At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Old Newton

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Old Newton

Old Newton Old Newton Old Newton Old Newton

Britains oldest working clergyman   Here we are where High Suffolk comes down to meet the start of the Gipping Valley, an area which has been a meeting place for two thousand years or more, an area of moots and markets, of travellers and traders. Around the town of Stowmarket, the placenames reveal the pattern of the past, and such a one is Old Newton. The name is a pleasing contradiction, and the parish is beautiful away from the busy Stowmarket to Rickinghall Road. The best view of the church is from the top the hill on the back lane from Stowupland.

I came here in the early spring, when the whole valley was still wearing its winter clothes, but the sunshine promised much. Closer to, the buds were on the trees, and the green barley shoots spread across the valley like a frost. I felt pleased to have seen it before the trees were in full leaf, and the church disappeared back into its secretive copse. In the graveyard you'll find Edward Falconer, who died while Vicar of Old Newton in 1946, at the age of 98 years. He had been Vicar here for more than half a century, and his headstone tells you that he was known as Britain's oldest working clergyman.

The nave and chancel are mismatched in a pretty way, the chancel high-ridged and red, the nave flatter, simpler, without aisles or clerestories. The chancel is pleasingly rough and ready, with brickwork and wooden-traceried windows. The tower is not big, but seems imposing against such a simple building. You step through the rustic south porch into a nave which seems wider than it is, thanks to the low roof, with the beams proud of the white ceiling. There's a nice west gallery, screened off beneath, and the battered 15th Century font stands in front of it. In the gallery, the seating is organised for children, boys on one side and girls on the other. There are also places for Master and Mistress.

Looking east, everything is simple and seemly. There was a staunchly Anglican restoration here in the 19th Century, and this period created an impression of substance and significance which chimes well with the Decorated windows. Unusually, the location of a nave altar is revealed, not by a piscina, but by a surviving sedilia.

Perhaps the most interesting things here are idiosyncracies. The war memorial is one of the strangest I've ever seen, cut as fretwork in the style of an indian temple, or perhaps the Brighton Pavilion. The organ, up in the chancel, is a fine modern one, but the makers plate and memorial plaque from the old one are displayed beside it, along with the paperwork, a satisfying historical detail. There is some 15th Century canopywork up in the top of a nave window, as well as some fragmentary beasts, who provide, just for a moment, a reminder of what was once here.

Arthur Mee, an enthusiast if ever there was one, rather damns Old Newton with faint praise. Forced into a perusal of the registers to find something interesting to say, he homes in on John Mole, the son of a farm labourer, who was baptised here in 1743. He astonished his friends with his marvellous calculating powers, and went on to write two books about algebra. Mee also tracks down John Bridges, who was a vicar's son in the 19th century, and is best remembered as one of the leaders of the modern system of philosophy called Positivism. What induced such a tiny, rural parish to give birth to two great thinkers? Something in the water? A curiosity to ponder, in such an utterly rural churchyard.

  J D Dixon organ builder

Simon Knott, April 2009

looking east looking west sanctuary
canopy work font font war memorial
G II R organ lion lion war memorial
17th Century bench end A Wheaton organ builder J D Dixon organ builder a donation 



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