Over the last year or so, I have started
revisiting the churches of Suffolk which I
originally wrote about at the start of the
decade. Coming back with a digital camera to St
John the Baptist was a delight. However, I have
seen no reason to change the text of what I wrote
seven years ago; or, at least, not much.
Just as we go to Long Melford to find
out about the 15th century, so future historians
will come to St John the Baptist to chart the
course of the century just ended. For this church
is the definitive statement in Suffolk of the
liturgy and practice of 20th century High Church
Anglicanism. Neither as eclectic as Spooner's
Ipswich St Bartholomew, or as provincial as
Phipson's Ipswich St Mary le Tower, this mighty
church, the last work of the great Sir Arthur
Blomfield, is the nearest thing Suffolk has to
the grand and uncompromising High Church temples
of west London.
It has an unparalleled collection of 20th
century stained glass; the best of this consists of a
range of saints, spanning the century, from St Etheldreda
in her high Victorian camp, to the modern images of
Saints Hilda and Bede, both illustrative of the current
Celtic revival in Anglican spirituality. Also worthy of
note among them are the Arts and Crafts influenced James,
Peter and John, the Lady Chapel glass east window of the
Suffolk triumverate of Edmund, Felix and Fursey, and, as
recently as 1982, St Thomas More, who exists elsewhere in
a Suffolk Anglican Church at the extremis of
Father James Mather informs me that More is at last
recognised in the Anglican calendar in the new Common
Worship lectionary, but this was not the case in 1982. As
the foundations of Anglicanism were bought at the cost of
More's life, it is bold indeed that this window
commemorates More's martyrdom. Much of the glass is by
Powell & Co, and forms a document of that studio's
work as well.
Felixstowe is the nearest thing Suffolk has
got to a traditional seaside town, albeit not as brash as
Walton-on-the-Naze and Clacton across the river in Essex,
or Yarmouth over the Norfolk border. The town separates
naturally into a number of areas, each with its own main
churches: Felixstowe Ferry, Old Felixstowe, Felixstowe
Town, Felixstowe West End, and Felixstowe Docks. Suburbs
include the medieval parishes (and medieval churches) of
Walton and the two Trimleys, but only Old Felixstowe has
a medieval parish church in the town itself.
As the town expanded westwards at the turn of the
century, the West End grew as an area of substantial
red-brick town houses, some of them hotels and
guesthouses, some sanitoriums, but the whole piece
grander than anything else in urban Suffolk outside of
Southwold or the Christchurch Park area of Ipswich.
Nestled into this very comfortable area, St John the
Baptist on Orwell Road is a beacon, the town's tallest
building, a landmark from land and sea alike. It was also
the only Suffolk church enshrined in verse by John
Betjeman, in his poem Felixstowe, or the Last of her
Order; not surprisingly, since it would be quite at
home among the London churches he loved:
With one consuming roar along the
The long wave claws and rakes the pebbles down
To where its backwash and the next wave mingle,
A mounting arch of water weedy-brown
Against the tide the off-shore breezes blow.
Oh wind and water, this is Felixstowe.
In winter when the sea winds chill and shriller
Than those of summer, all their cold unload
Full on the gimcrack attic of the villa
Where I am lodging off the Orwell Road,
I put my final shilling in the meter
And only make my loneliness completer.
In eighteen ninety-four when we were founded,
Counting our Reverend Mother we were six,
How full of hope we were and prayer-surrounded
"The Little Sisters of the Hanging
We built our orphanage. We built our school.
Now only I am left to keep the rule.
Here in the gardens of the Spa Pavillion
Warm in the whisper of the summer sea,
The cushioned scabious, a deep vermillion,
With white pins stuck in it, looks up at me
A sun-lit kingdom touched by butterflies
And so my memory of the winter dies.
Across the grass the poplar shades grow longer
And louder clang the waves along the coast.
The band packs up. The evening breeze is stronger
And all the world goes home to tea and toast.
I hurry past a cakeshop's tempting scones
Bound for the red brick twilight of St.John's.
"Thou knowest my down sitting and mine
Here where the white light burns with steady glow
Safe from the vain world's silly sympathising,
Safe with the love I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.
Edwardian Felixstowe lost its holiday industry long ago.
It is now but the favourite destination for daytrippers
from Ipswich, the urban sprawl of which lies a bare six
miles from the edge of Felixstowe's. But this area still
has a holiday town atmosphere. There is a steep descent
down the wonderfully named Convalescent Hill to the beach
below, with crowds thronging the shingle and the leisure
centre; but up here, it is another age, with the
comfortable spring sunshine baking the red bricks of the
quiet three-storey houses.
St John the Baptist's concrete-white spire emerges above
its lower stages, the redness of which intensify from a
distance. Blomfield had built the rest of the church in
the early 1890s, but the spire and the Lady chapel
followed in 1899, the year of his death. You enter
nowadays through Munro Cautley's 1940 south porch; the
main entrance beneath the tower is no longer used. The
first impression is of a dimness, the smell of incense,
rich light from the coloured glass. Betjeman wrote of St
John's red brick twilight, and the same is true
today as then.
The windows previously referred to line the walls of the
north and south aisles and Lady chapel. The last is in
the south aisle, and is now partitioned off by glass
doors to enable a prayerful silence when the rest of the
building is in use, as at Ipswich St Bartholomew. The
lowness of the aisles accentuates the over-arching nave
roof, and draws the eyes to the 'Big Six' candlesticks on
the high altar. No Vatican II altar in the nave here, for
the chancel gates and Suffolk-style screen still contain
clergy and choir stalls in front of the tiled and marbled
sanctuary. So, as at Ipswich St Mary le Tower, High
Church externals are maintained, whatever the liturgy.
Either side of the high altar are gilded mosaics
illustrating Christ's gift of peace.
To the west, a little screened baptistery in the north
aisle. The window behind it is the oldest in the church,
and illustrates St Felix baptising and preaching. It is
dedicated in memory of a child called Felix, who died in
the 1890s. One of Blomfield's hallmarks is the way his
buildings appear to be a cluster of smaller buildings
around the great nave, like a medieval city. That
illusion is successfully created here by the way the
rooflines contrast, particularly that of the Lady chapel
with the nave. From the south east, the direction from
which you would commonly approach, this is particularly
The feeling of a citadel is further reinforced by the way
St John the Baptist is shoe-horned into its site, with
barely room to breathe except on the north side, where
the former rectory lawn spreads towards the house. In the
old days, it must have been pleasant to step from High
Mass into a summer fete or garden party. But High Mass
has gone, and the rectory is now derelict, alas.
More romantic still is the convent that sits to the west
of the church, which instantly recalls Betjeman's poem.
As one stands outside, with the 'crashing tide' below,
the sisters come and go, and it would be romantic to
imagine that they are a surviving relic of the
extraordinary flourishing of Anglican religious orders at
the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, you
might almost imagine that this is the very convent that
Betjeman had in mind, despite the fact that he suggested
himself that these orders were withering away when he
wrote this poem in the 1950s. But in fact, this is a
Catholic convent, the house of the Religious of Jesus and
around my favourite east coast town over the years, I had
often popped in to St John the Baptist to see how it was.
I had never found it locked. In May 2007 I brought my new
camera, and my daughter, and while we pottered about
inside, the churchwarden came in. I don't know if he knew
who I was, but he very kindly offered to take us both up
the tower. Being mortally afraid of heights, but always
wanting to conquer that fear, I accepted with enthusiasm.
We climbed first to the ringing chamber, which has still
its graffiti left by air raid wardens during the First
World War. And then up and up, to the base of the spire,
with the inside of the clock surreal beyond the belfry
then out onto the top of the tower, beneath the
great hollow spire. Hanging on grimly for dear
life, I gazed out over the rooftops of this
enchanting red brick town to the deep blue of the
sea beyond. Turning back inland, I could see
Ramsholt church, and the BT research HQ at
Martlesham, and the grey smudge of Ipswich in the
distance. Looking back out to sea, I could see
the unilaterally declared independent state of
Sealand on a World War II fort.
was missing. And then it struck me. This is the
only place in Felixstowe from which you cannot
see its most beautiful building.
Knott, 2001, updated 2008
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