At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary at Quay, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk




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Perpendicular writ small

planning blight

all of a piece

facing east: completely empty



Ipswich St Mary at Quay: a grubby little jewel

Back in 1999, I said in an early version of this article that St Mary at Quay had surely the most urban and industrial setting of any East Anglian church. It was, and is, a grubby little jewel, and its setting in a sea of concrete and high-rise, surrounded by factories and dual-carriageways, created quite a contrast.

When I first moved to Ipswich in the 1980s, this was a busy area, a hive of industrial activity. Immediately opposite the church was the Cranfield factory; they made animal feed, and a bit further down was Paul, the malsters. To the west was the white tower of Burton, the confectionery factory. On crisp winter mornings the air was full of sweetly fragranced steam, the smell of Waggon Wheels being made. The waterfront, behind the factories, was increasingly moribund, with the larger boats no longer able to negotiate the lock gates. Still, you might see grain ships from Hamburg, or timber being offloaded from Soviet Russia, the sailors on the decks mysterious as they looked wistfully out at the town centre skyline. At the end of the docks was the Tolly Cobbold brewery, another set of sweet smells and activity.

Today, almost all of that activity and setting has gone, or is going. The dock has become a busy upmarket marina, and St Mary sits on the edge of the largest building site in the east of England, the regeneration of the Ipswich docklands. The Waterfront Development will change the face of Ipswich. The vast factory complexes are making way for high rise apartment blocks and loft conversions. The brewery will be turned into flats. There will be theatre and retail spaces, and although most of the development, which stretches around all sides of the Wet Dock, is no more than ten storeys high, there will be a centrepiece tower not far from St Mary which will rise to an amazing 25 storeys, the highest residential block in the east of England. Even the dual carriageway may be replaced, one set of lanes becoming a pedestrian walkway.

A regeneration scheme on this scale, especially where the land has had hundreds of different owners and must be bought up painstakingly by the developers, inevitably causes a lot of planning blight. To visit this church in 2005 was to see it surrounded by a wasteland of overgrown empty lots, and only the dual carriageway gave the scene life. And yet, St Mary at Quay is very beautiful, and would be much admired and better known in a different setting. It has a pretty little tower, delicate windows and a beautiful clerestory. There are grand transepts. It is all of a piece, built in the 1450s. The hammerbeam roof is the original. This is Perpendicular writ small.

north aisle north aisle chapel hoodie George Lovely

Inside, the church is full of light, and completely empty. The nave seems square, it is so bereft of furnishing. This is because St Mary at Quay has been out of use for longer than any other Ipswich church, and after a somewhat turbulent half-century, and to its eternal salvation, it finds itself in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, their only Ipswich church.

In Medieval times it was probably Stella Maris; Our Lady, Star of the Sea. The wealth of 15th and 16th century merchants like Henry Tooley and Thomas Pounder left their mark, in the form of fine fittings and magnificent memorials. These can now be seen in Ipswich Museum, and there is a replica of the Pounder brass on view in the church.

Pownder brass Pownder brass Pownder brass Pounder children

The church was restored rather primitively in the 1870s, but this restoration failed to address the greatest problem of the church. It is built on such marshy soil that it suffered from water ingress. This was worst in warm, wet weather, when the church vaults would flood, filling the building with an unbearable smell.

In 1898 the church closed, and the vaults were dug out and filled in to try and address the problem. But it recurred, causing frequent closures, until one night in 1943 when German bombs fell beside the little church, destroying the windows and causing other major structural damage.

The church closed, never to reopen for regular worship. The fine set of benches went to St Andrew, Ipswich, where they can still be seen. The medieval font went to Brantham, although it has now been returned. The organ went to a church in Norwich. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the church was used as a hall by Ipswich Boys Brigade. The curious brick partitions in the south aisle are the remains of their internal dividing walls. Until recently you could still see their badminton court marked out in the nave. St Mary at Quay was rescued by the Friends of Friendless Churches, and passed on to the Churches Conservation Trust.

I am the Rose of Sharon I am the Lily of the Valleys tiles skull through a squint

The CCT do a good job. Over the last couple of years they have given the building a thorough restoration, and it is now used regularly by arts groups. Red Rose Chain, Ipswich's prominent alternative theatre company, use it for their productions, and the banked temporary seating, facing westwards, gives a stunning close view of Ipswich's finest medieval hammerbeam roof. In 2004, the building itself became an installation art project; geiger counters were put outside, and fitted up to the lighting system. They caused a flash of illumination every time background radiation was detected in the docklands air. This was pretty startling if you happened to be driving along the docks road at night, I can tell you.

A keyholder is listed on the door, making this the only closed redundant church in Ipswich you can visit whenever you like. Inside, the copy of the famous Flemish Pounder brass, perhaps the finest of its type in England, stands in the north aisle chapel. An attempt has been made to reassert the liturgical integrity of the chancel. There is an excellent guide book, and this is a church that deserves to be visited. There are plans for it to be used on a long-term basis by the Mencap charity, although presumably access will still be possible for visitors.

Until then, it cries out for more than the handful who risk crossing the dual carriageway, and, who knows? If enough of us knock on the key holder's door, the CCT might be persuaded to leave it open all the time.

St Mary at Quay, Key Street, Ipswich is redundant, but keyholders are listed on the door. It is in the care of the CCT.

St Mary at Quay

war memorial

 (c) Simon Knott 2006       

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