At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Martin, Nacton

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




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from the south

dormer window above entrance to Broke mausoleum

looking east


looking west

north aisle

Broke family chapel

view from the altar

tower arch


Nacton: imposing and original

I had felt guilty about Nacton for a long time. The entry for St Martin was one of the first on the Suffolk Churches site, and over the years I had come to regret how harsh I had been on it. I had originally visited on a dark, blustery day in autumn, and the gloom inside had infected my mood. I had also taken against it for being a 'Big House' church, with the firm impress of the family that had paid for its restoration, and used it as their mausoleum. I found the interior depressing, and said so. Since then, I have passed it on many occasions - it is only two miles from my house - and I had felt the prick of conscience; did I need to go and have another look? But had never had time to do anything about it.

So, when my son decided he needed lots of practice on his bike, this one was one of the first places we came. It was early April, a delightful spring day with larks ascending, a kestrel hovering beyond the graveyard eyeing the baby rabbits hungrily, and the smell of greenness in the air. It seemed a perfect day to make my peace with St Martin.

Despite being so close to Ipswich, Nacton is a lovely village. It is scattered in a valley, with two great houses, Broke Hall and Orwell Park. There are a couple of exciting 1960s modernist buildings as well, although the village does have the unenviable reputation of not having had a pub for a couple of centuries, thanks to the temperance tendencies of its two major landowners. Technically, the vast Shepherd and Dog on Felixstowe Road is in the parish, but it is not the kind of pub I expect many villagers would make the effort to get to when the smashing Ship Inn in neighbouring Levington is closer and more convivial.

St Martin is in the grounds of Orwell Park, and a gateway in the wall shows where the Vernons used to come to divine service, but the Brokes must have arrived by road. Orwell Park today is a private school, and Broke Hall has been divided into flats, but St Martin still retains the memory of the great and the good of both families.

In my first entry for St Martin I said that I thought this was a rather ugly church externally. It only takes the sun to go in, and that rendered tower ends up looking like a grain silo, the colour of cold porridge. This is a pity, because on a sunny day there is something grand and imposing about it, especially with that pretty dormer window halfway along the nave roof. It gives a pleasing Arts and Crafts touch to the austerity of a building which was almost entirely rebuilt between 1906 and 1908 by Charles Hodgson Fowler. They'd actually been two of them, and Fowler retained that on the south side. They had been installed in the 1870s by a budding medievalist, but there had been an earlier going-over by Diocesan architect Richard Phipson in 1859. Mortlock tells us that Fowler added the aisle, the organ chamber and vestry, the porch and the east window. The roofs and floors were also replaced.

The medieval font survives, and bears a triumphant (although recut) angel bearing a shield of the Instruments of the Passion. The wild men are super, and the smiling lions are reminiscent of those you often find on Norfolk fonts of this type.

instruments of the passion wild man... ...flanked by jolly lions

There are two image niches in one of the window embrasures, but otherwise this is almost entirely a Victorian and Edwardian interior, full of Brokes and Vernons. Their greatest legacy to St Martin has been the large range of stained glass which ultimately gives St Martin its character. It is interesting to compare the church to St Peter at Levington, a mile or so off. There, the church is simple and rustic; the difference that the money spent here has made is accentuated by a visit to both. But St Martin has been given a sober gravitas, a self-confidence that falls short of triumphalism, and stepping into it again I knew that I had been wrong about it before.

Best of all, I liked the glass. In the north aisle west window, partly obscured by noticeboards, is a fine 1913 Adoration of the Shepherds and Magi. Mortlock thought it might be by Burlisson & Grylls, an unusual firm to find in East Anglia. By Christopher Charles Powell, and believed to be his only work in Suffolk, are the three figures of the Sower, the Good Shepherd and St Martin.

The war memorial window depicts St George in the centre light, flanked by the figures of Victory (St Michael) and Peace (St Raphael). Perhaps the most unusual window is the chaotic assemblage of heraldic symbols in the south side of the nave, showing the Broke arms and crests over the generations. It is by Clayton & Bell.

heraldic glass east window Madonna and child 14th century instruments of the passion heraldic glass - detail
St Michael, St George, St Raphael Sower, Good Shepherd, St Martin Adoration of the Shepherds and Magi

When the church reopened in 1908, people were delighted by the Anglo-catholic mood of the time that had been injected into the building. I am sure that today the lively faith community in this parish are still pleased with what Charles Hodgson Fowler created almost a century ago. Outside, their ancestors lie beneath headstones that have been eroded and smoothed clean by the salty air that comes from the great river beyond the school. Hardly any of the 18th and early 19th century inscriptions are legible now. One exception is to a man who died in the middle years of the 19th century who fought at Traffalgar. This is as clearly read now as it was when Arthur Mee came this way in the 1930s.

Simon Knott, April 2006


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