After the delights of an Aldeburgh Festival concert, which of course cannot be photographed, eyes turn to the venue. Not this time the splendid Snape Maltings but Holy Trinity Blythburgh was where we were.
It is a magnificent fifteenth century building with nave running uninterrupted into the chancel and two aisles. Far too large for a population of 300 (probably four times that number attended the concert), the church has endured as dramatic and near-disastrous a history as the Maltings concert hall, which was burnt down almost as soon as opened. Much older of course than the complex at Snape, the church became dangerously derelict at about the same time as Snape Maltings was in its industrial heyday. On 8 December 1881 the Morning Post newspaper carried a small but factually ignorant report that the church had been closed by order of the bishop of Norwich. What followed was a controversy involving representatives of the parishioners, who simply wanted their church back, and two rival bodies: the restoration committee, headed by the vicar and the architect A.G. Street and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded by William Morris.
While Morris might have been accused of interence in a matter of no concern to him, his society existed to prevent the thoughtless restoration of historic fabric to some imagined past state of perfection. Repair as opposed to pastiche summarises the SPAB view. An exhange of correspondence followed, pursued at times with an outrageous disingenuousness that might have formed the plot of a novel by Ruth Rendell or Susan Hill.
The story is told in “The Restoration of Blythburgh Church, 1881-1906” edited by Alan Mackley from accounts and correspondence with academic precision that nonetheless reads like a novel. If the exchanges stop short of insult or threat they sometimes come close. There are accusations of misrepresentaion; the architect fails to send the promised copies of his plans. Aristocracy and even royalty become involved.
If the outcome is that ‘the SPAB lost the battle, perhaps eventually it won the war.’ The money was exhausted before the planned restoration could be completed. Holy Trinity was repaired with signs of work done clear to see as opposed to disguised ‘olde worlde’.
One possible image of how the church once looked is the angel above the south door. The colours are strong as they would once have been. The original angels and roof timbers retain traces of those colours faded over time. Windows where stained glass was removed during the Reformation are now clear-glazed. Brick infill has been removed from them so the church is fully lit as when the iconoclast William Dowsing arrived in 1643 but was unable to reach the angels. (Soldiers apparently fired muskets at them.) The timber screens in the nave and aisles have been returned to full height.
While the nave has painted timber the aisles do not. This may have been a result of damp incursion over the centuries, as a report to SPAB suggested. Some of the angels may have replacement wings, which are not coloured as the originals are. Replacement roof timbers are not disguised. All this in my view adds to historic interest of the building. It is one thoroughly recommended to visitors. A full-colour guidebook is available and adds even more.