St Gregory, Rendlesham, Suffolk
In the mid-eighties, when I 1st moved to Suffolk from the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, I found the area around Rendlesham, Eyke and Tunstall exotic. For a start, there were the forests, through which the roads cut and in which the villages hide. But mostly, it was the Americans that made it exotic. Woodbridge and Bentwaters were among the biggest American bases in Europe, and to drive along the perimeter fences, gazing in at the houses, cars, bunkers and hangers, was to see a people in possession.
Well, the great storm of October 1987 destroyed a million trees in Suffolk, and was particularly cruel to the Rendlesham and Tunstall forests. And the Americans have gone right now, leaving empty holes in this district. Their absence is most striking from Wantisden church, where the great Bentwaters base stretches away to the horizon, abandoned and derelict. St Gregory is set in the fields on the far side of the village from the air base, and you would not think that for more than 50 years this village was a virtual garrison town. And you’d think, right now, that with the departure of the US Airforce, this area would be settling back down into sleep.
The opposite is true. The former base has been sold for housing, and the population of this village has increased greatly over the last ten years. The former base chapel, dedicated to St Felix, has been reopened as a 2nd church for the parish. But way back into ancient history, sleepiness has never been a Rendlesham habit.
St Gregory is away from the village on a backroad which runs off of the Woodbridge to Orford road. Cycling this way from Campsea Ashe on a frosty day in January 2017, this part of Rendlesham at least still seemed a quiet little backwater. I had not been passed by a car or seen another living soul since leaving Wickham Market railway station. The road climbs and dips between the rolling fields of the Deben Valley, and I had to remind myself quite how close I was to the sleeve of the busy A12. Ahead of me, the tower of St Gregory peeped and the disappeared behind the bare trees.
St Gregory is, above all else, a grand building. It is 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. Something similar can be experienced at Thornham Magna. The staircase snuggled against it on the south side creates an impression of strength and defensiveness.
On the eastern face, a sanctus bell window can be seen, below the original roofline. It would, of course, originally have been inside. This great tower probably predates many of its grand cousins in Suffolk, perhaps from the 14th century. A later porch stands below it, 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.
This church is militantly open every day, both north and south doors. You step down into a cool, crisp interior. There is no coloured glass, and on a day like this the winter sunshine seems to have followed you in. The painted box pews that neatly line the nave are reminiscent of those at nearby Tunstall. The sense of space is accentuated by the way that the chancel has been cleared of clutter, and how not bad it looks.
St Gregory is a perfect setting for an interesting and 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 marriage cake. It is rather better 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, also travelling up to heaven but this time borne by an angel, flanked by the figures of Pity and Grief, is the best of the lot.
Most imposing of all is a wide open 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 fine one; typically East Anglian, 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.
I stood in the still, quiet church, my breath clouding slightly, listening to the silence. But as I said before, sleepiness is not a Rendlesham habit. Long before this church was built, this village was the site of 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, and right now an archaeological site of national significance. Perhaps this church itself is on the site of a pagan temple. The story goes that King Redwald was baptised on this very site, later recanting 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.
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