||Over the last couple of
centuries, the Borough of Lowestoft has
sprawled out to encompass a number of
historic parishes, including Gunton,
Pakefield, Oulton, Carlton Colville and
here, the former village of Kirkley.
Consequently, seven of the churches in
the Borough are medieval - or, more
strictly, of medieval foundation, for
there was a spectacular 19th Century
restoration here at St Peter and St John,
which has left very little of medieval
The church, then
simply dedicated to St Peter, had been
abandoned in 1680, after more than a
century of neglect. The parishioners
moved in up the road at Pakefield, but when the two
parishes there were combined, and the
dividing wall was opened up, there was no
longer room for them. So they came back,
patched up this church, and suffered in
it for the next 120 years.
However, by the 1870s, when
Lowestoft had expanded and engulfed the
parish, the time had come for a total
rebuilding. Another church, the now
demolished St John, had been built in
the parish ten years before. But this was
not enough for the huge population, so St
Peter was built anew between 1874 and
1876 by the architect John Clemence. All
that survives of the medieval church is
the heavily restored tower, which once
stood at the west end, but the new
building was extended southwards, putting
it at the north-west corner.
the north, it looks conventional enough. But on
the south west side there is a delightful
surprise; an apsidal baptistery, the work of Thomas Porter
in 1893. This is quite unfamiliar on an Anglican
church in Suffolk, although there is something
similar at St Edmund Catholic church
all churches, Kirkley Parish church continues to
reinvent itself. When St John was demolished in 1976, it
took on the current dual dedication. These days,
the name Kirkley is roughly synonymous with that
part of coastal Lowestoft south of the river,
which isn't entirely accurate. The main road to
Ipswich is a ratrun through the parish, giving it
an urban scale beyond its size, as if it was some
little-known district of London. Off this parade
of anonymous grocers, newsagents and kebab shops
you find yourself in a pleasant residential
suburb. Towards the sea, the houses are enormous.
This area, Kirkley Cliffs, is a rather pleasant
seaside resort, usually referred to as Lowestoft
South Beach. Until quite recently this was a
fairly seedy area, but it has undergone a huge
improvement programme in the last ten years,
thanks to an injection of money from the European
Social Fund for deprived areas. Before coming
here, I had been chatting with the man at South
Lowestoft Methodist Church about this. "A
lot of local people think it was a bit of a waste
of money", he observed. Oh, believe me, I
wanted to say, remembering how it had been
before, it was really, really worth it. And now,
Lowestoft's are the only beaches in Suffolk to
win Blue Flag awards, and are of a beautiful
golden sand; why people would rather go ten miles
up the road to seedy, be-littered Great Yarmouth
one of the large houses, now a guesthouse but
until recently a dentist's surgery, as it had
been for nearly a hundred years, one of the most
significant events in Kirkley's history occured.
In this house, on November 22nd 1913, a baby boy
was born to the wife of the dentist of the day.
This boy, their youngest child, would grow up to
be the most famous Suffolker of the 20th century;
and it is entirely appropriate that Benjamin
Britten should be born on St Cecilia's Day, for
she is the patron saint of music.
is more closely associated with Aldeburgh, Snape and Orford than Kirkley, not least
because of the music which was first performed in
the churches there. But it was at the High Church
St Peter and neighbouring St John that Britten
first experienced the power of the liturgy, and
church music first entered his consciousness.
There is a blue plaque on the house, but no other
fuss seems to be made of Britten in Kirkley; you
have to search to find him. At the northern end
of Lowestoft is the Benjamin Britten High School,
and, more surreally, the Benjamin Britten
Shopping Centre is in the centre of town. But
Kirkley seems rather reserved about its genius
son, who was certainly the greatest English
composer of the 20th century, and the finest
English composer of opera ever. He was also,
perhaps, the first establishment gay figure to
openly win acceptance, and he is buried today
beside his partner for 40 years, Peter Pears, in
the graveyard at Aldeburgh.
first time I came here, shortly after the start
of the new millennium, I walked around St Peter
and St John on its little hill, surrounded by
pleasant little terraced houses. They must have
been built at about the same time. The church
looks abandoned from this aspect, but I took this
to be merely another manifestation of the urban
shabbiness that Lowestoft in from the coast seems
to rejoice in. In fact, the noticeboard at the
east end, facing Kirkley High Street, shows that
this is a lively parish.
the church was locked. I stood in the scrubby
churchyard, feeling a bit fed up, but I was
cheered immensely by being recognised by a man
walking through. "You're that bloke who's
visiting all the churches, aren't you?" he
said. "What do you think of this one?"
just read Sam Mortlock's account, I called it to
mind, and gave him a brief guided tour of the
outside. He thought for a moment. "So,
you're saying it's not as old as it looks?"
He seemed perplexed.
right", I assented.
he said. "Ah, well." And so, we went
our separate ways, him reflectively towards the
shops, me feeling slightly guilty for having
wasn't for almost another ten years that I came
back to Kirkley and tried to get inside again.
Actually, I did not have try very hard, because I
visited on the day of the Historic Churches Bike
Ride 2009. It is worth adding that, having taken
part in this event for more than twenty years, I
have a wide experience of the kind of people who
sit and welcome cyclists to churches on this day.
I can tell you, in all honesty, that the people
of Lowestoft are probably the friendliest people
I have ever had any dealings with - and not just
the church welcomers. In shops and pubs, on buses
and trains, even when just walking down the
street, these are the kindest, most courteous
people you could possibly hope to meet. And
yet... and yet. When you turn up at their
churches and want to see inside, they look at you
as if you had requested something really off the
wall, like suggesting you wanted to examine the
contents of their wallets, or enquired as to the
colour of their underwear. Even on Bike Ride Day
I was treated with mild surprise and some raised
eyebrows when I asked to step past the welcome
desk into the body of the church. No one actually
refused, but you could tell that they thought I
was a little odd.
suppose it is a cultural thing. Most parishes
outside Lowestoft seem to see their building as
an act of witness in itself, and that by keeping
it open they offer a prayerful space in the
middle of a busy world to passing pilgrims and
strangers. Evangelical churches are, not
unreasonably, less likely to take this approach -
they want you to come on a Sunday and join the
Club, after all - but Kirkley parish church is
very much in the High Church tradition. I suspect
that they simply do not know how things are
arranged elsewhere. In rewriting this, I have
been tempted to remove an earlier postscript
which detailed Peter Stephens' energetic and yet
ultimately fruitless attempt to borrow the key
here. However, as the church is still kept
locked, and the same Rector is in charge, and in
any case scores of people have written to me to
say it is one of the funniest things they have
read on the site, I have retained it below.
myself, it was a delight to finally set foot
inside St Peter and St John. It is a big, urban,
late 19th Century Anglo-catholic space, with
white- and red-brick banding creating a
polychromatic effect, a candle flickering in
front of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham by
the south doorway, and jewel-like windows
piercing through the gloom. The best is in the
east window, good Kempe glass depicting Christ in
Majesty flanked by the four archangels Michael,
Raphael, Gabriel and Jophiel.
get to it, you step through the excellent
wrought-iron rood screen of the 1890s. On the
north side of the chancel is the organ where
Benjamin Britten's mother came to practice on
weekday afternoons, the small boy sitting beside
her and turning the pages. It is apparently one
of the few four manual organs in Suffolk.
is, of course, no tower arch, and a great clock
ticks steadily at the west end of the nave. The
Ward & Hughes glass down the south aisle is
not the workshop's best, but contributes to the
feel of a faded, early 20th century
Anglo-catholicism which is being lost to us by
reorderings and redecorations elsewhere. One set
forms the war memorial window, a touching moment.
At the west end of this aisle is the church's
most memorable feature, the open baptistery with
its wrought iron screenwork and spectacular
marble font. I did try to imagine the infant
Britten being dipped into it, but I suspect that
he was actually baptised at the now-demolished St
John. The nice lady on duty, seeing me gazing at
the font, came and apologized for its dusty
state. "The whole church has got so dirty,
and it needs a thorough redecoration. But it is
so expensive, and there are so few of us left
now." I told her that I rather liked it the
way it was, but I suspect that was small comfort.
intriguing survival is the small reredos made by
Robert Anning Bell for St Peter's church in north
Lowestoft, which was demolished, along with St
John, in the 1970s. The rationalisation of
Lowestoft's Anglican churches at that time
bolstered congregations in the churches which
survived. It is sad to think that the Diocese of
Norwich may very well need to instigate the same
process again in the not too distant future. One
can only hope that Kirkley will not be one of the
Postscript from 2002: Peter
Stephens writes: I was also unable to get
into Kirkley. The Rector is a very strange man!
Even by the time I got home I was still wondering
what was the matter with him. He was very
friendly and chatty, smiled the whole time I was
talking to him, but he just would not go and get
the key. I first noticed him quietly trimming a
hedge in the garden of the house next to the
church. Finding the church locked - what a
surprise! - I sauntered over to him and said, ' I
gather this is the place to come to for the key
to the church.'
well, no, not really,' he said.
says 'Rectory' on the gate.'
but it's not strictly so.'
you mean it's a private house now?'
no.' He paued, then rather reluctantly said, 'You
see, well, I'm the Rector actually.'
So could I please borrow the key?'
no, it's my day off.'
surely I can just borrow the key?'
afraid I've got to get this hedge cut.' He
observed me studying the small amount of hedge he
had to cut and said, 'If you come back on another
day I'll happily make you a cup of tea.'
felt like saying, I don't want a cup of tea - I
want to see inside the church. Now what's the
problem? I said, 'I don't live round here.'
what a pity! Where have you come from?'
just here for the day then?'
do have a lovely day.'
trying to. But I'd like to see inside the
course. You could go down to the High Street -
no, he's closed today. And both the churchwardens
are at work - well, not work as such. They're
surely you have a key?'
yes. But why don't you give me a ring and, as I
said, I'll give you a cup of tea?'
is this with the cup of tea? I almost blurted
out. I didn't want a cup of tea. I wanted to see
inside the church. But I remained cool. He was,
as I said, very friendly and chatty and the
dialogue was much longer than I've suggested
here, but mostly repetitive. I tried a different
approach. I thought I might appeal to his better
nature through romantic association.
got married in Lowestoft,' I said.
years ago tomorrow.'
that's very good. Do have a lovely day, and let
me offer you my congratulations. Which church?'
we'd have liked Blythburgh, but certain
difficulties in the life of the bride's father at
the time regrettably had us land up at the
nothing regrettable in that. Forty years is a
long time. So many big church weddings end up
with the couple separating in less than a year
But my problem is that it's difficult for me to
get to Lowestoft. Couldn't I just see inside the
'I'm afraid I really do
have to get this hedge cut.'
I gave it up. Looking at
my watch I said, 'Well, I see I've
already detained you from it for twenty
minutes,' leaving him to draw the
conclusion that it would have taken him
about two to step inside the house and
get the key. And what did he say?
'Do give me a ring next
time you're this way and, as I said, I'll
be delighted to make you a cup of tea.'
I departed on the verge