At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Lawrence, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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St Lawrence St Lawrence

St Lawrence Ipswich St Lawrence Ipswich St Lawrence

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Back in 2009 the bells of St Lawrence were returned to their tower for the first time in a quarter of a century. The bells rang out over the rooftops of Ipswich, and there were emotional scenes because these five bells, all cast in the 1440s, are the oldest circle of five bells in the whole world. It was the icing on the cake of a decade of resurrection for the church. Anyone visiting St Lawrence church today, particularly if they are a visitor to Ipswich, may not realise quite what an extraordinary journey this church has been on over the last 150 years, and particularly in the last three decades. For this, above all others, is the Ipswich church which was nearly lost to us, but which came back from the dead.

In 1846, Thomas Dugdale's County Views series showed Dial Lane in Ipswich lined with old shops, some of which survive today. Above them towers a fine 15th century tower, its windows outlined in brick, curious little 18th century urns topping the corners of what is otherwise a typical Suffolk church tower.

Ipswich St Lawrence

In 1882, Frederick Barnes was commisioned to rebuild the upper part of the tower of St Lawrence's church. He produced one of the most extraordinary confections to grace any Suffolk church, more noticeably so because of the rarity of Victorian towers in Ipswich in particular and Suffolk in general. The angels holding Instruments of the Passion preside over geometric flintwork designs set out in different colours. The tower was cleaned of more than a century of coal smoke dirt in 1996, and the variety of materials used became apparent, from brilliant whites and soft pinks to the creamy gold of the stonework and iron grey of the flint. St Lawrence has a more enclosed site than any other Ipswich church, perhaps more so than any other church in Suffolk, and, as a consequence this wonderful tower constantly disappears and reappears from behind buildings as you walk around Ipswich town centre. Each side of the tower is different; each view and each perspective has something new to offer.

Instruments of the Passion: angel with a T cross praying angel Instruments of the Passion: angel with three nails
Ipswich St Lawrence Instruments of the Passion: angel with hammer and pincers praying angel Instruments of the Passion: angel with the cock of St Peter

This tower is not just an important part of the townscape, but it has become a symbol of Ipswich itself. At the base of the tower the west doors open into the shops of Dial Lane, an intimacy familiar from City of London churches. The base of the tower also has north and south doorways forming a processional archway beneath the tower exactly like that at the town church of Diss St Mary twenty miles off in Norfolk. Through these arches the blessed sacrament would have been carried on its journey through the medieval town, and would allow the celebrants to weave the parish procession around the church during the Holy Week liturgy. To stand outside the west door of St Lawrence is to get the beginning of a sense of the meaning and role of churches such as this in times past. At the other end of the church is a reminder of where the money came from, for an inscription beneath the east window reads in English Pray for the soules of John Baldwyn draper and Jane hys wyf and for alle the good donors. Interestingly, this inscription has been altered, probably during a restoration of the 1870s which removed cement which was covering it, for the last two words are newly cut. Originally they appear to have read xtn sowles am - ie, for all the Christian souls amen rather than for alle the good donors. Sacred mongrams of IHS and AMR flank the inscription as well as John Baldwyn's IB monogram and a pair of shears, the tools of his trade.

'Pray for the soules of John Baldwyn draper and Jane hys wyf and for alle the good donors'

Shield, John Baldwyn monogram, draper's shears IHS, St Catherine wheel, AMR
'Pray for the soules of John Baldwyn draper and Jane hys wyf and for alle the good donors'

Ironically the Victorian restorers left the church with no central gangway, in an attempt to foil the introduction of High Church practices, for this was the most Low Church of the town centre parish churches during the 19th Century. However, by the early 1970s there was pretty much no one left living in the parish, which was a severely small one, sandwiched between St Stephen to the south and St Mary le Tower to the north, and no more than a few yards across across at one point. St Lawrence was closed, declared redundant, and entrusted to the care of the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust which had been set up by Ipswich Borough Council. There were no doubts that a new use could easily be found for such a central, beautiful and useful landmark building.

But his did not happen, and St Lawrence was soon in big trouble. In the early 1990s the parish of St Mary le Tower were still dressing the altar of St Lawrence for Christmas and Easter, but by 1995 the floor had become so unsafe that it was not possible to walk across it. By the time I visited in 1998 the side floors had been removed, and the inside (apart from the sanctuary) was now little more than a shell. On a visit in 1999, the church floor was littered with rubble, and was apparently being used to store someone's furniture and garden ornaments. Bits of the bell frame and the bell wheels, which had once supported that pre-Reformation ring of five bells, were stacked against the college-style pews along the walls. Above, the Victorian stencilling was still readable: Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted... Here are some of the photographs I took on that occasion.

Ipswich St Lawrence Ipswich St Lawrence
Ipswich St Lawrence Ipswich St Lawrence

Thereafter, the church became too dangerous for public access, and the building was closed permanently. Several plans were put forward for the reuse of the building, but there was no electricity and no running water, and the costs involved for any non-commercial organisation to restore the building to use appeared to be prohibitive. The Ipswich Historic Churches Trust hoped that a commercial use could be found which would preserve the liturgical integrity of the building, as had happened at St Stephen on the other side of the Butter Market. But by this time St Lawrence had been closed for more than a quarter of a century, and the effects of neglect and decay were beginning to overwhelm it.

In the Spring of 2000 planning permission was obtained by the JD Wetherspoon chain to convert the church into a pub. This was about the time I first wrote an account of the church, and I observed then that, despite the long years of neglect, the integrity of this building would not be saved. It was not hard to judge that the Churches Conservation Trust might have been a better custodian than the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust. St Lawrence could have been cared for and kept open, a place for private prayer and a refuge from the busy shopping streets.

Shortly after this, in December 2001, I received a letter from the late John Blatchly, at that time chair of the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust. He wrote that The developer interested in St Lawrence has withdrawn his original planning application prior to submitting another. We have agreed to extend the period during which we give him priority over other interested parties. The mural memorial there to James Thorndike, several times bailiff of the town in the early nineteenth century, fell from the wall and smashed into many fragments when its fixings perished. Its repair will be expensive, drawing our attention to the need to check the secure mounting of all the monuments in our churches. It will shortly be back in position, and I have found Thorndike's portrait which I shall offer with a press release.This is the real problem church. Town centre, but difficult to service and no parking very close at hand. If this developer, who would be prepared to spend a great deal on the fabric, does clinch a deal, the building will be infinitely improved in condition and given a useful future. The use must be carefully chosen, but it will have to be fully commercial.

I wondered at the time how turning a church into a pub/restaurant constituted a change of use which was carefully chosen. And, as you may imagine, nothing eventually came of the application and Wetherspoon's withdrew completely, not least because of the seven figure sum which would have been necessary to restore the interior to use. The other interested parties that John Blatchly mentioned also seemed to vanish into thin air, and the church continued to decay in the years after.

Without wishing to appear smug, and realising that hindsight has powerful eyes, I must recall that at the time of the 2004 revision of this page on the Suffolk Churches website I mused that there was no reason why the use had to be fully commercial. Britain is a rich country, I wrote, much richer than it was in the 1970s when St Lawrence was declared redundant. And Ipswich is a thriving town. This church's tower is a landmark, and it is hardly to the credit of the Borough of Ipswich, who took possession when the Diocese declared it redundant, to have a derelict landmark at its heart.

Light-heartedly, I suggested that perhaps they should take it back from the Historic Churches Trust, bang a few pennies on the council tax, and do something useful with it.

Rather extraordinarily, this is exactly what happened. In 2006 it was announced that the Borough Council and Suffolk County Council were to jointly develop St Lawrence as a community resource, so not a commercial use after all. Involved parties included Age Concern, which had previously had a café in the Town Hall, and the project was co-ordinated by Whitehouse Enterprises, an Ipswich-based progressive social enterprise which helps adults with disabilities to find work. Their two main activities were catering and furniture production, both of which contributed to the reinvention of this church as the St Lawrence Centre, effectively a community restaurant and gallery. It was opened to the public in July 2008.

The fabulous cost of £1,200,000 for the restoration came entirely from the public purse. £400,000 was provided by the council tax payers of Ipswich, the rest coming from central government. Of course it would never have been possible for a commercial organisation to justify these costs. And so it was that the Borough did do something useful with the church, although the cost to council tax payers was more like £10 per household rather than the 'few pennies' I had suggested. Whatever you think about that, there is no question that this is a very happy outcome for the building. Since there are no internal partitions, the liturgical integrity has been broadly retained, with kitchens and serving area in the chancel and the nave laid with tables and chairs. The memorials, glass and stencilling have been restored and are still in situ. As at St Stephen a few yards away, you still walk in through the west door past the font. The lights in great circles above and the light wooden floor below create the feel of a space that is at once modern, and yet mindful of its past.The overall effect is splendid.

As St Lawrence was being reborn the world entered the financial crisis of 2007-08, and since then we have had austerity and the covid pandemic. St Lawrence was fortunate that circumstances came together at an optimistic moment in time, because I do not think it could have happened in the years after, and I do not think it could happen again now.


Simon Knott, October 2020

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St Lawrence Centre Ipswich St Lawrence St Lawrence Centre St Lawrence Centre
St Lawrence Centre "not a year marcht the first fruites of our love" Surinder Warboys

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