At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Great Blakenham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Great Blakenham: click to view larger

Great Blakenham Great Blakenham Great Blakenham

2008: It seems harsh to describe St Mary as an unwelcoming church in an unattractive village. Perhaps it is something in the nature of the horrible road which rushes traffic through between Ipswich and Needham Market which has hardened those who might otherwise open the church to pilgrims and strangers. But in the whole greater Ipswich area, for miles and miles, this is the only medieval church I can think of which is kept locked without a keyholder. This has not always been the case, as I remember seeing a keyholder notice on the occasion of my first visit in the late 1990s. However, on that occasion, I found the church open, as I have described below.

Since then, I have not found it possible to gain access to St Mary again, and so with a heavy heart I must leave unaltered what I wrote eight years ago. Since that time, the cement works has been demolished.

2000: Ipswich has 13 surviving churches of medieval foundation within its boundaries; half a dozen more are in the immediate urban area, and only outwith the borough on the whim of a bureaucrat's pen. And then there is the next wave out, villages protected from urban sprawl by a nominal field (in many cases, not so much green belt as green elastic). There is a sense at Great Blakenham that, in this case, the fields are there to protect the town rather than the village, for out here, planning regulations seem of little consequence. All the industrial excesses that towns would rather keep at arms length seem to have ended up here; the cement works, the quarry, the factories, lorry parks and warehouses, and all the other grim units that cluster around the A14 and the railway line. It looks its worst from the hilltops on the other side of the Gipping valley; from outside Claydon church, one gets the impression that a hurricane has lifted part of industrial Lancashire and dumped it here.

Great Blakenham's main street cuts through all this horror; at one time, it was the main road between Ipswich and Norwich. Further west, it settles down into a quiet domesticity of 19th and 20th century houses. The church is here, right on the main road, in a neat little churchyard beside the grand Victorian former rectory, almost as big as the church itself.

The rather plain tower, with its Norman lower stages, gives no hint of what we will find within, but the fifteenth century wooden porch begins, perhaps, to suggest that here is something quite out of the ordinary. It is a wooden construction; above the arch, where we would expect to find a niche for a statue, is a wooden effigy of the Blessed Virgin carved directly onto the beam.

It has been weathered by 500 years of Suffolk wind and rain, and looks rather like one of those pieces of driftwood you find on the beach at Aldeburgh after a storm. Cautley thought it had been mutilated, but Mortlock thought not. Dowsing did come here in 1644; he doesn't mention the porch, but gave orders for the font to be cleansed of imagery - that wasn't done properly, either.

  the porch   Our Lady of Great Blakenham

I found the church locked; but, hurrying back to ring one of the numbers listed for keyholders on the noticeboard, I was intercepted at the vestry door by two kind people who were cleaning the church. I stepped in from the 19th century vestry, through the original medieval priest's doorway, into what I can only describe as a gorgeous interior.

St Mary has one of Suffolk's few Early English chancels, and the magnificent set of triple lancets surmounted by a splayed round window is all offset in soft pink. These windows were actually blocked off in the 17th century, but the restoration of the 1870s restored them to their original state, and placed the medieval IHS roundel in the top one. You'll notice that it is upside down; in any case, it may not have come from this church originally. The nave's thick walls and splayed windows betray its Norman origins.

The church was closed for 18 months for the restoration, which was carried out by Cory and Ferguson of Carlisle, who also did Earl Stonham. Part of the restoration involved the moving of the pompous Swift memorial into the space beneath the tower. The font is remarkably fine, bearing the instruments of the passion which outraged Dowsing. The person he commissioned for their removal was either very brave, or not up to the job, since they survive to this day.

Looking up the church, we see the fine Stuart pulpit, with the roodloft stairs behind, unblocked in the 1870s. The ceilings were also removed at this time, and at the top of the walls you can see mortice cuttings which were probably for the rood beam.

So, three cheers for the Victorians, then, for an excellent restoration!

If there was a prize for the ugliest village in Suffolk, people everywhere would throw up their hands in despair at the impossibility of wresting the honour away from Great Blakenham. But this church is nothing less than a little jewel.

Simon Knott, 2000, updated 2008



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