Suffolk’s stained glass rated top in the country by church tourism website
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Every few years, dozens of descendents of the 15th century Suffolk nobleman John Clopton travel from America to visit the county where their family made its name.
Of particular interest, according to the Rev Matthew Lawson, is the Holy Trinity Church in Long Melford.
Refurbished by Sir John as a thanks to God after he avoided execution, the church was fitted with hundreds of panes of stained glass, including some depicting him and his family – which his relatives can still marvel at today.
While the Clopton descendents’ transatlantic pilgrimage may be among the more far-flung examples of Suffolk as a stained glass visitor destination, it is by no means the only one.
According to research by church tourism website Explorechurches.org, Suffolk is the top county in England to visit for its variety of coloured glass. Analysis of 2,000 churches by The National Churches Trust, which runs the website, found 72% of Suffolk’s churches – the highest proportion in the country – were recognised for the people they depict, the stories they tell and their famous designers.
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Sarah Crossland, church tourism manager for the trust, said Suffolk boasted a “massive variety” of fine examples.
“There’s medieval stained glass, little of which is left in its original form; incredible Victorian stained glass, which is really bright and colourful because of the way it was manufactured and then there’s the gloriously flamboyant pre-Raphaelite glass,” she said.
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Of all the stunning examples that helped Suffolk claim its title, perhaps the most spectacular can be found in Long Melford.
Rev Lawson said visitors from all over the country, and further afield, came to Holy Trinity each day – many attracted by the glass.
“It’s one of the largest collections of medieval glass in the country,” he added. “We arrange tours and talks and we’ve had an expert visit from Canterbury Cathedral to talk about it. I think it’s the beauty and craftsmanship that attracts people. It’s a major draw to East Anglia and perhaps we should do more to promote it. Because it’s wonderful artwork; it’s even been described as a national treasure.”
David Hamand, an expert in the stained glass collection, said it had been installed when Holy Trinity was rebuilt by Sir John following his release from the Tower of London where he had been facing execution for corresponding treasonably with the wife of Henry VI.
While the church had once been adorned all over with coloured glass, Mr Hamand said much of it had been destroyed during the Puritan Revolution, leaving behind only those free from holy imagery.
Originally intended to tell stories from the Bible, Mr Hamand said viewers today were more interested in its portrayal of medieval clothing and headwear. “It’s a beautiful depiction of the people and their dress,” he added.
Another Holy Trinity church, this one in Boxted, near the Essex border, has also been singled out for praise – though for a much more modern depiction.
Here, the main window overlooking the altar features a pastoral scene of Boxted Hall, including rabbits and partridges, which was created in memory of Hugh Weller-Poley, an RAF airman who died during the Second World War.
His nephew, Richard Weller-Poley, who is also the church warden, said it had been commissioned by his grandmother to remember her son. “All my family are buried underneath the church,” he added. “We’ve been here since the reign of Edward III.”
Mr Weller-Poley said the church received many visitors who were interested in the stained glass, as well as alabaster figures of Sir John Poley in the Poley chapel.
Church rector, Rev Patrick Prigg said the stained glass “gave that sense of the modern alongside the very traditional.”
“We don’t particularly advertise the church, but it does get quite a number of visitors,” he added.
Of all the churches in Suffolk, St Margaret’s in Herringfleet, near Lowestoft, is the one highlighted in the study for its “magical stained glass” which “glows with different colours”.
“Set in lead brackets, pieces of glass are designed to catch the sunlight and lift the mood of anyone looking,” the study says.
Father Glen Brooks, the church rector, said people often commented on how special the glass was, which attracted many visitors. “We’re always delighted to see them,” he added.
The church has been closed for refurbishment since April and is not due to reopen until Christmas.
Bishops’ praise for Suffolk stained glass
Senior church figures have welcomed the study and praised the “unsung heroes” who keep the county’s churches beautiful.
The Rt Rev Martin Seeley, Bishop of the St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Diocese, said: “One of the great joys of being the bishop is that as I travel round the county I see again and again how beautiful our churches are, and I am delighted they receive so many visitors.
“The stained glass is stunning in many of our churches, and so too the furnishings and monuments, not to mention the architecture that creates so many spaces that are both awe-inspiring and comforting.
“I am grateful to the unsung heroes who keep our churches beautiful - and open.”
The Rt Rev Dr Mike Harrison, Bishop of Dunwich, added: “There are some truly stunning examples of stained glass around Suffolk churches - so many in fact that for example you could put a different one on a Christmas card each year from now to 2050 and not run out of fabulous depictions of the nativity.
“Stained glass is not only beautiful to look at but a helpful metaphor too - just as the glass is dull and indistinct without the light, but shows forth its true beauty when it allows light to come through it, so too we show forth our true beauty as we allow God’s gracious love to come through us.”