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Withersfield Church Tower

24 February 2022 19:00

The church tower at Withersfield is in need of repair. There is a substantial hole in the east side of the tower, which will require specialist work to correct, as well as other high level work to be carried out. Donations to support this work are greatfully received, as welll as expressions of support which might aid grant applications. Local historian and expert on church architecture Roy Tricker has written the following about St Mary's tower:

Withersfield’s Crowning Glory

The beautiful tower of St Mary’s Church – Withersfield’s oldest building, and still in regular use for the purpose for which it was built – has graced the landscape of this lovely corner of Suffolk for maybe 600 years. Standing sturdy and elegant, it is the crowning glory of the church’s exterior, which would look rather depleted without it.

To me, the tower of a church is similar to a face of a person, which really identifies that person. I’m often asked to identify pictures of unknown churches, and I have much more success if the tower is shown, because that is often the part which sticks in the memory and enables me to recognise and place it.

Why build church towers?

Towers have graced our churches for maybe 1,000 years and beautiful Saxon examples have survived, including some of our East Anglian round towers. Each church tower is a unique ‘one-off’, and is a character in itself. Our mediaeval forefathers did not just build them for decoration, but in the days before our ‘mod-cons’ they served very useful purposes – some of which they continue to serve.

A heavenward-pointing tower rising above the church makes the building prominent, and makes a ‘statement’ – a statement of God’s presence in the community, advertising both the fact and the purpose of its existence. These towers are often beautiful pieces of mediaeval design and craftsmanship, funded by generous donors, maybe sometimes to further their heavenly chances, and certainly to create ‘something beautiful for God’, inspiring people with their grace and artistry. Some Suffolk towers (like Lavenham, Southwold, Eye, Mildenhall and Laxfield) soar over 100 feet and are just amazing.

An important function of the tower was to house the bells – the higher up they were, the further they could be heard. Church bells not only called people to worship, but also alerted the community to important local and national events, announce deaths,  emergencies, gatherings, etc.

Increasingly for the past c.350 years towers have created excellent locations for the dials of the church clock, thus providing a useful amenity to the community, and a vital one before the days when every home possessed a clock.

For mediaeval people the church tower provided a wonderful look-out and viewing-point, to spot distant happenings, arrivals and dangers. The parapet was an excellent defensive position, should it be needed.

Towers were also places for storage, and where people could resort for safe refuge. I know of two Suffolk towers where the door in the wall to the belfry newel-staircase is at least eight feet above the ground and a ladder is needed to reach it. Several of our round towers were originally entered above their tower arches. The psalmist wrote that ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ – and they took God at His word!

St Mary’s tower

Some visitors to churches rush to see the inside of the building, having missed the wealth of beauty and interest in the exterior, which was also built to inspire us – and there is no way in which we can admire a lovely tower from inside the church!

Standing back to admire St Mary’s exterior reveals what an elegant and beautifully-proportioned tower constitutes the church’s crowning glory. It probably grew during the first half of the 1400s and it is a fine example of the design and craftsmanship of its mediaeval architect and builders, who built by hand and built to last. We wonder how many thousands of flints and stones from the fields were lovingly gathered and assembled to form its sturdy rubble walls.

Strong yet elegant diagonal buttresses in receding stages support its western corners and also enhance the tower’s profile. In the south-east corner the embattled turret containing the newel staircase to the upper stages rises above the height of the parapet. This is a feature rare in Suffolk (but very common in Kent), although others may be seen in this small area of the county, including Haverhill, Great Bradley and Hundon.

Unusually there is no great west doorway, although the three-light west window, in the 15th century ‘Perpendicular’ style of architecture, is tall and stately. Small single windows light (and ventilate) the silence chamber above and higher up on the south side is the face of the clock, made by Smith of Derby in 1969.

The bell-chamber has large and graceful two-light Perpendicular openings, equipped with wooden louvres, allowing the sound of the bells to ring out and be heard across Withersfield. (Thankfully it is the northern window, which is less commonly seen, which has lost its mullion and tracery)!

At the centre of the stone string-course beneath the parapet on the east and west sides are pieces of carved stone, whilst on the south side a 15th century carved gargoyle head peers out at us. Its open mouth was designed to throw rainwater from the tower roof clear of the walls.

Internally, a lofty and handsome 15th century tower arch, soaring to the level of the western tie-beam, links the tower with the nave. The tower floor above rests upon rugged mediaeval beams; the central section (with two later beams) probably once contained the hatch which enabled the lowering of the bells when required.

The belfry staircase has retained its original sturdy 15th century door, which has a simple but beautiful six-lobed iron boss. In the silence-chamber and clock-room upstairs are vertical timbers which formed an ancient winch. Above are the timbers supporting the mediaeval bell-frame in which hang the church’s five bells.

The treble, 3rd , and tenor bells were cast by Robert Taylor of St Neots in 1804, the 2nd at Richard Bowler’s Colchester bell-foundry in 1603 and the 4th at Sudbury, by John Thornton in 1718. The tenor bell has a diameter of 40½ inches and weighs 11cwt 1lb.

As an occasional visitor and pilgrim over many years to St Mary’s (and always grateful for your welcoming open door), I am delighted that you are raising funds to repair and conserve your lovely tower. I am also honoured that Richard, churchwarden, has asked me to write about it. I wish you well as you seek to raise the money for this vital work, and may God bless you.

Roy Tricker (Reader and emeritus Lay Canon),
February 2022.