At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Flowton

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Flowton Flowton Flowton
elephants Flowton Flowton Flowton
Flowton Flowton Flowton

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The landscape to the west of Ipswich rises to hills above the gentle valley of what will become the Belstead Brook before it empties itself into the River Orwell. The large villages of Somersham and Offton nestle below, but in the lonely lanes above are small, isolated settlements, and Flowton is one of them. I often cycle out this way from Ipswich through busy Bramford and then leave the modern world behind at Little Blakenham, up towards Nettlestead on a narrow and steep lane, down into Somersham and back up the other side to Flowton. It is unusual to pass a vehicle, or even see another human being, except in the valley bottom. In summer the only sound is of birdsong, the hedgerows alive in the deep heat. In winter the fields are dead, the crows in possession.

A hundred years ago these lanes were full of people, for in those days the villagers were enslaved to the land. But a farm that might support fifty workers then needs barely two now, and the countryside has emptied, villages reduced to half their size. Most of rural Suffolk is quieter now than at any time since before the Saxons arrived, and nature is returning to it.

In the early spring of 1644, a solemn procession came this way. The body of Captain William Boggas was brought back from the Midlands, where he had been killed in some skirmish or other, possibly in connection with the siege of Newark. The cart stumbled over the ruts and mud hollows, and it is easy to imagine the watching farmworkers pausing in a solemn gesture, standing upright for a brief moment, perhaps removing a hat, as it passed them by. But no sign of the cross, for this was Puritan Suffolk. Even the Church of England had been suppressed, and the local Priest replaced by a Minister chosen by, and possibly from within, the congregation.

William Boggas was laid to rest in the nave of the church, beside the body of his infant daughter who had died a year earlier. His heavily pregnant widow would have stood by on the cold brick floor, and the little church would have been full, for he was a landowner, and a Captain too.

The antiquarian David Davy came this way in a bad mood in May 1829, with his friend John Darby on their way to record the memorials and inscriptions of the church: ...we ascended a rather steep hill, on which we travelled thro' very indifferent roads to Flowton; here the kind of country I had anticipated for the whole of the present day's excursion was completely realised. A more flat, wet, unpleasant soil and country I have not often passed over, & we found some difficulty in getting along with safety & comfort.

But today it would be hard to arrive in Flowton in spring today and not be pleased to be there. By May, the trees in the hedgerows gather, and the early leaves send shadows dappling across the lane, for of course the roads have changed here since Darby and Davy came this way, but perhaps Flowton church hasn't much. James Bettley, revising the Buildings of England volumes for Suffolk, observed that it is a church with individuality in various details, which is about right. Much of what we see is of the early 14th Century, but there was money being spent here right on the eve of the Reformation. Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton transcribed a bequest of 1510 which pleasingly tells us the medieval dedication of the church, for Alice Plome asked that my body to be buried in the churchyard of the nativitie of our lady in fflowton. The same year, John Rever left a noble to painting the candlebeam, which is to say the beam which ran across the top of the rood loft and screen on which candles were placed. This is interesting because, as James Bettley points out, the large early 16th Century window on the south side of the nave was clearly intended to light the rood, and so was probably part of the same campaign. The candlebeam has not survived, and nor has any part of the rood screen. In 1526 John Rever (perhaps the son of the earlier man of the same name) left two nobles toward the making of a new rouff in the said church of ffloweton. The idiosyncratic tower top came in the 18th Century, and the weather vane with its elephants is of the early 21st Century, remembering a travelling circus that used to overwinter in the fields nearby.

The west face of the tower still has its niches, which once contained the images of the saints who watched over the travellers passing by. Another thing curious about the tower is that it has no west doorway. Instead, the doorway is set into the south side of the tower. There must be a reason for this, for it exists nowhere else in Suffolk. Perhaps there was once another building to the west of the tower. Several churches in this area have towers to the south of their naves, and the entrance through a south doorway into a porch formed beneath the tower, but it is hard to see how that could have been the intention here.

The Victorians were kind to Flowton church. It has a delicious atmosphere, that of an archetypal English country church. The narrow green sleeve of the graveyard enfolds it, leading eastwards to a moat-like ditch. The south porch is simple, and you step through it into a sweetly ancient space. The brick floor is uneven but lovely, lending an organic quality to the font, a Purbeck marble survival of the late 13th Century which seems to grow out of it. The bricks spread eastwards, past Munro Cautley's pulpit of the 1920s, and up beyond the chancel arch into the chancel itself. On the south side of the sanctuary the piscina that formerly served the altar here still retains its original wooden credence shelf. On the opposite wall is a corbel of what is perhaps a green man, or merely a madly grinning devil.

But to reach all these you must step across the ledger stone of Captain William Boggas, a pool of dark slate in the soft sea of bricks. It reads Here lyes waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ the body of William Boggas gent, deere to his Countrey, by whoes free choyce he was called to be Captayne of their vountaries raysed for their defence: pious towards God, meeke & juste towards men & being about 40 yeeres of age departed this life March 18: 1643. To the north of it lie two smaller ledgers, the easterly one to his young daughter, which records the date of her birth and her death in the next ensuing month. To the west of that is one to William, his son, who was born on April 11th 1644.

Here lyes waiting for ye Second Coming of Jesus Christ ye bodye of Wm Boggas gent, deere to his contrey William Boggas the sonne of William Boggas departed this life in the next ensuing month

At first sight it might seem odd that his son could have been born in April 1644 if William senior had died in March 1643, but in those days of course the New Year was counted not from January 1st, but from March 25th, a quarter day usually referred to as Lady Day, in an echoing memory of the pre-Reformation Feast of the Annunciation. So William Boggas died one month before his son was born, not thirteen. It would be nice to think that William Junior would have led a similarly exciting and possibly even longer life than his father. But this was not to be, for he died at the age of just two years old in 1645. As he was given his father's name, we may assume that he was his father's first and only son.

A further point of interest is that both Williams' stones have space ready for further names. But there are none. There would be no more children for him, for how could there be? But William's wife does not appear to be buried or even remembered here. Did she move away? Did she marry again, and does she lie in some other similarly remote English graveyard? Actually, it is possible that she doesn't. Boggas's wife was probably Flowton girl Mary Branston, and she had been married before, to Robert Woodward of Dedham in Essex. Between the time of William Boggas's death in 1644 and the 1647 accounting of the Colony, Mary's daughter and nephews by her first marriage had been transported to the Virginia Colony in the modern United States. Is it possible that Mary went to join them?

And finally, one last visitor. Four months after the birth of the younger William, when the cement on his father's ledger stone was barely dry, the Puritan iconoclast William Dowsing visited this remote place. It was 22 August 1644. The day had been a busy one for Dowsing, for Flowton was one of seven churches he visited that day, and he would likely have already known them well, because he had a house at nearby Baylham. There was little for him to take issue with apart from the piscina in the chancel which was probably filled in and then restored by the Victorians two hundred years later.

Dowsing had arrived here in the late afternoon on what was probably a fine summer's day, since the travelling was so easy. I imagined the graveyard that day, full of dense greenery. He came on horseback, and he was not alone.With him came, as an assistant, a man called Jacob Caley. Caley, a Portman of Ipswich, was well-known to the people of Flowton. He was the government's official collector of taxes for this part of Suffolk. Probably, he was not a popular man. What the villagers couldn't know was that Caley was actually hiding away a goodly proportion of the money he collected. In 1662, two years after the Commonwealth ended, he was found guilty of the theft of three thousand pounds, about a million pounds in today's money. He had collected one hundred and eighteen pounds of this from the people of Flowton alone, and the late John Blatchly writing in Trevor Cooper's edition of the Dowsing Journals thought that the amount he was found guilty of stealing was probably understated, although of course we will never know.

I revisit this church every few months, and it always feels welcoming and well cared for, with fresh flowers on display, tidy ranks of books for sale, and a feeling that there is always someone popping in, every day. The signs by the lychgate say Welcome to Flowton Church, and on my most recent visit in November 2021 a car stopped behind me while I was taking a photograph of the elephants at the top of the tower. "Do go inside, the church is open", the driver urged cheerily, "we've even got a toilet!" As with Nettlestead across the valley, the church tried to stay open throughout the Church of England's Covid panic of 2020 and 2021, whatever much of the rest of the Church might have been doing. And there was no absurd cordoning off of areas or imposition of the one-way systems beloved by busybodies in many other English churches. Instead, a simple reminder to ask you to be careful, and when I came this way in the late summer of 2020 there were, at the back of the church, tall vases of rosemary, myrtle, thyme and other fragrant herbs. Beside them was a notice, which read Covid-19 causes anosmia (losing sense of smell). Here are some herbs to smell! which I thought was not only useful and instructive, but rather lovely.

Simon Knott, November 2021

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Flowton looking east Flowton
font font font
pulpit (Munro Cautley, 1958) piscina and credence a long and painful affliction
dressed for autumn green man? floral garland
'Covid-19 causes anosmia (losing sense of smell). Here are some herbs to smell!' 'Covid-19 causes anosmia (losing sense of smell). Here are some herbs to smell!'

timber! T Mears of London fecit 1821 T Mears of London fecit 1821


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