St Benedict Minster, Beccles

  St Bene't vies with Bungay St Edmund and Lowestoft Our Lady Star of the Sea for the title of Suffolk's most spectacular Catholic church. And yet, they are all very different. St Edmund is jewel-like, while Star of the Sea is a palace of delights, an Arts and Crafts movement treasure box. St Bene't is something grander than both, more austere; an articulate French Romanesque revival that has been admired by many who tend to be sniffy about the early 20th century.

A corner of the Waveney valley that is for ever northern France. St Bene't Minster is that rare thing in Suffolk, a Catholic church with its own graveyard.

It sits on a hill in the south of the town, surrounded by that rare thing, its own graveyard. Norman arches clamber and interlock to form clerestories and triforia; a bold apse extends beyond the solid four-square tower.

The great west front above the Bungay road.

  Fronting all this is the fine west end.It is all cathedral quality work; not entirely coincidentally, this is the only Catholic church in Suffolk with its own guide book, and a good one too.

The church was built between 1900 and 1908, and was planned as the minster church of a large priory. An earlier church survives, now the parish hall.

The architect was Frederick Banham, and the costs were defrayed by the Kenyons of nearby Gillingham Hall, across the border in Norfolk.

Banham was a local Catholic architect, and is buried in the graveyard here, beside his young son, who died during the period in which Banham was building the church.

Although the Benedictines never came in force, the church was served until the 1970s by the monks of Downside Abbey, and links are still maintained.

Because of all this, it doesn't feel like an East Anglian church at all, and seems most exotic in one of the busy little Waveney Valley market towns.

Inside, the ambulatory around the nave contains the Stations of the Cross, and enhances the sense of solidity. One imagines the monks processing.

Above, the triforium lifts the eye heavenwards, and light infuses from the liturgical east (actually south).

Since Vatican II, the altar has been moved forward from the apse to beneath the crossing.

One moving feature is a board to the guild of Corpus Christi, which existed here in Beccles before its suppression by the Anglican reformers in the 1540s. It was revived in the 1890s, and still exists today.

Catholic priests ministered at St Michael in the market square in those days, of course, although very little evidence of them survives there.

The grave of 12 year old Oswald Banham, son of Frederick Banham, the architect of this church.


Looking east; well, south, but you know what I mean. Like a French cathedral, but the rood would once have been everywhere in Suffolk.

  St Bene't harks back to an earlier age than St Michael. The vaulted roof is far off in the gloom. The inscription on the rood reads Sic Deus Dilexit Mundum, 'God so Loved the World'.

The apse behind the great altar. The central tower rises above, and the transept extends to the right; the drum shape is the Lady chapel.

  All of Suffolk's churches would have had a rood before the Reformation, so we are in the presence of a continuity. The Romanesque style, with its cruciform shape and central tower, was virtually eradicated in Suffolk by the wealth of 15th century Perpendicular rebuilding.

But it reaches across the void of centuries, reconciling us to what the English Church once was.

St Bene't Minster, Beccles, is in the south of the town centre, on Bungay Road. The door beside the north transept is usually kept open.