St Felix, Rendlesham - an alternative guide to the churches of Suffolk


St Felix - utilitarian.

St Felix beyond the overgrown memorial garden.

That rare thing - a mission church with locked doors. Maybe you really have to want to be saved.

Incongruously urban flats complexes on the edge of the Rendlesham forest.

Former base buildings now pressed back into service by the new community.

For several generations of Americans, not to mention East Suffolkers, the word 'Bentwaters' is redolent of overseas service, of the Cold War, of a time that now seems curiously distant and simple. Bentwaters was one of Britain's biggest airbases, a city in itself, seemingly permanent. Just off of the roundabout near the main entrance to the base there used to be a huge sign that bore the slogan Peace Through Superior Firepower. This was the legacy of America's confrontation with the Soviet Union; the squaring up of the Eagle and the Bear, a stand-off that would, we all assumed, last forever - however long forever might be.

And then, the Berlin Wall fell, and within six months the might of the American military-industrial complex was obsolete - in East Anglia, anyway. There would be other fish to fry, but they were in the future. The Americans left, leaving a Wild Eastern ghost town.

For generations of American servicemen, the present church of St Felix was the Bentwaters base chapel. Its strictly utilitarian structure is a reflection of its origins, rather than of any lack of priorities; all buildings on the base were utilitarian.

The last Americans departed in 1993, and a protracted planning battle followed. Coincidentally, Ipswich's so-called airport (in reality, a grass runway) had also recently closed, and there was a body of opinion that Bentwaters should be developed as a proper airport for Suffolk. This plan never had a chance, of course, with Norwich, Cambridge and Stansted airports all within 50 miles, so another plan was submitted to develop the site as a heavy airfreight terminal.

The argument was that local residents had put up with the noise of American bombers flying in and out for years, so they wouldn't mind large freight carriers doing the same thing. Of course, the blessed peace that had descended on East Suffolk in the intervening years meant that local people were determined to keep it peaceful, and the plans were thrown out.

Only slightly more off the wall than these two attempts were another set of plans submitted by a yoga institute for a university of yogic flying. As you might expect, yoga is fairly popular in a place like Suffolk, but the idea of people levitating was just a bit too weird for the likes of Suffolk Coastal planning department.

Finally then, plans were accepted to develop the site for housing, and about 3,000 people will live on the site when it is finished. This was clearly the best solution, and the only ever likely outcome. A shame, then, that the planning delays had caused so much deterioration to the infrastructure and buildings on the site. These include totally urban complexes of flats, which will presumably be demolished, and an incongruous drive-in Burger King, which has already come down.

Beyond the site, the primeval Rendlesham forest spreads, a useful cloak for the former airbase. Today, the trees are eerie and still as they ride the heathlands. On the far side of them stands the mysterious medieval church of St John, Wantisden, one of Suffolk's most haunting churches, and for many years marooned on the base. On the adjacent Woodbridge base, near East Gate, a place where guard duty was apparently a spooky experience, one of England's most famous UFO incidents occured in the 1980s.

However, back on planet Earth, this church sits at the heart of the site, opposite the revamped Angel Theatre, formerly the base theatre. Other buildings have also been restored to public use, including the community centre and the sports hall. There was obviously a cross once on the gable end - you can still make out the outline. The church has a cloister of offices and a hall attached to it, which were still derelict when I visited, and a pretty memorial garden beside it. I can't say what it is a memorial to, however, because the plaque had been ripped off of the plinth.

The base chapel was bought by the local Anglican Diocese in 2000, to give them a presence in this rapidly-expanding area. Rendlesham's gorgeous medieval parish church of St Gregory is a good two miles away, and any other church moving onto the site would have had free range of the reformed Christians, so it was an opportunity that the Anglicans couldn't miss. The church is still clad in its khaki green, but has potential, as the property developers might say.

Unfortunately, St Edmundsbury and Ipswich PLC seems to have got itself into a bit of a tangle. Less experienced than they'd like to think in this property developing game, they outlaid 65,000 for this simple building, and a nearby large plot of land on which they hoped to build a large, modern Rectory.

But they didn't apply for outline planning permission first. When they applied for full planning permission after purchase, it was turned down. Locals argued, not unreasonably, that a Rectory was likely to generate a lot of visitors, and the Diocese hadn't bought sufficient land to allow for visitor parking. Also, they rather liked the trees that were on the site, and didn't want to lose them. These trees, needless to say, now have preservation orders on them.

The Diocese seems to have been surprised and affronted by the decision. A furious row ensued, which resulted in the Parish's energetic and talented Rector, Martin Flowerdew, leaving. The parish still had an older building on the site; unfortunately, it was considered unsuitable for use as a Rectory. Ho hum.

Postscript: In November 2002, the new Rector of Rendlesham, Colin Macdonald, contacted me to say that things had greatly improved, and to bring me up to date with events. Among other things, he observed that the so called derelict extension at the rear of the church may look a little tatty from the outside but houses toilets, church office and a number of meeting rooms, all of which are in constant use. Sadly the old church hall ( which over the last few years has housed a charity shop ) and the kitchen were never sold to the Diocese and have recently been demolished as part of the Village centre development which is now beginning to take shape. We have plans in hand to demolish the old church extension next year and replace it with a new extension again housing toilets, office and meeting rooms.

We recently, as a church, spent a day working on the memorial garden and it is now back to something of its former glory. The plaque will be replaced as appropriate.

My wife and I currently live in the temporary Vicarage in Watersfield Park and are very happy there. It is very much part of the community and it is refreshing to live in the type of house that is similar to other housing around it. However plans are well advanced to build the new Vicarage adjacent to St Felix and this should be in place next year.

Rev. Macdonald went on to say that a main platform of our work here is to hold together the various parts of Rendlesham and to this end it is wonderful to have the two churches of St. Felix and St. Gregory which are not only different in history and architecture but allow us to worship in different ways. St. Felix modern and family based while St. Gregory is more formal and traditional.

It is good to know that things are working themselves out. Incidentally, it is also good to see that the church is dedicated to a local Saint. In 631, St Felix was sent from Burgundy to convert the heathen English, and invited to establish his cathedral at Dumnoc, probably Walton Castle, by the Wuffing royal family, who ruled all East Anglia from here at Rendlesham.


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