Sunday, 22 July 2012

Polstead, Suffolk

Without a shadow of doubt St Mary was the church of the day; the setting is stunning, the rather odd stainless steel nave roof with dormer windows - peculiarly attractive - and when you step inside the interior of the church is given a unique appearance by the use of brick and tufa blocks in the construction of the nave arches, the Norman clerestory windows and the chancel arch. Norman arches of brick are very rare; there is no other church like this in the whole of Suffolk and even where, as in St Alban’s Cathedral, brick arches were built by the Normans, the brick was Roman material re-used.

There has been some difference of opinion concerning the origin of the Polstead Bricks; it has been maintained that they are Roman and that this may be inferred from the presence in the walls of much geuine Roman brick and tile and in the arches themselves of the tufa blocks (which it is known were used for hearth-building in Roman villas).

On the other hand, the Polstead Bricks much more closely resemble the bricks used to build Little Coggeshall Abbey, in Essex, which are known to have been made on the site within ten years of 1200 A.D. Both the Polstead and Little Coggeshall bricks are of dark red, rough texture and about the same size, (viz., 10-11 in. long, 5-7 in. wide and 1 3/4 in. thick). It seems likely that here we have a very early instance of post-Roman brick-making in East Anglia and that the Polstead Bricks ante-date the Coggeshall bricks by some half-century.

Personally I found St Mary as architecturally exciting as Waltham Abbey but add in a murder, old glass, interesting monuments, brasses and the setting then this has to be a top ten church (she makes SJ's 1000 Best but only merits a ludicrous 1 star).

ST MARY. Close to Polstead Hall. The age of the church can only be recognized inside. Originally the church was aisleless and shorter to the W than it is now. Norman extension by aisles and a further W bay. Arcade of three bays. Square Norman piers with nook-shafts at the angles. These have small capitals.  Rough, single-stepped Norman arches of brick. Clerestory windows over, also of brick. In addition the W bay remains separated. It has a brick arch on Norman responds and yet one more clerestory window. The bricks are most puzzling. They are in size 10  to 11 in. by 5 to 7 in. by 1 3/4 in. So they cannot be Roman: the Roman size is 18 by 12 in. On the other hand the earliest accepted English bricks, those at Little Coggeshall in Essex, are 12 by 6 by 1 3/4 in., and that would go well with Polstead. But Polstead is earlier in all probability, and that would give it the distinction of having the earliest surviving English bricks. Norman also are the plain chancel arch and its imposts and the elaborate W doorway, now leading into the tower and the window above. The doorway has to the W two orders of shafts and divers zigzags in the arches. So there was no W tower originally. The next part in order of time is the W tower of c.1300 with later spire. It has lancets and Y-tracery. The W arch of the S arcade may also belong to this period. Of the Dec style the s doorway, the s aisle E window with reticulated tracery, and also the N aisle E window with a depressed arch. Most of the rest is Perp. - FONT. Octagonal, C 13, on five supports. - WALL PAINTING. Fragment of a Bishop, nave, N wall. - COMMUNION RAIL. Three-sided, C18.- STAINED GLASS. Many fragments, C15 and later, in the chancel. -  PLATE. Set 1816. -  BRASSES. Priest of the C15, 18 in. figure, chancel N wall. - Civilian, wife, and children, late C15, 21 in. figure, in front of the pulpit.

St Mary (2)

South arcade

Nave looking east

Norman capital (3)

POLSTEAD. It was here that they laid poor Maria Marten, whose mysterious disappearance over a century ago led to one of the most sensational murder trials ever known. We can still see her thatched cottage, and the gabled home of her murderer. The Red Barn in which she died stood near the church, and her grave is in the churchyard, but her stone has been chipped away by louts until it is only a stump of a few inches.

We turn with relief from this most gruesome memory. Standing near the grave is the famous Gospel Oak, among fine trees between the church and the hall. It is said to be 1000 years old, and to mark the spot where missionaries stood preaching to the Saxons before the village had a church. It is now, alas, a most forlorn sight, hardly a tree in the accepted sense of the word. Far younger and more beautiful are other trees belonging to the hall, some shading a deer park of 90 acres, and others shading a beautiful well garden.

But a thousand years will not bring us to the beginning of things in Polstead, the pool-stead or pool-place named from the lake to which the steep village street descends. How old the name is we do not know, but it cannot be older than the thin red Roman bricks which the Norman builders picked up and used again when they were fashioning the round arches in the church. They used them for the nave arcades, the chancel arch, and the tower arch. Above the nave arches are red brick clerestory windows which have been blocked since the height of the aisles was raised about 1300. At that time, too, the big north porch was built, and it has kept its original oak door, with two long iron straps and a round iron handleplate.

The tower has the only old stone spire in Suffolk (14th century), and the tower arch has two pairs of pillars and three rows of zigzags.

The church has an old timber roof; and rather rare among its woodwork are the baluster rails of Shakespeare’s time, which enclose three sides of the altar. The tapering font cover is Jacobean, but the font itself is in the later Norman style. In the chancel are old glass fragments showing parts of a Crucifixion and a bishop. Eight 15th century people are here in brass, a priest in his robes, a father with bobbed hair and wide sleeves, a mother with furred sleeves, and their five children in long gowns. Still more attractive is the delightful little classical monument above the pulpit, where a 17th century Jacob is kneeling with one hand on the head of his Benjamin, a youngest son, like the Benjamin of the Bible. The rosy-cheeked boy is wearing a long green cloak and holding a skull, and his death in 1630 was a tragic one, for he fell from one of the windows of the hall on to the stone steps below. The father is bare-headed and black-bearded, with a red cloak and white sleeves; the two of them are very charming under an arch crowned by a coat-of-arms.

The village has a memory of one of the most important happening in our history, something which took place not long before this monument was set up; it is enshrined in the archives of the church, which have entries giving the names of people who went out in the Mayflower to seek a new world.

At the bottom of the churchyard a dignified cenotaph looks out over the countryside; it is carved with an armoured knight in the act of slaying a dragon, the everlasting symbol of the heroism of those who went from this green and pleasant land to die for us.

The Mystery of the Old Red Barn

WILLIAM CORDER was the son of a wealthy farmer and a man of some education who, being involved in a love affair with Maria Marten, the beauty of the village, proposed a secret marriage. With her mother’s consent he arranged that she should go disguised in male attire to the old Red Barn on his mother’s farm. From there, after she had changed her clothes, he would take her to Ipswich and marry her.

During the day Corder was seen to approach the barn with a pick-axe on his shoulder. Maria duly appeared, dressed as a boy, and was never seen alive again. Corder went to her parents and declared that the marriage had taken place and that Maria had gone to stay with friends of his at a distance so that the wedding should not be known. From day to day Corder visited the barn, and then, five months having elapsed, he pleaded ill—hea1th and the need for a holiday abroad and left Polstead with money obtained by a trick from the Manningtree bank.

Time passed, and letters from Corder bearing an Isle of Wight address but a London postmark reached Maria’s parents, telling them that the girl was living happily with him. Never did they hear from her. Her mother dreamed repeatedly of the Red Barn, and a year after Maria’s departure the building was searched. Eighteen inches below the floor the body of Maria was found.

Corder was traced to a house at Brentford, where he had married a woman of good family and was keeping a School for Young ladies. His trial at Bury St Edmunds aroused such excitement that The Times gave a quarter of its whole space to it. The court was so crowded that solicitors fainted in the crush.

The case, after a year of mystery, was brutally simple, and having made a full confession in his cell Corder was executed before ten thousand spectators. A guinea an inch was paid for the rope which was used to hang him; a book recording his trial has been bound in his skin; his skeleton is preserved in West Suffolk General Hospital at Bury St Edmunds; and while this book was being written the old melodrama of Maria Marten, founded on the crime, was drawing half London to see it.

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