At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Henley

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Henley terracotta window (16th Century)

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          Henley Road is one of the main routes out of Ipswich to the north, and in little more than a mile it cuts through the town's poshest neighbourhood and then skirts one of its poorest. But the small village from which it takes its name is to the north of all this, and to reach it you ride the hilly road up through the vanished settlements of Thurleston and Akenham, after which Henley seems rather substantial. The church is hemmed in by its tight graveyard surrounded by houses, a proper village church, when so many churches around here are isolated down narrow lanes. St Peter looks all of its 19th Century restoration, but there is rather more to it than that as we shall see. In any case, the Victorians are too often criticised for their work in places like this. If it had not been for their restoration, it is likely that St Peter would be a ruin by now.

Beneath that Victorian veneer this is broadly a 14th Century church with evidence of a Norman past, but you can't fail to notice an unusual window in the south side of the nave. It is made of terracotta, and dates from the 16th Century. You can see something similar nearby at Barham and Barking. It probably came from the original Shrublands Hall, demolished in the 19th Century to be rebuilt as a Victorian extravaganza. There's a fine fellow glaring out of the flintwork beside it. He probably came from this church, possibly from high on the tower before its restoration.

You step into the porch, past an unusual stone board of rectors of the parish. These boards, which are found in many churches but which are usually made of wood, were a Victorian conceit intended to paper over the cracks of the Reformation and Commonwealth. To see that long succession back into the 13th Century, you might think that the Church of England had always been here, and had always been like this. Prominent among the names on it are the father and son Henry and William Pearson. Dynasties of Rectors are fairly common, but what makes this pair remarkable is that they had care of the parish for a little short of a hundred years between them.

The Pearsons entirely oversaw the Anglican revival in this place. Indeed, they were probably responsible for this board itself. It seems incredible to think that Henry took charge when the first waves of the Oxford Movement were beginning to rock the CofE boat. When he became rector here, the future Cardinal Newman had only just renounced Anglicanism. Pearson's son on the other hand was rector during both World Wars. In fact, he died after a fall during the Blackout. They must have baptised, married and buried generations of villagers between them, while at the same time turning their church from a preaching house into what they believed to be a sacramental Gate of Heaven. They are buried in the churchyard. It is like a novel.

The church you enter is their legacy, a neat, pleasant Victorianised church, entirely Anglican, thoroughly welcoming. There is not much to show inside for the medieval life and liturgy of this place perhaps, but there are modest survivals. The aumbry in the chancel retains the fittings for a door frame. The south sanctuary wall beside it contains a most unusual thing which cannot be in its original place. It is possibly a former holy water stoup, but Mortlock was convinced it was a rare and unusual pillar piscina. Beside it, the drop windowsill once contained the seats for the clergy known as sedilia. From later years come the three grand hatchments at the west end and some fine modern carved bench ends, including a beautiful one of barleycorns. The war memorial is heart-breaking, listing as it does those boys who were formerly singers in the choir.

I said that Henley's pretty church had few remains of its Catholic past. This isn't strictly true however, for if we go back outside and around to the west door, we see the dedicatory inscription of Thomas Seckford, asking for our prayers for the souls of him and his wife. A similar inscription survives at Great Bealings, where he is buried. Intriguingly, the spandrels of the doorway below carry the symbols of both St Peter and St Paul, suggesting perhaps that the medieval dedication of this church was to the feast of both of them, and not just to the first.


Simon Knott, September 2020

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looking east whose vertue and extensive charity wanted not this to perpetuate her memory (1717) war memorial
Medows vault The Norwich Diocesan Association of Ringers and the St Mary le Tower Society Ipswich St Peter crucified
Blessed Virgin Mary crucifixion St John the Evangelist

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