Apr 16, 2017

Blythburgh's Cathedral of the Marshes


I was lucky enough to visit England and France four times before moving to Paris for eight months during my junior year of college: once on a family holiday, once on a summer study program, and twice on choir tours. Each time - and, obviously, especially on the choir tours - we visited lots of churches and cathedrals, many dating back hundreds of years. (Parts of St Albans, just north of London, were built in the 11th century!) But I was spoiled by my cathedral in Washington, and I didn't truly appreciate Europe's churches until I started studying medieval history and art in college.

Because the National Cathedral is so big - it's the second-largest in the States and the sixth-largest in the world - and it was my standard for what a church should be, I thought that a house of worship had to be overwhelming to induce awe. It wasn't until I lived in Paris and literally stumbled on churches like Saint Severin and Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, both on the Left Bank in Paris between the Cluny and Shakespeare & Company, that I realized how powerful architectural intimacy could be.

That's one of my favorite things about the churches in the English countryside: they're everywhere, these little jewel boxes, and they inspire this sense of absolute wonder and mystery. It's so easy to imagine Suffolk in the Middle Ages, when the church was the center of a community and the beauty of its architecture was evidence to the villagers that God was with the men who built it and, indeed, still in the church with the worshippers.

We drove past the village of Blythburgh, Jon's mum and Jon and I, on our way to Southwold on our first day in Suffolk a few weeks ago, and my mother-in-law made an offhand comment about the pretty church on the estuary. Naturally, I asked if we could stop to take a look!

Holy Trinity Church - also known as the Cathedral of the Marshes - is built on one of the oldest Christian sites in England. In the Domesday Book of 1087, Blythburgh is listed as a wealthy royal burgh. However, the town was already probably past its most prosperous days as a result of plague, the wars abroad, and the rise of other trading centers nearby when construction of the current church building was begun in the 15th century. Holy Trinity is nonetheless breathtaking - and largely untouched by more modern "upgrades," thanks to the restrained repairs in later centuries. As Simon Knott of suffolkchurches.co.uk explains, "Here is the late medieval Suffolk imagination writ large, as large as it gets, and not overwritten by the Anglican triumphalism of the 19th century... It is so fascinating, so stunningly beautiful, by virtue of a factor that is rare in Anglican parish churches: sheer neglect."

The intricacy of the exterior of the church - with the windows' delicate tracery and the mottled colors of the stones that make up the walls - provides quite a contrast to the seeming simplicity of the interior. You can see the tracery from the pews, of course, but the glass is clear and the nave is wide, punctuated by unadorned pillars. Look up, though, past the beautifully carved rood screen to the ceiling, where wooden angels perch at the peak of each vault. The whole effect is one of light and openness and peace.

Today, Blythburgh's church is still an active Anglican house of worship, and some concerts in the Aldeburgh Festival are performed there. It was such a lovely treat to explore the church and the grounds - a perfect "welcome back" from my beloved Suffolk!