At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Barton Mills, Mildenhall

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


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The south porch, with the new doors, and the lamp standard outside. That's not my bike btw.

Restored image and niche on the south porch.

Looking east towards Scott's mighty mural.

Sanctuary and east window.

Here be dragons. Note the wheel of St Catherine in the quatrefoil.

The former organ chamber, now a prayer chapel, off the north side of the chancel.

Looking west.

Charity, by Heaton, Butler and Bayne.

18th century headstone in the graveyard.


Barton Mills: a splendid little church.

Over the course of several trips in September 2003 I'd visited all the Mildenhall area churches. I had not been endeared to the town, which I felt was shabby and dull, and creaking under the weight of supporting two massive American airbases. The A11 through here is the worst stretch of road in Suffolk, a frantic dual carriageway that goes closer to villages than any dual carriageway should. I had gone on at great length at how the churches were all locked, and most were inaccessible. And then for my very last church in the area I came to Barton Mills, which turned out to be rather lovely, despite the fact that it is Mildenhall's southern suburb. What is more, the church was open, and the lady inside told me that it is so every day. So that will teach me to be such a smartarse.

When Mortlock came this way in the 1980s he remarked upon the pollarded limes that front the churchyard, but these have now gone. The area immediately to the south of the church has been cleared of gravestones, and a park bench put against the perimeter fence, and it is pleasant enough. The old lamp standard outside the south porch is about to be renovated and brought back into use. The outer doors to the porch are in glass, and are very well done, especially compared with some of the disasters I've seen on my journey, Great Barton in particular. They were paid for with a legacy; someone left the church a statue of the madonna and child, and this was sold to fund the porch doors. My first thought was "hmmm....", and then I thought rather more articulately that there was something not quite right about selling off a devotional statue to make the church more secure. Was this a sign of a very low church congregation, or even a faith community in retreat? However, there is more going on here than meets the eye.

Uniquely in Suffolk, stewardship of Barton Mills' church is vested in a charitable trust, who raise money, fund developments and make decisions about the ongoing care of the church. The lady inside told me that the Anglican community can concentrate on using it for services, and the decision to sell the statue was made by the trust, not the church community. She told me that it was felt that it would make it too difficult to keep the church open all day if there was a valuable statue in it.

St Mary is certainly well-kept and well-cared for, and I was told that fund-raising has been very successful, and the Trust is able to carry out all the work it needs to. A recent change was to remove the 19th century organ from the 19th century organ chamber built on to the north side of the chancel. It had never worked properly, and would have cost a fortune to repair. Part of the casing was used to build furniture for the area under the tower. The chamber was converted into a prayer chapel, a curious sight when you see it because there is not another quite like it in East Anglia. A modern organ now sits at the east end of the north aisle.

The next big funding project is to restore the awesome mural of Christ the Good Shepherd above the chancel arch. It is by Sir George Gilbert Scott, and is part of a major renovation the church underwent in the last years of the 19th century. At this time, the nave was repaved, and under the old flooring were found hundreds of fragments of medieval glass. Of great interest are a set of what appear to be dragons - these have been reset in their original places in the south and north aisles. Most of the other fragments were hastily collected into the east window in the south aisle, presumably awaiting a time when more could be done with them. However, English Heritage have now said that the fragments must stay exactly where they are, because their 1890s resetting has as much historical value as their original location. Which just goes to show quite how stupid the anal retentives at English Heritage can be, I suppose.

There is a fine Heaton, Butler and Bayne window in the chancel, a detail of which can be seen on the left, and the nave is now full of modern chairs, which always looks good. The 19th century benches they replaced were sold off, except for a couple that are now in the new prayer chapel. I had seen a group of similar benches three miles away at West Row the previous week, and I wondered if they had come from here.

Don't miss the amazing 14th century oak chest at the west end of the south aisle; it was hollowed out of a single trunk of wood. The font is contemporary with it, a good one, and all in all this is a splendid little church, its aisles and clerestory filling it with light, but not disguising that it is pleasantly homely. The congregation and trust are to be congratulated, and I commend their church to you.

On an earlier version of this entry, I found it impossible to finish without a moan; this is Mildenhall, after all. Out at the A11 end of the parish there is a very large pub that we called at before going to the church. I observed that it had the worst service and the worst food of any pub I had ever been to in Suffolk; several people have contacted me to say that, while this was certainly the case at the time I visited, the food is now excellent, the service good and the prices reasonable.  Locals would like to see them do well - and why not, indeed? I look forward to a revisit.




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