At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Clement, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion...

 

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Ipswich St Clement: a handsome church stately among its trees

St Clement has the finest setting of all the dockland churches, despite the inner ring road that passes within ten metres of its north side. It was built over the part of the graveyard that adjoined the ironworks, which still survives across the road. Seen from this road, the handsome church is stately among its great trees. The clutter of small buildings that have surrounded it for hundreds of years have been cleared away, opening up a fine view from the west.

Until the 1960s, the graveyard was almost completely enclosed, accessible only by the footpath that still survives from Grimwade Street beside the former parish hall. Approached along this path, the unfolding pastoral vista curiously belies the urban context. The church itself is a fine example of fairly early perpendicular church-building, with a grand tower and as magnificent a clerestory as any Ipswich church. Even the Victorian chancel fits well, and all in all this is a church worth seeing.

For a long time, the view from the outside was all you were able to see. The church was declared redundant in the early 1970s, and has been closed ever since. In the 1980s, it was the victim of a great deal of vandalism because of its position, relatively isolated from mainstream town life. The sheltered south side of the churchyard in particular became littered with the kind of things that you wouldn't want your children to pick up.

The church itself became a prop-store for the Wolsey Theatre, and it was surreal indeed to walk among the fibre-glass cannons, cardboard grandfather clocks and Scottish warrior outfits that were stacked high in the nave and aisles.

The church was left pretty much as it was on the day it closed, as if the churchwardens had put away the hymn books and slipped out after that final Evensong. However, in 1996 a disastrous fire swept though St Clement, completely destroying the 1880s roof. This has been rebuilt since; and, combined with a clear-up for the churchyard came landscaping and a memorial to the a famous mariner son of the parish, the explorer Thomas Eldred.

Suffolk College took on the lease on the building, but gave notice in 2001 that they would not be renewing it. John Blatchly, of the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust, told me at the time that there was a potential community user interested in taking it on in the future, but I thought it unlikely that this would happen; visiting at the time I found this big church disarmingly bare, with a slight air of dereliction.

In fact, the former congregation here kept a weather eye on it, still opening it up on Historic Churches bike ride day, which was more than can be said for the other redundant Ipswich churches. The redecoration and rebuilding of the roof after the fire had made it sound, and it was obvious that it wouldn't be too difficult to convert the building for an appropriate use - as a concert space, perhaps, or even for one of the new evangelical churches. I wondered if even the Catholic Church might take a look, since they don't possess a large worship space among their five Ipswich churches, which are often overcrowded.

Coming back here in 2005, I was pleased to discover that the interior has been really spruced up. The royal arms, which fortunately survived the fire, are probably the best example of Ipswich's familiar Charles II sets - these are different to the others in that they are carved and gilded rather than being painted on boards or canvas. The font, reset by the Victorians in the westward extension of the south aisle, is a typical East Anglian rural 15th century font, with angels on the bowl and lions and wild men around the stem, giving a rustic air to this corner.

There is some good modern glass; the post-war east window,credited by Roy Tricker to Abbott & co, shows the risen Christ, while elsewhere there is an exceptionally good Presentation of Christ in the Temple. I wonder who it is by? All this was threatened while the church was vulnerable, but today it is cared for again. How has this happened?

Christ the Good Shepherd The Presentation in the Temple The Risen Christ (detail) The Risen Christ

All too easily, this church could have been lost to dereliction and vandalism. As it was, St Clement stood still while Ipswich changed around it. The 1960s demolition of virtually all of the housing in the parish that had led to its redundancy is now being redressed by the massive Waterfront regeneration, the almost complete rebuilding of Ipswich's wet dock area. St Clement now has many new neighbours, and most of them are residential.

Similarly, the Diocese has moved away from its 1970 policy of redundancy, and has gone into the business of creating benefices, groupings of parishes that share ministers and resources. Back in the 1830s, Holy Trinity a few hundred metres to the east had been built as a chapel of ease to St Clement. This, in turn, had seeded St Luke. Like St Clement, Holy Trinity had lost almost all of its parish population, but instead of being declared redundant it was grouped into a benefice with St Luke. St Helen has recently joined them, and, wonderfully, the benefice appears to have taken St Clement under its wing again. The church remains redundant, and it is not used for regular worship, but the benefice has used it for events, and the nave is now full of seating, which any Ipswich resident will recognise as the chairs formerly in the Corn Exchange.

It is clear that this fine, sound building has a role to play. Perhaps it will not be a religious one, but St Clement is perfectly suited to the kind of performance and arts events that its new neighbours might attract. This would, perhaps, be a community function in keeping with the proclaimed mission of the Diocese. Whatever, it would be a great shame if this church was reused for wholly commercial purposes. Until then, St Clement sits and waits, as patiently as it has done for the last thirty years, but with more hope.

St Clement's Church, Fore Street, Ipswich, is open some weekday afternoons in Summer.

      (c) Simon Knott 2006       

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