At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Martlesham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Martlesham: click to view large

lichened lion wide open war memorial Rector's pew east end
Holy Trinity and Ordnance Survey 15th century sun wheel SM ventilation pipe 
Lucy Isabella blocked doorway fire west door moss

White's 1844 Directory of the County of Suffolk will tell you that Martlesham is a village near Woodbridge. But the landscape has changed, and now Martlesham is part of the ribbon of development between Ipswich and that pretty market town. A century ago, it would have been a considerable journey through remote countryside to reach St Mary, but today you leave Ipswich on the Woodbridge Road up through the heartland of the 19th century landscape, and past Old St Mary, Suffolk's first large Victorian Gothic church.

After passing the new hospital, you reach the suburb of Rushmere, with its trim bungalows, and then busy Kesgrave, a vast development, home to the Anglican All Saints and the Catholic Holy Family. Occasional fields are glimpsed, but the underpasses and hypermarket spoil any illusion of rural idyll. You reach the A12 and the massive park-and-ride, and then across into Martlesham itself. Nowadays, a bypass carries the thundering traffic ever northwards through rolling meadows, and past Seckford Hall, but if you are seeking the church you carry on along the old road.

Here, the houses are larger, and you pass the Black Tiles pub. Eventually, you reach the Red Lion, once a staging post for the coaches between London and Yarmouth. Here, some seven miles from the centre of Ipswich, you finally reach open countryside; but it is an illusion, for you are now only a mile or so from the centre of Woodbridge.

Instead, climb steep School Lane, and then head north on another tiny lane that skirts a wild bluebell wood, pleased and surprised by the absence of traffic and its attendant noise. If you had been with me on Good Friday, 2001, you would have seen two pairs of jays, each noisily busy in a copse about their nests. Coming back in late Autumn 2007, the jays were busy elsewhere, but the dart of a green woodpecker swerved along the narrow lane ahead of me. After after half a mile or so, I came to a cluster of old buildings; a farmhouse, a former Rectory, and pretty St Mary, settled in its pleasant graveyard.

What you would not know is that, here, you are on a bluff overlooking the wide River Deben. The woodland screens you from the creeks below, but there is a sense of their presence, in the way that water swallows sound. Startled by the peace so soon after leaving the bustle of Ipswich, I felt content in this deep silence.

This must be an ancient settlement, like Iken to the north. At one time, this church was a beacon on a bluff above the river estuary, welcoming home Saxon traders. Nothing remains of that early church, of course, but there is still much to see outside; the base of the tower is decorated with sacred monograms in excellent condition, including one above the west window that I think was intended as a consecration cross. More emblems decorate the buttresses, and there's also a niche, high up on the south side of the battlements.

A curious structure sits to the side of the chancel, looking like some kind of baker's oven. You might wonder at some mysterious medieval liturgical purpose; in fact, this chancel was an early 19th century rebuilding of 1835, and this was probably designed to accomodate the Rector's pew. At the east end of the chancel are huge buttresses, presumably designed to stop the church flowing down the hill into the Deben.

When I first came here, I was disappointed to discover that the church was locked without a keyholder notice, and it was only after a couple of visits that I was lucky to find flower-arrangers busy inside. Coming back in 2007, I was delighted to discover that this church is now open every day. You step into a delicious interior with a strong feeling of the early 20th century. Most strikingly, the nave and chancel are filled with superb Arts and Crafts movement glass, some of the best in Suffolk. The chancel windows depict scenes from parables, the sowers and reapers looking very much their Suffolk counterparts. Dedicatory inscriptions beneath the widows are embossed on brass, in a strong Art Nouveau style. The chancel glass is by Heaton, Butler and Bayne; the quality is excellent. The east window is 1905, and Mortlock thought that to the south and north slightly later.

Mary at the foot of the Cross crucifixion city on fire Isaiah Roman soldier "Surely this man was the Son of God"
surely he hath borne God my Saviour pomegranate we have found him speed the plough
a cheerful giver as ye sow so shall ye reap a small token Beatitude
master, even Christ do thou likewise ye hear the poor in spirit where sin abounded grace
father of the prodigal son prodigal son prodigal son shepherds sleeping shepherd

Like its near neighbour Brightwell, Martlesham has a proud collection of hatchments. There are six here, one of the biggest groups in the country, and they are mostly for members of the Goodwin family. One of them is exceptionally early, dating back to the 1660s. Contemporary with the oldest hatchment is the Charles II coat of arms above the south door.

The Jacobean pulpit is dated 1614, but the real treasures of this church are both medieval. On the north wall are the substantial remains of a St Christopher wall painting, the Christ child's halo still bearing gilt. The little votive niche beneath might be original. Before the Reformation, the Faithful could offer a prayer here at the start of the day, calling for protection on their activities during the day ahead. It was uncovered in 1902, and has recently been restored.

The font is also fascinating, not least because of two of the beasts that take the place of the more usual East Anglian lions. My favourite is a dog, with a little collar of bells. The bear to the rear of him seems to be wearing a medieval cope.

Back outside, I found a centenarian's gravestone, and, at last, a view of the estuary from the edge of the churchyard.

Simon Knott, 2001, updated 2007

looking east font looking west St Christopher Charles II
Rector's pew even Christ Ernest Christie Doughty hatchments
Glory Beautifying His House anima mea!
dog Benedic annos 1903 dog

 

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