St Michael, Oulton, Lowestoft
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
|Lowestoft is Suffolk's second
largest town, and as it sprawls away from the sea it
consumes a number of historic parishes, among them this
one. At one time Oulton was a marshland village on the
banks of the Waveney to the north of the Broad to which
it gives its name, but by the end of the 19th Century it
had become fully part of the urban area. The church sits
out on the western side of the parish, the marshes
beyond. It is a striking and perhaps an unfamiliar
building, because it is one of just four medieval
churches in Suffolk with a central tower. It is at heart
a 12th Century church as the south doorway shows, and at
one time there were transepts, which is to say that this
was a cruciform church. The south transept has gone, a
shadow shape in the side of the crossing revealing where
it once was. The surviving north transept was rebuilt in
the 14th Century, probably at the same time as the
chancel. The chancel roof is much higher than that of the
nave, and the upper half of the tower between them was
rebuilt in red brick in the 18th Century. All in all, an
interesting and attractive exterior.
And I think the same is true of the interior, although the church was substantially refurnished as part of a restoration that took seven years from 1857 to 1864. The first impression on standing at the west end of the nave is that this is a cramped and rather cluttered space which opens up and becomes lighter as you head east. This is partly because of the low west gallery which projects beyond the font into the nave. An inscription on the front reads This Gallery was erected at the expence of the Patron of this Rectory and some of the Principal Landowners and Inhabitants of the Parish A D 1836. This date is perhaps a mark of how remote this church was at that time, for such things as galleries were already becoming unfashionable. Indeed, it was not unusual elsewhere for galleries installed in the 1820s and 1830s to be taken down in the 1840s and 1850s! But Oulton's survives.
Beneath the gallery, the font is one of the familiar chunky East Anglian series of the late medieval period. In 1515 one Richard Mekylburgh left 5 marks for the painting of the font, a reminder that fonts were usually painted, although I couldn't see any paint remaining on this one. The panels depict lions alternating with substantial Tudor roses, so the font was probably new when it was painted. Also surviving the 19th Century restoration are the 12th Century tower and chancel arch at each side of the crossing. The narrowness of the nave accentuates the length of the building, and above the tower arch is one of just three surviving James II royal arms in Suffolk, a county which has more than most. Three doorways to the north of the tower arch show how the now-vanished rood loft might be reached from the nave floor, with a further door giving access from the loft into the tower. Walking through the arches into the chancel, in front of the sanctuary are what appear to be some substantial figure brasses.
In fact, they are fibreglass replicas made in the 1970s. The originals are recorded as 'stolen' in 1857, but the fact that this date coincides with the beginning of the restoration suggests that they might just as easily have been discarded, even melted down. This is a shame, because the larger figure was of great interest. It depicted a life-size priest, Adam Bacon, and dated from the early 14th Century. As a sign in the church notes, it was probably the oldest ecclesiastical brass in England. The other brass has two figures, Sir John and Lady Katherine Fastolfe. He died in 1445, and their brass was placed here in accordance with her will when she died in 1478.
Shortly before the restoration of the church, the 1851 census found five hundred and sixty eight people living in Oulton parish, along with one hundred and seventy one residents of the Oulton workhouse. The Census of Religious Worship taken the same day recorded that a hundred people had attended morning worship at Oulton church, a figure that was presumably a rounded up estimate, but which in any case was a much higher proportion of the parish population than was common in or near urban areas. As usual in East Anglia the afternoon sermon was far more popular, the attendance being rounded up to two hundred there. The rector, Hunter Francis Fell, whose blockish memorial is now set on the north side of the sanctuary, had only been inducted a few days before the census and felt unable to answer the question about average attendances because owing to death of late rector I cannot satisfactorily ascertain it.
Unlike churches in the rest of Suffolk, the Lowestoft churches tend to be kept locked, and Oulton church is no exception. There's no keyholder notice, but as I've found elsewhere in the town, if you can track a keyholder down they are really pleased to come and open up for you. I think this is just a local culture of locking, and that they don't mean to be unwelcoming. Be that as it may, I am told that the parish intends to make the building more accessible and, perhaps, more useful. This is a sizeable parish, and at present they use the nave for services and then have coffee in the cramped space under the gallery. However, there are plans to remove the 20th Century furnishings from the chancel and turn it into a multi-purpose area. There's something similar at Ashill in Norfolk. It could also serve as a hospitality area for walkers in the adjacent marshes, the car park for which lies immediately beside the church. Whatever you may think about that, it is hard for me to imagine that a church in such a setting in any other part of East Anglia would be kept locked, and so this is obviously a step in the right direction.
Simon Knott, August, 2022
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