At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John the Baptist, Onehouse

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Onehouse Onehouse Onehouse

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          Onehouse is one of those hilly parishes on the outskirts of Stowmarket, and although the parish includes part of the urban area of its neighbour - indeed, the Stow Union Workhouse, today converted into apartments, was in Onehouse parish - the village that shares the parish name is over the hill from there, and you wouldn't know. The church itself, like several around here, is small and out in the fields a quarter of a mile's walk, cycle, or bumpy drive from the nearest road. In the misty light of a winter's day it looks haunting from a distance, as if from any time, and it reminds me of this church's few moments of fame back in the 1970s, when it appeared at the opening of an episode of the popular BBC TV series The Survivors, which was partly filmed on location in this part of Suffolk.

The sense of timelessness extends to the small graveyard, with its scattering of mainly 19th century headstones. By the western hedge, a beautifully cut stone is inscribed with initials and the date 1846. You can't help thinking that not much has changed here since then, but in fact that wouldn't be correct. When Mortlock came this way in the 1980s, he found a tall tower with obvious Saxon features. However, by the 1990s, this tower had become unsafe, and somewhat barbarically it was reduced by two thirds in height, and then partly built up again with modern battlements. For this reason, St John the Baptist today appears to be a different church from the time of its fifteen minutes of fame. You can see a screenshot from The Survivors at the bottom of this page, showing the church with its tower intact.

We know that at the time of the National Census of Religious Worship in 1851, the population of Onehouse was 432. However, 225 of these were inmates of Stow Union Workhouse, which had its own chapel. Of the remaining 207 souls, a bare 25 made it to the parish church on the morning of the census, although the minister claimed that the normal number was 35. I make that roughly one in six of the parish going to the Anglican church if you exclude the paupers, which was below the national average. In 1851, most Anglican church attendances were reaching a peak, and in Suffolk as a whole the typical attendance was nearer one in three.

It may be that the parishioners of Onehouse were a particularly Godless lot, but the Minister, Thomas Pyke, moaned in the return that the parish had a number of dissenters who brought their children for baptism but did not otherwise attend. Most likely, the great majority of churchgoers were going over the hill to Stowmarket, a staunchly protestant town with four large chapels averaging 800 worshippers each on a Sunday.

Perhaps this reticence still infects the parish today, for I have to tell you that, for me, St John the Baptist is one of the least welcoming churches anywhere in central Suffolk. I have never found it open, and neither has anyone else I know. There is no keyholder information. Judging by the photographs I took through the windows back in 2008, there is not much to see. The church was extensively restored in the 19th Century, and if you were told it was the dull work of plodding diocesan surveyor Herbert Green then you would not be greatly surprised. There are some roundels of what looks like continental glass in the west window. There is no stone guard, and so ironically, but not unusually for churches like this, the one great treasure of the church is unprotected despite the locked door. If it was open, of course, you could at least go in and say a prayer.

It isn't just the locked door and the isolation in a field which makes this church little-known. Although it is particularly beautiful, it is like its near neighbour Harleston in that this is one of the churches which Cautley found little to say about, and nor could Pevsner. Perhaps that is why it receives fewer visitors than some of the better-known churches around here.

But I must finish by saying that I have been inside St John the Baptist, and the memory of that occasion sticks like a burr in my mind. It was in the early summer of 1997, and we came here for the blessing of the marriage of my friends Simon and Sarah. At the time, my wife was seven months pregnant, and so she sat on a chair by the font, with a cool breeze carrying birdsong through the ancient south doorway from the rising barley beyond. It was a joyous occasion; but, in retrospect, one tinged with sadness. This was the last time I saw my friend Brian, who was to die of a heart attack on a lonely night train across America a few weeks later.

In July my daughter was born, and so I suppose that I will always associate this church more than any other with the whole carnival of birth, love and death, ageless and eternal in a Suffolk field.


Simon Knott, January 2021

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The Survivors


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