At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Levington

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Levington Levington Levington
Levington, 1915

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    Heading out under the A14 dual carriageway along Nacton Road can feel like leaving Ipswich by the back door, for you quickly escape the commercial and industrial estates and emerge onto a pleasant country road lined with oaks, the fields of the Home Farm Estate sprawling towards woods on both sides. Beyond Nacton itself the road starts to roll quite steeply, finally rising to lift you in to the hilltop village of Levington above the wide silvery thread of the River Orwell in the valley below, Felixstowe Docks looming beyond. If the village name is familiar it may be because it was given to a variety of compost developed at the former Fisons Research Centre here.

St Peter sits pleasantly grouped beside the Ship, a fine medieval pub, looking out over the river. It is a humble little church, its red brick tower familiar from a number around here. The tower was under construction by the 1470s, and then in 1487 Margaret Hamond of nearby Trimley left half a noble to the hanging of the bells in the steeple, suggesting that it was complete by then. A date of 1636 on the south side of the tower remembers the reconstruction of the bell stage at that time, explaining the 17th Century feel. The tower was built against a church which seems likely to have been complete by the 14th Century, although as Pevsner noted the windows are pleasingly irregular. The large red brick buttresses are memorable, and some of them are fairly recent judging by the watercolour painted by the Architect Travis Bickmere which appears at the top of this page. It was painted on 25th July 1915, and was lent me by his grandson Chris. The buttresses that hold up the east wall had not yet been built, and there seems also to have been some changes to the south wall.Perhaps they were part of a general restoration, because there also appear to be some holes in the roof in the painting.

The attractive timbered south porch has been converted into a vestry, and so unusually for Suffolk you enter the church through the west doorway beneath the tower. You step into an unbroken line of nave and chancel that is small and simple, white-walled under an old barrel-vaulted roof. At some point metal ties have been put in to stop the walls spreading. Brick floors enhance the simplicity, and there are red brick outlines to the windows. The font appears to be of the late 15th Century and probably came at about the same time as the tower. Its 17th Century font cover of silvered oak is attractive. The pulpit is contemporary with the font cover and the rustic 19th Century benches against it look towards a sanctuary which is faced with 17th Century wood panelling, said to have been brought here from nearby Brightwell Hall.

Glass of the 1950s depicting St Francis above an un-East Anglian looking church is set in one of the windows on the south side. The glass is unsigned, although I wonder if it might be by Powell & Sons. It remembers members of the Woolnough family, Frederick and Clara dying in 1938 and 1946 respectively, their daughter Clara dying in 1952. The other two mentioned are their sons George and Alan, and although the window does not give the date, George was killed on the Western Front in 1917 and appears nearby on the Levington war memorial.

St Francis Woolnough St Francis

At the time of the 1901 census the Woolnoughs were living at Levington Post Office where Frederick was recorded as a shepherd. With them were their ten year old daughter Clara and sixteen year old son George, whose occupation was given as gamekeeper's help. They were still at the Post Office in 1911 when Clara was recorded as the sub-post mistress, Frederick's occupation still given as shepherd. Their twenty year old daughter Clara was living at home still. However, one of the questions asked in 1911 was how many children had been born to the marriage, and how many had died, and Frederick declared that they had had three children, two of which were still alive. We know that Clara and George died after 1911, and as Frederick and his wife Clara were both already about fifty years old by then it seems certain that Alan was the child who had died. The birth of an Allan Frederick Woolnough was recorded in the Woodbridge Registration District in the first quarter of 1887, and the death of a child with the same name in the same registration district in the fourth quarter of the same year. It seems likely that this was Frederick and Clara's son.

The rood beam survives above, the only mark of the division between nave and chancel. Mortlock says that it was revealed when a low ceiling was removed in 1920, and it is easy to imagine that there was once a tympanum set in the space above it. It is carved on the front with a leafy scroll effect, and the carving at least probably dates from 1524 when one Thomas Hill made a bequest to the reparation of the rood loft. In the east window hangs a roundel depicting the head of Christ in Majesty which appears to incorporate some medieval fragments.

At the time of the Census of Religious Worship in 1851 the population of Levington parish was almost two hundred and fifty, but the average attendance on a Sunday morning was just thirty, and even that is likely to have been talked up. The benefice was consolidated with that of neighbouring Nacton, and Harry Edgell, the Rector of Nacton who filled in the return for Levington, excused the low attendance by claiming that a few scholars attended Nacton church. Perhaps realising this wasn't in itself sufficient to explain the low numbers, he went on to note that there were many Baptists and Independents in the parish, and even worse than that there was a Dissenting Sunday School. His own parish of Nacton with its population of nearly six hundred fared no better, for the Sunday morning attendance was only fifty, not including the sixty-odd scholars who had to be there.

Although there was no non-conformist chapel in Levington itself there were three within easy walking distance. The Independent Chapel in Nacton was an outstation of the famed Tacket Street Meeting in Ipswich, and it attracted roughly the same number as the parish church. The Nacton Baptist Chapel and the Trimley St Martin Wesleyan Chapel, also close by, attracted one hundred and thirty people between them, but even then, when you add all these numbers up they don't amount to much compared with the total populations of the three parishes. Perhaps people in Levington and Nacton simply didn't go to church, although the 19th Century Anglican revival was slow to reach these coastal parts of East Anglia, and that would change.


Simon Knott, December 2021

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looking east sanctuary looking east
font and font cover Christ in Majesty pulpit (17th Century)
south doorway (now vestry) looking west north doorway

River Orwell from Levington churchyard


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