At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Ashfield-cum-Thorpe

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

  2012: I've started taking down the oldest entries on the Suffolk Churches site, planning to revist them all this year. However, a couple of them are quite good, including this one, so I have reset it awaiting a revisit. I apologise for the quality of the photographs, which were taken long before I owned a digital camera. They will all be replaced.

2002: They seem to have been a pragmatic lot in these two villages over the centuries. After, the Reformation, the two parishes were consolidated. St Peter at Thorpe quickly fell into ruins, and by 1602 was quite unusable. So, the people of both places came here. In 1739, the Squire at Thorpe rebuilt St Peter, retaining its late Saxon round tower; the novelty of a new church seems to have been a bit of an attraction, because now St Mary at Ashfield entered a period of neglect. By the late 18th Century, the church here had become ruinous, so it was the turn of the Ashfield villagers to make the trek across the fields to Thorpe, to attend Divine Service there. In return, the dead of both villages came here to be buried. In 1823, someone stole the bell from the cage at Ashfield, so presumably it had still been in use for funerals. It must have been a curious place; cemeteries were virtually unknown at the time, and the runis of the old church must have cast a haunting presence.

This went on until 1853, when Lord Henniker of Thornham Magna paid the London architect W. C. Woollard to design a new St Mary. All that remained of the old building by now was the stump of its square tower, and this was completely removed, a wholly new church being built in its place. It is a unusual building in some ways. Although Suffolk doesn't have many newly built Victorian churches outside the four main towns, there are lots of heavy restorations. Generally, these are all in a traditional Suffolk style; but St Mary is wholly mid-19th century, equipped for Tractarian worship, and must have been quite a sensation. Its external aspect reminds me rather of St Paul, in central Cambridge, although Woollard doesn't seem to have planned a tower here.

The cost of the church was 2000, about half a million in today's money, and this substantial building has faired well. Red brick is usual in Suffolk buildings of this period, but Woollard banded it here with expensive blue bricks, which gives it a strangely industrial feel, especially when couple with the chimney-like bellcote at the west end.

You step in through the south porch. My first impression was that this was a church in constant use. The chairs in the chancel were turned to face each other, as if a meeting had recently taken place, and there was much evidence of childrens activities. I visited in early January 2001, and they had obviously had a busy Christmas. I would be lying if I said this was a beautiful or significant interior, or even that it was particularly neat - but it is clearly much loved. The blue banding of the Perpendicular-style east window lends a devotional quality to the light that floods in above a simple wooden altar.

One curiosity - the front of the reading desk (it is hardly a pulpit) is made up of 17th century panels. They may have come from Thorpe, or from the original church here. Or anywhere else, I suppose. Outside, it was interesting to note that there are still several gravestones dated from the early years of the 19th century, when this was but a cemetery, before the great philanthropist of Thornham restored it to its former glory.


Simon Knott, 2002 (reset February 2012)


As mentioned above, I apologise for the quality of the photographs, which were taken long before I owned a digital camera. They will all be replaced.

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