At one time, St Mary Magdalene stood rather more grandly than it does now. One night in 1975, however, the villagers were awoken by a tremendous roar. It was the sound of the tower of their church collapsing.
Tower collapses were common enough in 18th century Suffolk, as 200 years of post-Reformation neglect took their toll. But the Victorian restorers had largely done away with this problem (although the unrestored tower at Stanton All Saints had collapsed as recently as 1906). Here at Bildeston, ironically, the tower was undergoing radical surgery at the time, and the medieval bells had already been removed.
The replacement tower is topped by a bare, functional box, with a slender little spire on top, which, try as I might, I could not find beautiful. It is better than the garden shed affair at Stonham Aspal, though. It does, to its credit, accentuate the height of the nave and chancel, the pretty clerestory of which is picked out in flint and brick. This is a typically grand Suffolk church, like near neighbours Hitcham and Rattlesden. The sloping churchyard is neat and trim, with large trees surrounding it. The whole piece rides the fields like a ship in a storm.
The south porch is, again, typically Suffolk, its grand flushwork a testimony to 15th century piety and Marian devotion. The first sight on entering the church, however, is an excellent modern west window of two Marys witnessing the resurrection, installed to replace one destroyed by the towerfall.
The south aisle itself is now dedicated as the chapel of St Nicholas, Wattisham, and retains the sanctuary furnishings of that now-redundant and sold off church. The dado of the roodscreen, with restored saints, now forms a reredos. It is used for services weekly, to maintain the continuity of that church's liturgy, and it is still therefore apparently possible to be baptised or married 'at' St Nicholas.
The nave is a grand affair, lifting high above the arcade beyond the south aisle. There is no chancel arch, and the clerestory continues right up to the east end, in the manner of the finest Perpendicular church architecture. However, here it is offset by the loveliest Decorated windows in the east ends of chancel and aisles.
The effect is tempered somewhat by the bland 19th century sanctuary. Looking westwards, the high clerestory, and repairs after the tower's collapse, create a rather severe austerity, the tiny sanctus bell window punctuating the vast wall. A tremendous amount of careful restoration has gone into this building over the last quarter of a century, and it is not surprising that it has lost the patina of age that one might expect.
However, an extraordinary survival from the past can be seen up in the chancel, where Mortlock found the stalls, fitted with misericords, that were removed from the now-vanished chapel of ease of St Leonard down in the village.
A survival that might have been, but wasn't is the roodscreen. Without a chancel arch, it must have been enormous. It survived the Reformation, it survived the Puritans, only to be destroyed in an 18th century reordering.
Text credits - Simon Knott http://www.suffolkchurches.co.uk