Although I spent a long time in Suffolk, I don’t ever recall having a walk around Beccles and the church of St Michael the Archangel. It is in the middle of the town, looking out over the Waveney and north to the Broads, next to the Market Place. Grid reference – TM421905. They have a reasonable website – and the church is featured on the Diocesan Tourism website. The town is also worth a good explore.
It was a Saxon town of quite considerable importance – though no remains of a major Saxon church have ever been found. Domesday says that there was one church with 24 acres of glebe, and there is what looks like the remains of a Saxon chapel north of St Michael’s – interestingly it was never under the cure of the Rector of Beccles! The present church was built during the years 1350 to 1400 by the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds. I did find it a bit ironic when quite a few folk in the town told me they don’t feel very connected with their Cathedral since it is the other side of the County – surely this is the link that might bring them together.
The bell tower – or what the guidebook calls The Campanile (technically right, but Venice has a Campanile, not Beccles) – was started in 1500 and took forty years to build. It stands at the south east end of the church – the normal west position would have been too close to the cliff over the river. 97 feet high, forty feet at its base, and is estimated to weigh 3,000 tons. This must have cost a few pounds, and the stone cannot have been easy to transport. There are ten bells, still rung regularly, and tower is in the ownership of the Town Council – it was handed over in 1977 after a £68,000 restoration. I bet that in the cash-strapped 2010s, there is one Council who wish they had never accepted it.
We entered the church through the South Porch, and that is quite a porch. The stone work with carved frieze, emblems of Bury St Edmunds, the M monogram (either for Michael or for Mary) and lots of niches. Imagine it with the niches filled with statues, and the brilliant white stone picked out with blue and gold. Some restoration work was being done. The porch noticeboard welcomes us to the church, gives us service times and contact details, and then tells us we “enter at our own risk”. How ridiculous!
Anyway, we entered at our own risk, into a huge church. A Nave and two Aisles, and with the aisles continuing down the whole length of the building, it feels light and big. 150 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 45 feet high. The window tracery is beautiful. There was a huge fire on 29 November 1586, and the roof dates after this. No doubt the original roof was more spectacular – this one is functional.
The Health and Safety curse struck again – a whole noticeboard with all the policies displayed. Gas, flower arranging, lightning conductor test, and an official notice telling people not to remove the official notices. Someone has too much time on their hands. There is a nice display of previous Rectors – I was ordained with John, the chap with the guide dog. He served his curacy in St Luke’s (the other church in the town), became Rector of that, then got St Michael’s too. Now working in Islington.
There are lots of pews and then some comfy chairs at the front – they do look rather out of place. They don’t seem to have a huge congregation most Sundays, but there are other days when the place will be packed – do you spend a fortune replacing all the pews with comfy chairs, when many of them will be rarely used?The font has an octagonal top of greenish Purbeck marble, much in use during the Early English period, 1200 to 1300. The base, shaft and capitals are later additions of stone.
The choir stalls are Victorian, but with rather nice carving. Did they really get a faculty for the electrics screwed to them?
The East Window commemorates the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, Starting from the bottom left corner we have eighteen episodes of Jesus’ life, from the Annunciation to Christ in glory. We have twelve apostles, each with their symbols, angels, and Michael the Archangel.
The Royal Coat of Arms is of Charles II. It is actually painted on both signs and would have stood on the Rood Screen visible from both sides. The church crest has three locks – so it could only be open when the Rector and his two Wardens were together.
The West End is a mess. In the 1980s they redeveloped the crypt and built an Undercroft. It has not stood the test of time.
The fencing stretches round to the north porch. The porch itself is used as a dumping ground. Some nice flint work, and this is the carving of a Suffolk “Wodehouse” or wild man, with a club, subduing a dragon.
The West Window is rather nice from the outside too, and there is some lovely stone work.
This is a church that the congregation and the town should be very proud of. They need to get the fencing down, get some work done, place some lovely tubs of flowers in place, and fill the church with music, art and life. There is so much to celebrate.