St Mary’s Church

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This is a very attractive Norman church set on top of a hill with views across the Suffolk countryside. It is set back off the road, next to the elegant building of Polstead Hall. Near the boundary fence is a descendant of the Gospel Oak were St Cedd is said to have preached in the 7thC.

The church dates from the 11thC although the side aisles were replaced in the 14thC, when the spire was built and the north porch added.

The church is remarkable as it has the only medieval stone spire in Suffolk. This sits above a square flint tower with battlements. At the base of the west wall is a small doorway set in a brick lined arch. Above are two long narrow windows.

At the east end is a long low chancel. The naves come half way up the roof of the nave. This has an aluminium roof with small dormer windows.

The north porch contains the original oak door with a sanctuary knocker. The small windows contain fragments of medieval glass.

The inside is a surprise. There are brick lined arches above the nave pillars. The tower and chancel arch are lined with bricks. When the side aisle were raised, the clerestory windows were blocked, although the brick lined arches of these remain. There is another black brick lined arch on the west wall which was probably a sThe bricks date from 1200 and (apart from Roman bricks) are some of the oldest surviving English made bricks.

The arches have carved capitals, with several different designs.

Walls and ceiling are plaster with wood support beams across it. Windows are plain glass making the church feel very light. Above the chancel arch is a small triple window which would have provided back light to rood screen.

At the back of the south aisle is the font. 13thC pillars support a modern brick bowl. The unusual fibre glass cover is supposed to represent the undulating waters of the River Jordan and the handle is shaped like a dove. On the wall above are two painted circles representing the wheel of life.

There are hatchments in the south aisle and the Royal Coat of Arms over the north door.

There are more wall paintings on the north wall of the nave on either side of a blank clerestory window, but with a few red lines, possibly representing drapery. On the north wall of the north aisle is another fragment with black wavy lines, thought to be post-Reformation.

The pews are 19thC and have carved poppyheads. Those nearest the chancel have painted shields of manorial lords and patrons of the living.

To the right of the chancel arch is the painted Brand memorial with the kneeling figures of John Brand with his small son Benjamin, who is holding a skull. He was Lord of the Manor and had the gift of the living of the church. Above is the Brand crest; a gold wyvern on a green and gold background.

The altar rails are 17thC and have twisted bannisters. The table altar is also 17thC and has a wooden reredos. The centre section is thought to be Jacobean with its beautifully carved arches set in panels. The side panels are modern but of the same design.

We liked this church. It is different and definitely worth visiting. Jenkin’s in “England’s Thousand Best Churches “ gives it 1*. We felt it deserved more. It is worth buying a copy of the small guide to the church and using it during your visit . We didn’t which means we missed the Norman arch at the base of the tower thought to be the original entrance to the church.

The church is open 9-5. Drive up the the church and park in front of the wall.

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