At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Thurston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


Jesus Welcomes All


At the time I'd previously been to Thurston, some ten years before, I had been following the footsteps of the unfashionable Victorian Suffolk architect Edward Hakewill. He had worked extensively in the 1860s, and is often good - at Kenton, for instance. But he can also be very undistinguished, as at Rushmere, Brantham and Shottisham. The reason I was intrigued by Thurston is that it was the work of his brother, John Henry Hakewill, and I was intrigued to see what he had got up to. Edward Hakewill's usual approach was to go in, build a north aisle, reduce the internal furnishings to a polite middle-brow sacramentalism, and then leave.

His brother had rather more than that to do here, because of something that happened on the night of Sunday March 18th 1860, which I'll come back to in a moment. Previous to this, and in common with most Suffolk churches, St Peter had been greatly neglected, and its need for a facelift had become obvious. In fact, as Roy Tricker's splendid church guide records, John Hakewill had already been engaged as the architect for a thorough going-over of the old structure. But shortly before midnight, on the night before work was due to commence, the tower fell.

It is hard to imagine the effect of an incident like that on a tiny, remote, rural community, the one permanent thing in its midst disappearing overnight. The tower collapsed straight down, but falling rubble took out the nave and aisle roofs, as well as destroying piers of both arcades. The parishioners decided to do the obvious, and retreat into the chancel for services. However, just ten days later, the rest of the nave collapsed, bringing down what remained of the arcades and roofs, and destroying all the furnishings, including the pulpit and lectern.

And so, a decision was made to rebuild from scratch, accommodating the new church to the surviving chancel and porch. As Roy Tricker points out, Hakewill was very much of the prevailing opinion of the time that Decorated was the only suitable style for a medieval church (despite the fact that Suffolk's finest moments are mostly Perpendicular), and, as a Bury Post article of the time noted, Hakewill was determined that the new church should be entirely in Decorated and correct architecture, replacing the inferior architecture in the old structure.

And so, there it is today. I'm not sure I particularly like it very much, but the exterior is certainly impressive, and the church reopened barely 18 months later, at the cost of about 3,500 (about three quarters of a million in today's money). This must have been a huge church, even before Hakewill's rebuild - I wondered if it had been a match for Rougham, across the A14. Much of the chancel appears relatively original, despite considerable patching up. The ugly clerestory is, I think, a mistake, and shows a tendency of Hakewill to behave like his brother in his attempt to actually darken the upper reaches of the nave. It was done in almost exactly the same way by John Clemence at Kirkley in the 1870s, where it is equally horrid. The imposing tower itself is beginning to mellow with age, but still has a disconcerting similarity to the tower of a Typically English Village Church in a model village, as if the photograph at the top of this page were a trick one. But when you consider what Richard Phipson did across the road at Finborough and Woolpit during the same decade, St Peter may have got off lightly.

I was keen to look for survivals - the font was rescued and repaired, and a considerable amount of medieval glass picked out of the rubble. Much of it is now set in the chancel, apparently. But, unfortunately, St Peter is one of the few churches in this part of Suffolk which is not open to the general public. A sign in the massive porch reads Owing to Theft and Vandalism it is much Regretted that this Church has to be kept LOCKED. THE KEY is kept at THE VICARAGE (behind you). THE VICAR (if at home) will gladly unlock THE CHURCH and show visitors round in daylight hours. This immediately made me go back outside and check on my bike - I live in the centre of Ipswich, where the churches are virtually all open all day every day, and the idea that crime was so high in Thurston that they didn't dare let people wander around the House of God on their own was a worrying one. But my bike was still there, and I locked it. I (obviously) went and knocked on the Vicarage door, and (equally obviously) he was out, despite the windows being open, which was possibly a mistake in high-crime Thurston.

I'm not sure what annoyed me more about the notice, its assumption that anyone wanting to see inside needed to be accompanied, or the slightly pompous misuse of capitalisation. In a way I was relieved that the Vicar had been out, as I didn't much fancy being shown around. For all he knew, I might have had good reason to be on my own in his church, to weep, or to curse, or to pray. More and more Anglican and Catholic parish churches are beginning to realise that a large part of their mission is to the ordinary people of the parish, who might need a spiritual space and focus at a time which suits them, not the service schedule of the minister in charge.

A Vicar friend of mine who had recently taken on a church in Norfolk had told me only that week that, since he had insisted the church be kept open, there had been a constant stream of visitors, most of whom just wanted to sit there for a while. One lady who had suffered a bereavement told him later that the open church had been a great blessing at that sad time.

So, I was not to see inside St Peter. I wandered around the graveyard, and discovered an extraordinary monument against the eastern boundary - I've rarely seen anything so imposing in a Suffolk graveyard. It is to William Noel Cunliffe, and his daughter Philae, a splendid piece of 1930s triumphalism, with flanking dogs. All that is missing is an eternal flame. From the northern edge of the graveyard, the octagonal turret of St Mary, Pakenham, rises dramatically, a castle among the trees. But its fortress-like appearance is an illusion, because unlike high-crime Thurston's, Pakenham's church is open every day.


Simon Knott, May 2010

Thurston grief cherub 
graves cherub war memorial

Amazon commission helps cover the running costs of this site.