St. Mary’s Church in Santon Downham is set in a most tranquil spot on the edge of the forest at the end of the large village green. The Domesday Book notes the existence of a church in the village, most probably wooden and replaced by the present one. The Nave was begun in the 12th century and built towards the east culminating in the chancel which was finished during the 13th century. The tower was built between 1460 and 1500 as a result of bequests made by various members of local families. Interesting to note on the north side of the tower about two thirds up there is a yellow brick that marks the spot, reputedly, of the level at which the sand came to rest in the famous sand storm of 1668.
This little church contains some fascinating anomalies: next to the north porch outside, there is evidence of an additional, or most probably, an earlier Trinity chapel; there is an arch filled with knapped flint and to the east a very well preserved piscina, the little niche above the door in the porch is off centre, indicating that the much thicker east wall of the porch was orginally the west side of this chapel, most probably destroyed during the Reformation. Above the south doorway there is a carved stone panel depicting what could be a wolf (symbolising evil) devouring the tree of life,which, indestructible sprouts from the wolf’s tail – symbolic of the Resurrection? (Similar depictions may be found on two capitals in the north transept of Ely Cathedral and on the Norman tympanum of the Tree of Life at Wordwell, 10 miles from Santon Downham). High up in the south wall of the nave is an arched opening, having in it the remains of a mediaeval scroll painting, but it bears no relation to anything else in the church.
Within is a 13th or 14th century font and an early 14th century screen, crude and heavy in design but with a curious roughly cut double arch in one panel of the dado, possibly a primitive confessional. The altar cross, candlesticks and the processional cross all in wood are modern and were made by a local forester. There are some fragments of mediaeval glass in the South chancel window but otherwise all the stained glass is Victorian except for the 1952 window in the south wall of the chancel by Harcourt Doyle.
The memorials relate to the various landowners and their families connected with the village, notably the Wrights from the 17th and 18th centuries, through the Cadogans to the last ‘squire’, Colonel Edward Mackenzie who died in 1929.
There is a large memorial inside to Lieutenant Colonel The Honourable Henry Cadogan who was killed at the Battle of Vittoria in Spain during the Peninsular War.
Outside in the graveyard, near the gate is to be found the remains of a mediaeval churchyard cross, from the time when a single cross or crucifix commemorated all souls.
The Corpus of Romnesque Sculpture also feature the church
The Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials dates from 1579 and is complete from that date.
St Mary the Virgin – A closer Look
The Church in the Forest otherwise known as St. Mary the Virgin Santon Downham is set in a most tranquil spot on the edge of the forest at the end of a large village green.
The Domesday Survey of 1086 notes the existence of a church in the village, most probably wooden and replaced by the present one. The church has a nave, chancel, north porch and a tower. The oldest part of the church is the western part of the nave, which is clearly Norman and dates from the 12th century. It has very thick walls and two doorways and windows facing each other. On the inside, each window characteristically displays round headed splays, these were later disguised/updated on the outside with pointed lancets.
This little church contains some fascinating anomalies: next to the North porch outside, there is evidence of an additional or most probably an earlier Trinity chapel; there is an arch filled with knapped flint and to the east a very well preserved piscina. The little niche above the door in the porch is off centre, indicating that the much thicker east wall of the porch was originally the West side of this chapel, probably destroyed during the Reformation.
The North porch; notice the off centre niche above the door in which a figure of the Virgin Mary, to whom the church is dedicated, would have been housed.
Above the South doorway there is a carved stone panel depicting what could be a wolf (symbolising evil) devouring the tree of life, which, indestructible sprouts from the wolf’s tail – symbolic of the Resurrection?
Secondly on two Capitals in the North transept of Ely Cathedral – contemporary work and also in the detailed carvings around the Prior’s (head monk’s) Door on the South side see below.
Inside the church
Within are a 13th or 14th century font and an early 14th century screen, crude and heavy in design but with a curious roughly cut double arch in one panel of the dado, possibly a primitive confessional. The altar cross, candlesticks and the processional cross all in wood are modern and made by a local forester. There are some fragments of mediaeval glass in the South chancel window but otherwise all the stained glass is Victorian, the best of which are three charming lancet windows on the North side representing Faith Hope and Charity.
On the South wall of the chancel there is a window by Harcourt Doyle (1952) depicting St. Francis amid Breckland flora and fauna – note the kingfisher.
Their are memorials related to the various landowners and their families connected with the village, nobably the Wright’s from the 17th and 18th centuries, through the Cadogans to the last ‘squire’, Colonel Edward Mackenzie who died in1929. Outside in the graveyard, near the gate is to be found the remains of a mediaeval churchyard cross, from the time when a single cross or crucifix commemorated all souls.
The final unsolved problem in the history of this little church is inside. On the South wall high up opposite the pulpit is an arch containing examples of mediaeval scroll painting but which bears relation to nothing else in church.
More information on the church can be found at The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture
The tower was built between 1460 and 1500 by a consortium of local benefactors who had their names inscribed in stone at the base of the tower and whose wills show them to be closely related – as one would expect in such a small community. Here, thanks to detailed notes on the church courtesy of John Fitch M. A. aided by Mr. Peter Rattlesden the inscriptions are brought to life:
On the west face four panels; (left to right) the interwined letters ST (Sancta Trinitas?); John Watt; John Reeve; the Agnus Dei emblem. On the South side are four names which, worn though they are, Mr Rattlesden plausibly deciphers as Sir John Dowham, Margaret Reve, Jafrey Skytte and William Toller.”
Sally McIrvine 2000
The Life of The Church
Running an ancient village church involves considerable time and expense. It is a task that is all the harder in a tiny village, with few people to share the load. The burden of preserving the most important building in the parish falls on a few households, explained Churchwarden and treasurer Andrew Kedar. Most do not wish to pay.
Although the congregation is small, the village and church are popular with visitors. “We do anything to keep the church open,” said Margaret. “We have had one incident of vandalism, but we have been very lucky. Unlike a lot of churches in England and around Suffolk, we can keep the church open in daylight hours which is a great bonus.” Hundreds of visitors visit each year, and there are pages of laudatory comments about the church.
Churchwardens play an important part in the running of St Mary’s. “You are responsible for the upkeep of the church, the running smoothly of the services and generally for the well being of the whole set-up of the church congregation in a way – you just keep an eye on them,” explained Margaret who has recently completed a seven year term in the role. The current Wardens are Andrew Kedar and Heather Brighouse.
The church was begun in the 12th century, though there was probably a church there long before that as bodies have been uncovered in the churchyard dating back 1000 years. The church developed in a rather random way, and the latest addition which can be accurately dated is the tower, built between 1460 and 1503. A booklet about the church’s history, written by John Fitch, is on sale in the church.
There is a weekly Sunday service in Santon Downham, even though the village shares its rector with two other parishes, explained Margaret. The Rector usually visits twice a month, for a Eucharist service. Family services are taken by a Churchwarden, or by Ann Buttrey, a lay reader who lives in Brandon. “We are also very fortunate in that we have a retired priest, the Reverend John Terry, who will come an average of once a month,” she added.
Special services were arranged to mark the third millennium. “There will be the usual Christmas services of course,” said Margaret, “but on the 1st January there will be a special service at which we shall probably ring in the bell around midday to welcome in the new year. We are also going to plant a millennium yew tree. This is a small 18 inch high tree which has been taken from yew trees with a history of over 2000 years. So it’s come from a parent tree which is as old as Christ.”
Day to Day Tasks
“We are very fortunate too because most of our upkeep is done by voluntary help,” said Margaret Kedar.
Churchyard maintenance is relatively straightforward – just grass cutting – but is a task that needs to be shared as it is time consuming to mow the half acre area by hand. A rota of 12 people take turns right through the summer.
The church too is kept very clean by two ladies, Margaret Norton and Sue Benton who take it in turns. There is also a rota of about six or seven ladies who do the flowers in the church each week. ” Everybody does their own thing and it always looks nice,” said Margaret. “For church festivals – Christmas and Harvest – we all get together and the whole church is decorated and it is appreciated by all our visitors. And we who do it also enjoy doing it, it’s a time when we are working quietly in the church.”
Rene Abigail, who runs the village shop, is the organist. “She is a wonderful person and every Sunday plays the organ for us – a lovely variation of hymns – nice old ones, plus a few new ones,” said Margaret.
Money has to be raised both to keep the building in good repair, and to contribute as much as £6,000 a year to help pay for the Rector and other administrative costs of the Diocese. The chuch also raises money for charity,
The Need For Funds
In essence, the Parochial Church Council has to find about £120 from every household in the parish (about 95), explained treasurer Andrew Kedar.
One of the biggest costs is the annual insurance premium. “We’re insured for about £450,000 and this year’s premium payment was £745 – quite a lot of money to find,” he said. The real value of the building is a lot higher, but the £450,000 would create a building adequate in size to cater for the village.
The building is inspected by an architect every five years who then specifies work to be done to preserve the Grade II building in good repair. “We’ve just completed last year, in 1998, about £19,000 worth of repairs which so far we have paid for ourselves. But towards the end of last year we were given a grant by the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust of £3,000 and this of course will go towards the work.” Subsidies are not generally available, added Andrew. Another inspection is now due. “There will be another whole pile of jobs to do to put the church right as far as the architect is concerned.”
“We also have heating costs, lighting costs, wine and wafers, and there are always little repair jobs – lots and lots of little repair jobs apart from the big five yearly stint of repairs.”
A further burden is that the full value added tax of 17.5% has to be paid on the work in the church and the churchyard. “We always think this is a shame, because we are preserving a historic building.”
Just a handful of folks supporting the church have to sustain the wonderful, classical building, he stressed.
Fundrasing to run the Church
Afternoon Teas have been on sale in the churchyard every Sunday in summer, since 1974. Sadly this stopped in 2015 due to the lack of volunteers. This was done to raise money for the church – 1999 was a particularly successful year. “We have – along with donations given to us – raised almost £850 by the teas,” said Andrew Kedar.
Refreshments weren’t all that were on sale. Thelma Thompson had a stall just outside the church. “Bric-a-brac was given to her – books, and brass and all kinds of things, to sell at the church,” explained Andrew. She made over £400 in 1999, and together with proceeds from a coffee morning, her total was almost £580.
“Our average in past years has been around £1,000, from teas and Thelma’s stall,” said Andrew.
There are wall boxes in the church for visitors who wish to help. “This year in the wall box we will probably receive between about £300 and £400, which is an excellent help – I am also the treasurer!” said Andrew.
There have also been occasional flower festivals, mainly to raise money, but also to encourage people to come into church.
Then there is carol singing. “On two nights before Christmas – hopefully with good weather – we go round the village trying to visit each house carol singing,” said Margaret. “The money that we raise is given to St Mary’s, mainly for the preservation of the building.” The carol service in the church also acts as a fund raising day – there may be 100 people there – the average attendance for a Sunday service is about 21 or 22.
Fundraising for Charity
The churchgoers also raise money for charities, in addition to finding the funds they need to run St Mary’s.
The harvest festival service – when people give the usual harvest produce – is followed by a harvest supper. “We move a bit of furniture around and we manage to seat around 40-45 people and we have the supper where people produce goodies to eat,” explained Margaret Kedar. “This year we raised in the one evening just over £300 which we sent to the Red Cross, following the Turkey earthquake.”
The other main charity that the church supports is the Children’s Society. Each year there is a house to house collection, and people keep boxes in their houses throughout the year. “Over the last 10 years we have raised about £2500 for the Children’s Society,” said Margaret.
Andrew and Margaret Kedar interviewed by Veronica Moran.
Written account transcribed by Lisa Russell
The audio recording will be kept at the Bury Records Office.