People ask “when was the church built?”, and the answer is “during the last thousand years”. A church was here when the Domesday Survey was made in 1086. That building has long gone, though the materials have been used and reused over the centuries. A recognisable fragment from the late 1100s can be seen in the north aisle. The tower and the font belong to the 1300s, but the church had its greatest make-over from about 1400, when the builders were busy, on and off, for a century. Most of us know the feeling.
Eight-sided pillars or piers frame the nave, the people’s section, and our eyes look up to the oak roof, one of the finest in a county famous for its church roofs. The beams that go right across the nave are called tie-beams because they tie the walls together. These alternate with the stubby hammerbeams which take the thrust from above, and originally they were decorated with carved angels. The basic roof was finished by 1450, but the scaffolding was up again in 1475 for additional decorations. This was the year that John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, became Lord of the Manor. The King, Edward IV was his brother-in-law, and as a loyal gesture he nailed up the King’s favourite badge, the “rose en soleil”. This device, a rose at the centre of spiky sun-rays, can be seen on most of the roof-braces. The paint too, now beautifully faded, dates from 1475. John de la Pole also fixed four stone beasts from the King’s heraldry to the top of the old tower. Similar stonework is at Royal Windsor, but ours is medieval, not an expensive modern replacement.
The carved angels on the hammerbeams were removed by the churchwardens in 1538, acting on the orders of Edward IV’s grandson, Henry VIII. The carvings, then less than a century old, must have been lifted off quite carefully, another scaffolding job, and the wooden tenons which fixed them are still in place.
In the nave on the south side hangs a small wooden plaque unique in Suffolk. It is a simple memorial to Mary Boyce who died aged 20 in 1685. The carved hearts imply that she died after an unhappy love affair.
Repairs continued throughout the years, and there are 18th century bills for mending numerous windows and whitewashing the font. During the Napoleonic Wars the churchwardens commissioned the huge painting of the royal arms now over the south door. The medieval screen was extensively restored in 1842, a clever piece of later joinery and painting. The builders came back in force in 1878. The flooring, most of the benches and the pulpit date from then. The chancel, beyond the restored screen, was almost completely rebuilt, although the 15th century stalls and later monuments were skilfully conserved. The impressive terracotta reredos of the Last Supper was set up in 1883, a surprising piece for what was, by then, a relatively obscure village.
Detailed guides on the main structure and the important Victorian features can be obtained in the church.
For the past ten years St Mary’s Church Walsham le Willows has worked in close co-operation with its neighbouring churches and on the stroke of the Millennium became one of the eight that make up the Benefice of Badwell and Walsham.
The other seven are St Margaret’s Westhorpe, St Bartholomew’s Finningham, St Mary’s Badwell Ash, All Saints Great Ashfield, St Michael’s Hunston, St Mary’s Langham and St George’s Stowlangtoft.
The Church is therefore like one body with eight legs. Hence the name ‘Octopus’ is given to the Benefice Magazine which is published bi-monthly and distributed to every home in the eight parishes (the print run is 1,500). This gives the church news and information as well as including community items.
All eight congregations regularly share services together. These are usually early Sunday morning in St Catherine’s Chapel (within Walsham le Willows Church); on Wednesday mornings (touring different churches in the benefice); and about every three weeks on a Sunday morning at half-past ten (the dates and venues for these services can be found here: www.achurchnearyou.com).
St Mary’s Walsham le Willows also holds its own village services mid-morning on a Sunday. These are either Mattins or the Eucharist. There is no traditional Sunday School, but a monthly Children’s Praise takes place when the children accompanied by their parents meet in church with other members of the regular congregation.
One of the highlights of the year is the Epiphany which we usually celebrate the first weekend of every New Year. An ad hoc group of nationally and internationally famous singers and musicians mysteriously gather in the village for a Carol Concert on the Saturday evening, and then sing a classic eucharistic setting for the service on the Sunday morning. They then disperse their many ways until they all meet again in twelve months time. It is a musical treat not to be missed!
The name “Priory Room” comes from the fact that in the middle ages Walsham was staffed by priests from Ixworth Priory. They built a rest house near this spot. In 1902 the local benefactor John Martineau decided to build a “room for meetings in connection with the church” as reported by the Bury Free Press 1902. It was designed by John Martineau’s cousin, Edward Henry Martineau, many of whose buildings can be seen in the village and beyond. The celebrated “Martineau cottages” dating from 1866 to 1899 are all robust buildings in an Elizabethan style, and the Priory Room is similar; oak-framed and with texts carved into the timber. The main text carved on the front gable reads: “Suffer little children to come unto me”, and is often misunderstood. It is a verse from the King James translation of the gospels, meaning “Let the children come to me”. The Martineaus obviously intended the room to be used as a Sunday School. This was Edward Henry Martineau’s last building. He died before it was completed, and there is a memorial inscription at the south end.
Walsham Parish Church has a 11 cwt (465kg.) ring of six bells. “The treble, second, third, fifth and tenor were cast by Charles and Thomas Newman between 1699 & 1704. The fifth and the tenor were recast by John Warner in 1900. The newest, by John Taylor & Co. in 1988, replaced the 1576 by Stephen Tonni.”
Change ringing developed in England during the 17th century and remains unique to the British Isles and other parts of the world where British people have settled.
On our six bells 720 changes are possible whilst on eight bells the changes can reach 40,320! The bells are fitted with wheels which allow them to be swung through 360 degrees giving the ringers control over the timing of each stroke, enabling them to vary the order of the bells in each row of change and so ring complex patterns in which every change is different ! The ringing chamber is at the top of 35 steps with the bells another 28 steps higher.
The Walsham ringers practice on Friday evenings from 7.30 to 9.30 and they ring for Sunday services and on special occasions. This is a sociable hobby combining physical exercise with mental challenges and teamwork, suitable for all ages, male and female, and it is apparently becoming a popular hobby throughout the country with the younger members of our society.
For more information on our bells or if you are interested in learning to ring, please telephone 01359 259784.
The 10th of December 2006 saw the movement of the Lych Gate from the old entrance to the existing cemetery which is sited on what was once known as Kiln Meadow. Over 100 years ago this entrance had been positioned just before a sharp bend in the Ixworth road and over the years it had now become far too dangerous for its original use. Consequently a decision was made that it should be moved back along the road nearer to the Six Bells crossroads and at the same time a small lay-by would also be provided for the use of visitors to the graveyard and for the vehicles that would be involved with any future internments.
This Lych Gate was originally built by village craftsmen including a certain John Morley who requested that his body should be buried close to the gate when he died. We trust that he was not too upset to see his handicraft slowly moving along the road! The oak used for the Lych Gate was all from within the Parish and there were various biblical texts carefully carved into them. The whole structure was held together with wooden pegs and obviously needed very careful handling as it was lifted from its old position by a large crane, and it was then finally transported along the road to be once again lifted and then carefully adjusted onto its new foundations.
The Lych Gate was successfully moved exactly as planned and it was finally Consecrated at 4.30pm on Sunday, June 3rd.
As the Churchyard at St Mary’s Parish Church was fully occupied by 1890 this was the date of the last burial on that site. Mr. John Martineau then generously gave three quarters of an acre in Kiln Meadow to accomodate all future burials and the cemetery has had to be enlarged on yet three occasions with the latest being in 2007. On June the 3rd 2007 the Bishop of Dunwich consecrated this latest extension which is at the "top" end of the cemetery.
The Bishop was much impressed by the removal of the Lych Gate from its old site farther down the road and he felt that the relocation of this lovely structure was nothing short of a "modern miracle" especially as the access has been greatly improved with the addition of the new lay-by. Work has also been carried out at the lower end of the cemetery where over the years it had become very overgrown and this work has been considerably aided by the Community Services. Walsham le Willows treasures its beautiful cemetery and these improvements will ensure that this will remain so for the foreseeable future.