for children, “Noye’s Fludde”, were first performed here.
There is a splendid memorial to Britten in the shape of a roundel set into the floor at the west end of the church.
Also at the west end of the church, near the south porch door, is St Bartholomew’s sumptuous font.
We are told to pray for the souls of the couple who arranged for this font to be made in the early 15th century. A walk around it will be rewarded by the sight of beautifully carved lions and wild men, as well as the more usual religious figures – including a rare pietà.
William Dowsing, who lived upcountry in Laxfield, did the iconoclastic dirty work for Oliver Cromwell in these parts, but although he destroyed many “popish” images in Orford when he visited in 1643, the pietà survived. Did the church wardens of the day manage to hide their precious possession from Basher Dowsing, as he was called?
Lovers of sacred Italian art will be delighted to find three important works here. Look out for a copy of Raphael’s 1514 “Madonna della Sedia”, the most popular and widely disseminated of Raphael’s madonnas, now sited over the door of the south porch. Raphael’s original painting is in the Pitti Gallery in Florence.
Look, too, for an original painting by Raphael’s pupil, Raphaelino del Colle, over the south altar, and the beautiful high altar piece of the church – the Holy Family with St John – painted by
Leonardo da Vinci’s follower, Bernardino Luini, in 1520.
At about the same time as these Italian artists were busy, artists of a different kind nearer to home were beginning to display their talents in St Bartholomew’s.
Its set of fine brasses – 11 in all, and some say the best in East Anglia – are to be found in its Lady Chapel, vestry and sanctuary.
William Dowsing damaged several of the inscriptions on the brasses, but take time to admire the workmanship of a 1520s brass showing a mother with her 12 children; a merchant of about the same date in his fur- trimmed gown with huge sleeves; and a Trinity group with the Holy Dove on Christ’s shoulders.
The brasses depicting people in everyday clothes are particularly important in showing us and historians what the fashions of the day were like.
There are many other features of the beautiful church of St Bartholomew, but visitors with time to spare should not miss the East Window memorial glass by the prestigious glassmakers Clayton and Bell.
They should also examine the long, low chest with five locks, used for the church’s documents and valuables, which is nearly 400 years old; run their hands over the poppyheads at the end of the lovely 15th- century benches; and linger at the north- east corner of the church – the interesting Mayor’s Chapel – to see the evocative Norman pillars and arches at the joining of the ruined transept and chancel and today’s church.
However much St Bartholomew’s is an Aladdin’s Cave filled with works of art – and other treasures of an extraordinarily varied kind – it must be remembered that it is firstly a place where people have come to seek, in Kenneth Clark’s words, “Divine Fire for century upon century”. Orford’s parishioners were probably worshipping on this site long before the chancel was first built in 1165.
In poet Philip Larkin’s words, “a serious house on serious earth it is, in whose blent air all our compulsions are met.”
St Bartholomew’s Church, Orford, Suffolk.
Interior of St Bartholomew’s Church.
The chancel ruins at St Bartholomew’s Church.
The 15th- century font, with its lions and wild men around the base.
South porch door with Italian art above.