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

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We are close to the western edge of Ipswich here, not its most picturesque side perhaps, but the former vast council tip has now been landscaped, and you would never know what it used to be unless you had seen it before. Its crest creates a secluded valley, and beyond it 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 fields of pigs on the way from 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 a dozen times, 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 in early March 2019 the celandines scattered a carpet of yellow among the graves. The sun came out and it was all utterly enchanting. What a place to spend eternity!

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 has been cut away here at some point, but a little gate still goes through the hedge. 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 Virgin and Child 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. As far as the furnishings go, this is essentially a 19th century church within a medieval shell, although it does have one remarkable feature from earlier days, one of Suffolk's three surviving James II royal arms.

The chancel has some interesting Pre-Raphaelite wall paintings in the splay of the north window, which date from the 1850s restoration of the church. 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-Victorian in style.

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

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 may not be a woman at all, but a feminine St John the Evangelist cradling not a dove but his evangelistic symbol, an eagle. It is not impossible I suppose that the original paintings beneath them depicted the Annunciation, which was probably the medieval dedication of the church.

It would certainly be interesting to know what was underneath. The extensive wall paintings at North Cove had their Victorian elaboration stripped away in the 1990s, to reveal a stunning range of 13th century murals. But actually, these here look lovely as they are, and I'd be quite happy if they were left alone, not least, because the plaster they are painted on is cracking, and they will one day be lost to us forever.

A poignant mural memorial 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. 

Simon Knott, November 2019

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looking east east window looking west
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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