At the sign of the Barking lion...

The churches of Lowestoft

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


The churches of Suffolk

The churches of Ipswich

The churches of Bury St Edmunds

The churches of the Saints

Our Lady, Star of theSea

St Margaret

Christ Church

St Peter

St Andrew, Roman Hill

St John

St Peter and St John, Kirkley

All Saints and St Margaret, Pakefield

St Nicholas, Pakefield

St Mark, Oulton Broad

St Luke, Oulton Broad

St Michael, Oulton

Oulton workhouse chapel

St Peter, Carlton Colville

St Benedict, Gunton

St Peter, Gunton

St Bartholomew, Corton

Katwijk Way, not far from the former church of St Peter

Just as the Belgians are to the French, and Kerrymen are to the Irish, so Lowestoft is to the rest of Suffolk - just like us; and yet, somehow not quite the same. Lowestoft is a place apart, poor cousin to prosperous Ipswich and Felixstowe, a town that looks towards Norfolk as much as it does to Suffolk, and looks towards the sea more than it does to either.

With a population of about 75,000, Lowestoft is Suffolk's second largest town, and fourth or fifth biggest in all East Anglia, depending on which borders you use for that hazily-defined region. But Lowestoft isn't a place you pass through, being as it is the most easterly settlement in the British Isles. Simply, it is different from other places.

Lowestoft's period of great wealth was the 19th century, when it was the world's busiest herring port. With a fraction of the capacity today, it is still second on the east coast only to Grimsby for quantity of fish landed. The port has had the lifeline of the North Sea gas industry thrown to it, but its heavily industrialised centre will make you think that the town planners never made it this far.

Lowestoft, even more than Ipswich, is a red-brick 19th century town. Unlike Ipswich, the original town was at the heart of a cluster of villages, and these have been fully absorbed into the urban area, with the consequence that the modern Borough contains no less than seven medieval churches, as many as a big city like Leicester.

The Borough of Lowestoft is split in two by the River Lothing, which is today lined by docks and industry. The historic town centre, and modern shopping centre, is to the north. To the south of the river are the beaches and boarding houses of the 19th century resort. Even today, Lowestoft has the best beaches in Suffolk, and they're also much better than those so-called golden sands ten miles north at Great Yarmouth.

Another thing that makes the town a little unusual is that the main church in the town centre isn't an Anglican one, but the gorgeous Catholic church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, with the finest Art Nouveau church interior in East Anglia. Our Lady's presence is accentuated by the fact that it is Suffolk's biggest Catholic church.

Lowestoft's historic Anglican parish church of St Margaret is now stranded out on the western edge of the town centre, because, while the sea has cut into much of the Suffolk coast, destroying settlements, at Lowestoft it has actually moved outwards. The Denes industrial estate, to the east of the High Street, was under water 400 years ago. Many are those who would wish it back there. St Margaret is probably the least known of the great Suffolk churches, being built as part of the same group as Southwold and Blythburgh, the second of which it much resembles.

These are the two major churches of Lowestoft. Let us continue our tour north of the river, by exploring the Anglican churches in the rest of the town centre. The Denes industrial area to the east of the High Street is served by Christ Church. The terraces to the north of it were served by St Peter. Both of these churches were built in the 1830s in a carpenter's gothic style; but St Peter was demolished in the 1970s, a sad loss, after failing to find a new use after redundancy. Christ Church has lost virtually all the housing in its parish, but survives because of the demand for its firebrand evangelical protestantism. Also in the town centre is St Andrew, Roman Hill. This is perhaps the most curious modern church in Suffolk, looking like nothing so much as a small factory.

Immediately south of the river, within a hundred yards of the High Street, stood the mighty citadel of St John. This was one of the biggest 19th century churches in East Anglia, and its demolition in the 1970s was a most grievous loss - it was a late Victorian jewel, and nothing whatsoever of it survives. On this side of the river, we are in the historic parish of Kirkley, where the parish church of St Peter is a most curious rebuilding and expansion of the 18th and 19th centuries. Moving southwards, we enter the historic parish of Pakefield, with its row upon row of terraced houses. Surprisingly, it was only incorporated into the Borough as late as the 1930s, after its stubborn independence had meant it was unable to provide efficient sea defences, with consequent considerable loss of life. Here is the most curious All Saints and St Margaret, effectively two parish churches joined together. Nearby stands the Catholic St Nicholas. This is also unusual, since, although it was built by the same architect as Our Lady, it spent the first 80 years of its life as a Congregationalist church

We are hard against the coast here, in the most southern tip of the urban area. If we continue clockwise, we re-enter dense 19th century terraces. This is Morton Peto's industrialised suburb of Oulton Broad, which somewhat optimistically takes its name from the beautiful lake to its north. Nineteenth Century St Mark here is grim, but at least it has survived. The 1960s church of St Luke, however, is another curiosity, set in suburban avenues, and probably Suffolk's politest Anglican church. Oulton Broad was originally in the parish of Carlton Colville, scene of Lowestoft's busiest expansion in recent years. St Peter is a pretty Victorian rebuilding among the semis.

Continuing clockwise, crossing the river, and going to the west of lovely Normanton Park, we are in the historic suburb of Oulton, where we find medieval St Michael, an unusual cruciform church. This is right on the edge of the Borough, and beyond its graveyard the marshes stretch into Norfolk. Oulton was home to the Lowestoft area workhouse, and the workhouse chapel still survives. This is all now polite suburbia, and as we continue clockwise it is almost a relief to re-enter the sixties estates. Not far from the spire of the already-visited St Margaret we enter the historic parish of Gunton, where the church of St Benedict is a post-war chapel of ease to this huge and challenging estate. Crossing the road, it all gets a bit more polite again, and St Peter is Suffolk's only urban round-towered church, with lots of evidence of its Norman past. Just beyond it are the delights of the Pleasurewood Hills theme park. It only remains then to head northwards, where the marshes and the heathlands conspire into Corton, home of holiday camps and St Bartholomew, one of Suffolk's great ruined towers. Now, we are almost in Norfolk.

At this moment, we should pause to reflect that every single one of the above churches is kept locked. I do not know if this is because crime is so appalling in Lowestoft that it is unsafe to keep them open, or if it is because the congregations themselves have no interest in providing a place for private prayer. I cannot believe that the Lowestoft area is so much more lawless than the Ipswich area, where most of the churches are open, so I sadly conclude that it is the second reason that will deflect your visit. Only a couple of the churches even list keyholders, but I have tracked down keys elsewhere by a combination of sycophancy and persistence. For some of them, I have given up all hope of ever seeing inside.

If you are in the area with a car, you might cherry-pick from the above, but before frustration sets in entirely, I urge you to head out into the hinterland, particularly to the Lothingland Peninsular, where within 8 miles of the town centre you will find the glories of Blundeston, Lound and Ashby, all either open or with enthusiastic keyholders. The other direction will take you to the similarly glorious and accessible Gisleham, Barnby and North Cove. The last of these has the best wall paintings in Suffolk.

Back in town itself, but outside the remit of this site, are two excellent 1960s churches, near to each other on the Gunton Road. One is an excellent example of the Church of the Latter Day Saints' off-the-peg grandeur of that period, and nearby is the modernist Trinity Methodist Church - both worth a look.

The churches of Lowestoft: Christ Church, Our Lady Star of the Sea, St Andrew, St John, St Margaret, St Peter, Carlton Colville, Gunton St Benedict, Gunton St Peter, Kirkley, Oulton, Oulton workhouse chapel, Oulton Broad St Luke, Oulton Broad St Mark, Pakefield All Saints and St Margaret, Pakefield St Nicholas, North Lowestoft URC, Trinity Methodist, South Lowestoft Methodist


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