At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary at Stoke, Ipswich

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




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Phipson's north transept

Butterfield's porch

looking east in the original church, now the north aisle

medieval ghost: the surviving hammerbeam roof

19th century font

looking east in Butterfield's new church

through to the high altar from the aisle


west end

first sight


Ipswich St Mary at Stoke: an indentity all of its own

Urban rivers carve allegiances. The Gipping becomes tidal as it enters the Borough of Ipswich, splits around an island, and remerges as the Orwell. 1500 years ago, along this fertile estuary, Anglo-Saxon trading and manufacturing settlements merged to form England's longest continually-occupied town, Gippeswyk, the modern Ipswich. For a while, it was the largest manufacturing and trading town in northern Europe, and even into the twentieth century it was first and foremost an industrial port.

The mouth of the Orwell is at the border between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia and Essex. Not far north of Ipswich was the East Anglian capital at Rendlesham, and so it was inevitable that the northern bank of the river should be more busily settled than the southern side. By the time Ipswich had emerged as a proper Borough at the end of the 12th century, its heart was in the quayside parishes of St Peter, St Clement and St Mary at Quay. Across the river, the gentle hills were quietly settled by farmers and villagers. Stoke Hills overlooked the town centre across the water, but the main road to London was some way to the west, crossing the river at Handford, and so Stoke developed a strong and perhaps slightly smug independence, an identity all of its own. Even today, older Ipswichers can be heard to refer to the part of the town south of the river as 'Over Stoke'.

Stoke was large enough to form two parishes, St Augustine and St Mary. The parish church of St Mary occupies a site on a dramatic bluff overlooking the river, across which it faces St Peter, a couple of hundred metres away. St Mary at Stoke is the only one of the 12 medieval town centre churches to stand south of the River Orwell. The church of St Augustine, which seerved the quayside area south of the river, is now lost to us. It was still in use in the 1480s, but all traces of it have completely disappeared. It was probably about 100 yards away in Vernon Street, where the Margueritte Jefferies Centre stands.

After the Reformation, St Augustine's parish was merged into that of St Peter, and St Mary at Stoke retained its relatively rural feel, so close to the heart of the town. As recently as 1801, the population of the parish was just 385.

And then, as John Barbrook in his excellent guidebook tells us, the railways came. The impact of their coming upon a town like Ipswich, which was already a burgeoning industrial port, should not be underestimated. However, the Stoke Hills, as gentle as they are by Northern standards, proved an impenetrable barrier to the line from Liverpool Street. Consequently. Ipswich's first railway station was built in the south of the parish of St Mary at Stoke, and a mid-Victorian railway town grew up around it. In the 1860s, a tunnel was blasted through the hills so that the line could be extended to Norwich, and a new railway station was built, again in St Mary at Stoke parish, linked to the centre of Ipswich by a major new road, Princes Street. By 1871, the population of the parish had grown to more than 3,000, a ten-fold increase in less than a lifetime, unmatched almost anywhere else in East Anglia.

This development needs to be borne in mind when exploring St Mary at Stoke parish church. From the south, you see a large, blockish Victorian building with flushwork on the porch and transept, a little characterless otherwise. The focus is all to the south, the graveyard dropping away quickly on the other three sides, as if reminding us of the long tradition here of independence from Ipswich over the water.

However, walking around to east or west you discover that behind it there is another church, medieval this time and rural in feel. The tower is at the west end of the older church, and the two are joined as if non-identical Siamese twins.

When you go in, there is again the impression of two churches joined together, the near one Victorian and wide, the far one narrower and older. In fact, this impression is almost exactly right. The original medieval church is now the north aisle ahead of you. That is why the tower is rather pleasingly off-centre. The 1872 nave you step into is the work of the great Anglo-catholic architect William Butterfield. This church came 15 years after his masterpiece All Saints, Margaret Street. And yet, St Mary at Stoke has nothing like the excitement of that or his other fine London churches. The chequerboard flintwork on the porch and transept are echoes of St Mary le Tower in the middle of town.

There were two major rebuildings here. The first, in 1864, rather unforgiveably destroyed a magnificent Tudor porch in red brick. This rebuilding, by Richard Phipson, the Diocesan architect, gave us the huge, austere transept on the northern side. The intention seems to have been to increase the capacity of the building while tarting it up a bit. Twelve years later, Butterfield's work here was rather more ambitious. He created a large urban church to the south of the original, the joining arcade making an aisle of the old nave.

Standing inside the main entrance, everything appears 19th century, from the font nearby to the grand reredos with the east window above. But this illusion of an entirely Victorian building is dispelled if you walk through the arcade and look up. Here, the north aisle, which was the original church, retains its medieval hammerbeam roof. Because of this, the aisle retains a different atmosphere to the nave, particularly with the fine abstract window at the east end. Halfway along this wall is a Great Eastern Railway insignia from a train, a reminder of the industry which almost single-handedly turned this parish into an urban one.

In the 20th century, this church had two chapels of ease in the parish, St Etheldreda on Wherstead Road, and St Edmund on Ranelagh Road, beside the school. These have now completely disappeared. However, the massive development around the docklands may yet have an effect on the parish. In the meantime, and rather pleasingly, St Mary at Stoke turns its back in a traditional manner on the town centre across the river. Instead, it serves its role as the flagship church of the South-West Ipswich Team Ministry, serving more than thirty thousand people in the areas of Stoke Park, Thorington Hall, Chantry and Pinewood.

sanctuary east end of the north aisle, the orginal sanctuary waiting

view from the graveyard of St Peter across the river

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