At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Little Blakenham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Little Blakenham

Little Blakenham looking out Little Blakenham
Little Blakenham Little Blakenham Little Blakenham

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There are hills to the west of Ipswich, and the streams which flow from them into the winding River Gipping create a secluded valley where Little Blakenham sits quietly, safe from the advancing tide of the town. Leaving Ipswich in this direction you are soon in the countryside, cycling through the rolling barley fields beyond suburban Bramford, and in spring with the larks rising and the golden cowslips emerging from their sleep, it feels a lovely place to be.

And this is such a gorgeous little churchyard. I must have visited this church dozens of times over the years, and it is the churchyard which calls me back on an early spring day as much as the church itself. You climb the little lane leading up to Nettlestead, and there on the edge of the houses is this dear little church on a ridge above the road, its churchyard continuing up the hill westwards of it. The trees shade it, but not too much, and on a sunny day in early spring the celandines that scatter an enchanting carpet of yellow among the headstones are a jewel-like adornment to a world coming back to life. What a place to spend eternity!

The church appears to be mostly of the late 13th and early 14th Centuries. Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton found a 1451 bequest by Christine Hayall of the relatively large sum of forty shillings to the emendation of the parish church, for the placing of bells in the tower which might also give a date for the very top stage of the tower. It is not possible to go right around the outside of the church, because the garden of the old rectory comes right up to the east wall of the chancel. The land falls away dramtically to the north of the church. The years have not been kind to the long south porch, but even with its broken tracery, the low entrance arch is charming, and there is a modern statue of the Blessed Virgin and Christchild in the alcove above the entrance.

You step into a small church which is neat, bright and tidy, and obviously well loved. There is no chancel arch, and the low doored pews face an east window flanked by two 13th Century image niches, which appear enormous in this tight space. There is something similar a mile up the hill at Nettlestead, where they were probably copied from these ones. As far as the furnishings go, this is essentially a 19th Century church within a medieval shell, although it does have one notable feature from earlier days, one of Suffolk's three surviving James II royal arms. Memorably, the chancel has some interesting and unusual wall paintings in the splay of its north window, which likely date from the 1850s restoration of the church.

St John the Evangelist? wall paintings: St John the Evangelist and St John the Baptist? (19th Century) St John the Baptist?

They are supposed to be an overpainting and elaboration of what was there before, which may be true I suppose. They are in the traditional 13th Century colours of red and yellow, although they are entirely mid-19th Century in style. On the eastern splay is a male figure with a halo, and on the western splay what appears to be a woman cradling a dove. They have been interpreted as Mary and Joseph at the Presentation in the Temple, but surely the figure in the eastern splay is wearing a camel-hair coat, and is thus St John the Baptist? In which case the other figure is not a woman at all, but a feminine St John the Evangelist cradling not a dove but his evangelistic symbol, an eagle. It would certainly be interesting to know what was underneath.

A poignant mural memorial opposite remembers three Cuthbert children who died in the 1840s and 1850s, aged 3 weeks, 1 and 3 years. The inscription quotes Longfellow: "My Lord has need of these flowerets gay,"  The Reaper said, and smiled: "Dear tokens of the earth are they, Where He was once a child, which even so must have been of small comfort. More happily, a plaque in the porch remembers William Arthur French, rector of this parish and of Nettlestead 1895-1934, who is buried in this churchyard among those he loved. 

I must finish by saying that this church is not easy of access unless you know where to go for the key, and this seems a shame, for it is a delightful spot which would very quickly become a popular goal for pilgrims, walkers and church-explorers if it was given the chance. Nettlestead church up the hill, after all, is open all of the time.

Simon Knott, November 2021

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Little Blakenham looking east sanctuary east window
crucified window font my lord hath need of these flowerets gay
M U Little Blakenham James II royal arms 1685 Praise our GOD all ye His servants
To the glory of God and in memory AD MDCCCXLIX this window is erected by his widow & children
St John roundel St Peter
hymn numbers eagle? big fat dove? crucified
William Arthur French


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