At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Stephen, Higham St Stephen

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

Higham St Stephen

Higham St Stephen Higham St Stephen Higham St Stephen


Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

I'd not been back to Higham St Stephen for years. My last visit had been late one wet afternoon back in November 2003, so perhaps I had not seen it at its best, remembering it as rather a gloomy place. And yet, Higham St Stephen is special. At first sight an East Anglian round-towered church, it is in fact the late 1850s work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, his only complete church in Suffolk, and presumably his only round-towered church anywhere. The tower has echoes of the Norman one a few miles off at Little Saxham, with the addition of a jaunty conical cap and a solid base course which makes the church appear as if it has been carefully turned out of one of those aluminium jelly moulds like my Granny used to have. I imagined Scott as a giant bestriding the Victorian countryside, putting down a mould of his church and lifting it again with a vast hand, leaving a fresh new church wobbling slightly and then drying in the sun.

This Higham is not to be confused with the larger village of Higham St Mary on the other side of Ipswich. It was part of the parish of Gazeley until the mid-19th Century. However, by the time of the 1851 census of religious worship the increased population of Higham was giving the Church of England some cause for concern, because where the Industrial Revolution made its appearance in a community, non-conformism was sure to follow. So, in 1861 a separate parish was created, and Scott was commissioned to do the church.

My other main memory of my previous visit was quite how much difficulty we'd had getting to see inside. Perhaps it was partly the result of the gloom of the day, but I recall that the church had an air of dereliction about it, the porch full of filth and clutter. The curling notices on the board including one for a bookshop with a five-digit Ipswich telephone number, which I knew had been discontinued almost twenty years before. There was no suggestion on who you might contact for the key to the church. Eventually we tracked down the address of a churchwarden who seemed surprised that anyone would want to see inside, but eventually relented and came and opened up for us. I asked him why he kept the church locked all the time. He gave a hollow little laugh, as if it were plainly obvious. "Because it would be pillaged if we didn't", he replied. This despite the fact that the church contained nothing of value and was the only locked church for miles around.

Coming back in mid-April 2019 I was at first pleased to see there was now a keyholder notice on the board by the road, and that generally the building looked more cared for than it had in 2003. The porch was largely clean and shipshape, and the same keyholder notice was up in the porch, too.

And now I have to tell you that this is still a most inhospitable parish, if the church keyholders are anything to go by. The first one I rang was not at all pleased to hear from me. In fact, he sounded cross, aggressive even. He told me that it was far too inconvenient for him to come and open the church, and that I should go away and make an appointment. I patiently explained that I was on a bike ride from Ipswich, and this would be difficult, but he told me that he didn't care about that and I must make an appointment. I asked if there was anyone else I could ring, but once again I was rebuffed. Bizarrely, each time he told me to go away it was in almost exactly the same form of words, as if he were reading from one of those scripts people use when they ring you up to tell you that you've been mis-sold PPI or you've been in a car accident that wasn't your fault.

In the end, I gave up. I quickly rang up one of the other numbers on the list, just in case he had the same idea and wanted to head me off, but once again I was answered by someone who was not happy. "It's very inconvenient", he told me. I went through my litany again of having cycled from Ipswich, and even offered to come and get the key, and in the end this seemed to wear down his resistance, for at last with an exasperated sigh he agreed to come and open up as long it was for no more than twenty minutes.

I thanked him profusely when he arrived, but he waved my thanks away. "You're very inconvenient, ringing up in the middle of the day like this," he told me. This seemed an extraordinary thing to say. Over the last thirty-odd years of visiting churches I have contacted hundreds of keyholders, and as far as I recall I have never rung any of them up late at night or in the early hours of the morning. "It's never been a problem before," I told him lamely, wondering why they even bothered to have a keyholder notice at all.

St Stephen is unusual for a 19th Century rebuilding in Suffolk because Scott appears to have designed or commissioned everything inside, even down to the altar frontals which were still in use more than a century later. The furnishings were the work of the Cambridge carpenter James Rattee, the glass is by Clayton and Bell, but everything passed under Scott's careful scrutiny. I'm not the world's biggest fan of the work of Clayton & Bell, but on a small scale like here they are very good. The colours vary from predominant jewel-like blues and greens towards the east to gorgeous oranges and reds in the west window in the baptistery beneath the tower, so that the building would react to the sunshine in different ways throughout the day. It is like a magical trick. The north aisle, as so often in 19th Century churches, can be rather gloomy of course, and stone pulpits are not to everybody's taste, but this little church is so all of a piece it can't but help delight. What a pity the floor tiles have been allowed to get so dim and dusty! How they must have shone with colour when Scott first had them put in place! How sad that the place no longer appears to be cared for! I scurried round taking photographs as quickly as possible, not easy to do under the watchful eye of someone who doesn't want to be there, and certainly doesn't want you to be there either.

Eventually I felt I'd stayed as long as I could reasonably hope to get away with, thanked the grumpy keyholder profusely once again, and headed on to the nearby medieval parish church at Barrow, which is more remote, full of fascinating delights of every century, and thankfully open every day. It was like balm to the soul. But I was still a bit shaken at my unpleasant reception by the parish of Higham St Stephen, and if I am honest a bit cross as well. They probably think they are being terribly good custodians by being obstructive to strangers and pilgrims and keeping the likes of you and me out of their church, but as the Churchwatch charity has told us, a church which is kept locked all the time is more likely to be vandalised than one which is open regularly, is more likely to be broken into and is even more likely to have something stolen from it. The advice that Ecclesiastical Insurance gives to its clients begins If possible, your church should be open during the day. And, as the Bible itself reminds us,
do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

I don't suppose I shall ever go back to Higham St Stephen. Quite frankly, the poor attitude of the keyholders has left a nasty taste in my mouth, and mentioning the event to a number of contacts I discovered that I was not the first to experience hostility and aggression here. In all the years I have spent visiting churches, almost three thousand of them now, this was only the sixth time I've ever been refused entry to a church. Sadly, it was the first time in Suffolk. And if this had been my first attempt to gain access to a locked church then I don't suppose I would ever have dared to try and do so again.

Simon Knott, November 2019

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


looking east font tower arch and font
east window: Crucifixion (Clayton & Bell, 1861) 'The Master is come and calleth for thee' (Clayton & Bell, 1861) the stoning and burial of St Stephen (Clayton & Bell, 1861) Of such is the Kingdom (Clayton & Bell, 1861) Christ the Good Shepherd (Clayton & Bell, 1861)
George Gilbert Scott? roll of honour 1914-1918 Barclay and Gurney
St Paul and St Peter on the pulpit vaulting under the round tower

Amazon commission helps cover the running costs of this site