At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Holton St Mary

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


Hover to read captions, click to see enlarged images:

Looking east, through the Victorian night.

Praise Him on the harp, praise Him on the cymbals - psalmist angels at Holton.

Luke and John. Matthew and Mark stand opposite.

Stephen White's memorial.

All that remains; a memory of one of Suffolk's first village schools.


Melted cheese in the Dedham Vale.

It was Historic Churches Bike Ride day. I took the lonely lane from Washbrook, escaping Ipswich's wilfully rustic outer suburbia, and for three miles or more breathed deeply the wistful air of late summer. Larks spiralled, rooks gathered to sulk in recently ploughed fields. A rabbit did a double take, and dived into the hedge. Beyond the Wenhams, the road cut straight across a former airfield, and then houses gathered to the surprise of a proper village. This was Holton St Mary, not to be confused with Holton St Peter in the suburbs of Halesworth, forty miles away.

St Mary has a melted-cheese appearance, familiar from Bawdsey on the coast - the 15th century tower didn't stand up to the centuries of neglect, and rather than rebuild it, the Victorians reduced it. So it stands all squat and sturdy, and looks very well indeed. Reading the journals of antiquarians of the 18th century, it is easy to imagine the elements blowing through the parish churches of Suffolk, before the Tractarians sent a great wave out of Oxford to renew them - but this is so often an unjust simplification, especially here, where a remarkable 18th century Rector oversaw the pastoral care of this community.

His name was Stephen White, and you step into a neat little, sweet little interior that, despite an overwhelming Victorianisation (and a good one) still contains memories of his stewardship. On the south wall is the wooden sign from the school he opened for the village children. It was the building you passed at the churchyard gate, but it is now a private house. On August 29th, 1745, it opened for business - and it was not slothful in business, serving the Lord.

Opposite, is his memorial - he died on Easter Monday 1773, called away from his labours, to receive their reward.

The Victorians who inherited his good works made an excellent job of the chancel - Heaton, Butler and Bayne's psalmist angels praise God in the east window, and the stained glass evangelists of the O'Connors either side of the sanctuary are some of Suffolk's best.

This church is by no means a museum piece. That it is open to the public every day is a sign that it is fitting and purposeful for private prayer, as much as for any tourists who come for what Larkin calls 'a whiff of antique'. Amen to that.

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