A medieval Suffolk gem in need of rescue

MY two favourite buildings are both medieval churches. One dominates the city I used to call home and is one of the most famous buildings in the world. The other is in a hidden corner of Suffolk - and it needs your help.

ONE of my two favourite buildings dominates the city I used to call home.

Its three majestic stone towers stand tall and proud on a rocky promontory in a tight, picturesque river curve.

Buy a book about cathedrals or medieval Britain, or a calendar of the Beautiful North East, and the chances are its familiar shape will be on the cover.

An international poll of distinguished architects voted it the world's finest building, ahead of the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. It is, of course, Durham cathedral.

My other favourite building is about the same age, founded a little over 900 years ago.

Although much smaller, it has as much in it of deep historical interest. The sense of awe it gives a reflective visitor is less public, perhaps less obvious, but just as intense.

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Rather than dominating its landscape, it tends to hide in it, down a muddy lane and set about with leafy trees.

It is in Suffolk, yet you may not have heard of it and almost certainly haven't seen it. It is the parish church of St Andrew at Westhall, near Halesworth.

If you take joy – as I do – in East Anglia's rich medieval past, I urge you to visit it.

Any sensible list of the finest old buildings in the land would include many Suffolk churches, from Blythburgh to Long Melford, Mildenhall to Stoke-by-Nayland. Yet even in this distinguished company, Westhall is special.

There is the eccentric way it grew, from the 11th to the 14th centuries, its later tower preserving the glorious primitive carvings on its Norman west front from the elements.

There are its wall-paintings, with an apparently horned Moses (it's really an early form of halo) receiving the Ten Commandments.

There is the gorgeous 15th century rood screen, with its painted saints.

Those looking for rustic charm will enjoy St Apollonia, seen with distinctive pincers and tooth. The poor soul suffered martyrdom by dentistry and was much prayed to in the middle ages by sufferers of toothache.

Those who appreciate historical significance will be struck by the only surviving medieval screen representation in England of the Transfiguration. The distinguished historian Eamon Duffy regards this image of Christ with Moses and the prophet Elijah as being of national importance.

The same claim might be made for the Westhall font, the finest and most unusual of Suffolk's 13 surviving Seven Sacraments fonts. Those the faces have gone, victims of the Reformation, much of the medieval colour miraculously survives.

Suffolk, of course, is full of medieval churches, many of them delightful, fascinating and historic and many of them more obviously beautiful than Westhall.

They are all expensive to maintain and can be a serious burden on the finances and goodwill of small villages.

The loss of any of them would be a shame. It would be grim if Suffolk were to become riddled with ruins, like Norfolk – the only county in England with more medieval churches to save.

Yet to me, for reasons I have only had room to hint at here, the loss of Westhall would be the most devastating of the lot.

The need for cash to keep old buildings like this standing is never-ending, of course. But now is a crisis-point for Westhall, where a rescue fund of £80,000 is needed urgently.

The diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich might not thank me for saying this, but if Westhall could be saved by not putting a fake medieval tower on Bury cathedral, then I'd wish it done.

Unfortunately, for legal and fiscal reasons, that is not a choice that can be made.

But if it has ever crossed your mind to give cash to the cathedral tower appeal, please give it to Westhall instead. Then visit and see what you are helping to save. It may become one of your favourite buildings too.

To learn and see a lot more about wonderful Westhall, you can visit either my Sylly Suffolk website, or my friend Simon Knott's Suffolk Churches site.




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