Our Chris­tian Her­itage

St Bartholomew’s Church, Or­ford

Evergreen - - Contents - Peter Davies

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.

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