At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Gregory, Rendlesham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

Rendlesham, minus three

Rendlesham Rendlesham Rendlesham

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Rendllesham is in an area of Suffolk that has seen considerable changes over the last forty years or so. Back in the eighties the parish was home to RAF Bentwaters, one of the largest and busiest American airbases in Europe, and there was another American airbase a few miles off at Woodbridge. The Americans seemed an exotic species back then. To cycle past the perimeter fences of the housing, gazing in at the big American cars sitting on the driveways and the kids playing baseball, was to see a people in comfortable possession. And around the bases the great Rendlesham and Tunstall forests flourished.

And then in October 1987 the Great Storm destroyed a million trees in Suffolk, and was particularly cruel to the forests of the east of the county. Not long afterwards, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Americans left, leaving empty holes in this district. For many years their absence was most striking if you stood in Wantisden churchyard beside the perimeter fence of the great Bentwaters airbase which stretched away to the horizon, abandoned and derelict.

Today, you would not think that for almost half a century Rendlesham village was virtually a small garrison town. In more recent years the former base was sold for housing, and the population of this village has increased greatly. The former airbase chapel, now dedicated to St Felix, has been reopened as a second church for the parish.

Rendlesham's parish church is set in the fields on the far side of the village from the air base, on a backroad which runs off of the Woodbridge to Orford road. The road climbs and dips between the rolling fields of the Deben Valley, and it is easy to forget that you are close to the sleeve of the busy A12.

St Gregory is, above all else, a grand building. It is by far the largest church in these parts, and sits handsomely in its open churchyard. The lane has to divert widely to make way for it, which is just as it should be. This is one of those churches where the eastern buttresses of the tower are parallel to the eastern wall of the tower, creating an illusion of a vast, blank wall as at Parham and Thornham Magna. The staircase snuggled against it on the south side creates an impression of strength and defensiveness. A sanctus bell window is set in the eastern face of the tower below the original roofline, for when it was made it would have been inside the church. This great tower probably predates many of its grand cousins in Suffolk, perhaps from the 14th Century. A will of 1522 left money for the repair of its bell. A later parvise porch stands below, its upper room lifting it to roof-level. A tour of the outside shows that almost every window is different, as though someone had decided to mount a collection to show a variety of styles. Although most are Perpendicular and broadly contemporary with the porch, the spectacular east window with its faux-Decorated tracery was installed at the unusual date of 1783 by the antiquarian-minded rector of the time. Pevsner is perhaps not unfair in calling it fanciful.

This church is usually open every day, both the north and the south doors, with a proud notice out by the road telling you so. You step into a cool, light interior thanks to the lack of coloured glass. The simple pews that neatly line the nave are painted in white as at nearby at Tunstall. The sense of space is accentuated by the way that the church has been cleared of clutter, a perfect setting for an important group of memorials. The most interesting of these is to Eliza Charlotte, Baroness Rendlesham. Mortlock tells us it is by the Italian sculptor Aristemedo Costoli, and he quotes the criticism (was it by Ruskin?) that his work was skilful in design and technique, but before it the heart remains placid and the pulse is not quickened - the relief shows her floating up to heaven, while beneath her the detailing is like the icing on a wedding cake. It is more exciting than that to her father-in-law John, Baron Rendlesham, who died ten years earlier. Fifteen years earlier than that, however, Flaxman's memorial to his wife, flanked by the figures of Pity and Grief, is the perhaps best of the lot.

Faith on the memorial to Mary Andalusia, Baroness Rendlesham Mary Andalusia, Baroness Rendlesham Mary Andalusia, Baroness Rendlesham, borne up to heaven by an angel Eliza Charlotte, Baroness Rendlesham, rises to heaven Rendlesham
Rendlesham Rendlesham a dead cleric Rendlesham
mild as the breath of summer's rising Sorrow Grief on the memorial to Mary Andalusia, Baroness Rendlesham
Rendlesham Rendlesham whisper

Most imposing of all is an effigy in a wide 14th Century tomb recess, probably for a priest who died in the years before the Black Death. Broken angels cradle his head, and seem to whisper in his ears. Behind a wine glass pulpit, the rood stairs wind up from the chancel arch into the south wall. The font is a typical example in the 15th Century East Anglian style, with cheerful lions and angels supporting the bowl, and on its panels. There is a Table of Fees similar to the one at nearby Pettistree.

As old as this place is, Rendlesham was a place of note much further back in history. Long before this church was built, Rendlesham was the capital of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia. King Redwald and the Wuffinga ruled a country from here, one of the major kingdoms of early medieval Europe. A straight path can be traced from here to Sutton Hoo, the royal burial ground, nowadays an archaeological site of national significance. The way the road diverts around the churchyard suggests that it is an ancient site, perhaps the site of a pagan temple. The story told of King Redwald was that he was baptised on this very site, but that he later recanted in deference to his pagan wife. Perhaps it was from here that his body set out, to be carried on its final journey to the great ship burial on the hill above the Deben.

       

Simon Knott, April 2021

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looking east sanctuary Rendlesham
east window tracery font (15th Century) font (15th Century)
Rendlesham war memorial Rendlesham prayer desk
the righteous perish & no man layeth it to heart & mercifull men are taken away the most affectionate of mothers & best of friends he acquired a competent estate by the blessing of God upon his honest endeavours Rendlesham
Rendlesham her years were few and full of suffering Hugh Edmund Thellusson

escape hatch south porch 19th Century bootscraper The Rendlesham dead

 

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