Bentley is a
fairly suburban village between Ipswich and Manningtree,
but long, beautiful lanes lead off in several directions
into the woods and fields, and the church is along the
one which heads in the general direction of Belstead and
Wherstead. About a mile from the village you reach a
small outlying hamlet, the raggedy hedges giving way to
the surprise of a neatly clipped churchyard and St Mary's
crisp exterior. Not far off is Jimmy's Farm, made famous
by television, and the housing estates of south-west
Ipswich glower just over the horizon, but here the
setting is intensely rural.
A bequest of 1458 left money to the tower, and in 1487
Nicholas Malebott left half a noble to painting St
Christopher, which would have been on the north wall
inside the nave and suggests that the rebuilding of the
church was complete by then. However, what we see today
is essentially a 19th Century church, largely the work of
diocesan surveyor Richard Phipson, and very little that
is older survives. What does, suggests that this was a
Norman building. The grand Norman south doorway is almost
entirely renewed, but it is done well, the chevrons and
peacock eyes familiar from the surviving genuine articles
around the county. A Norman window survives on the north
side of the chancel. Phipson brought the Ipswich
carpenter Henry Ringham along with him, so we may assume
that the furnishings are of the highest quality.
Until the 1960s the Colchester to Hadleigh railway line
ran along the edge of this churchyard, and the church
tower must have been a familiar landmark to travellers.
Now perhaps few people see it, but if, like me, you are
enticed by such ghosts of the past, then you too will
feel a frisson as you locate the route of the old line.
And we know a little about the former life of this
church, since Bentley was the seat of the Tollemaches
before they established themselves at Helmingham. One of
the vast Tollemache memorials there was originally made
for this church.
I have to tell you that I have never found this church
accessible, not in half a dozen visits, but coming back
here during the pandemic summer of 2020 I found busy work
afoot, the interior being given a proper going over, a
sign perhaps of an energy that may be more welcoming to
visitors in the future. I shall go back and have a look
soon, because, whatever I find at Bentley church, the
lanes around it are idyllic for cycling.