At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Ubbeston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Ubbeston Ubbeston path to the burial ground

    St Peter, Ubbeston

Here we are in the rolling woods and fields to the south of Halesworth in this most remote-seeming area of Suffolk, if not of all East Anglia. The lanes are narrow, and there are plenty of them, with the place names all hazed over with flowering grasses, and fields shadowing Domesday lines under wheat’s restless silence, although this being Suffolk it is barley of course.

Cycling in Suffolk, so often you see the next church tower from several miles off, but here the little villages and hamlets are secretive, enfolded and inward-looking. You don't see the churches until you are actually on top of them, and St Peter at Ubbeston is a good example. In summer, your first sight of the fine red brick tower is through the mazy green of the trees, a pleasing juxtaposition. It was built right on the eve of the Reformation, very much in the Tudor style. Pevsner points out that the red brick south porch is clearly later, and as it looks so much in the style of the grand, red brick Ubbeston Hall nearby, the early 18th Century date of the construction there might give a clue to the date of the porch. It hides a Norman south doorway, giving us the answer to the age of the long nave and chancel with their curiously mismatched perpendicular windows, one outlined in red brick.

I am afraid that you are not going to be able to see the Norman doorway, or anything else for that matter, because this was one of the dozen or so churches sold off by the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich during its brief flirtation with lunacy in the 1970s. At that time, churches which were considered economically unviable, because of the repairs they needed, could be declared redundant on those grounds alone. If a new use was not found for the churches within three years then they would be demolished, although happily neither of the two churches destroyed under this process in Suffolk were of medieval origin. The Diocese demanded a financial return for its churches. A few miles off at Mickfield, the church of St Andrew was declared redundant by this process. The Friends of Friendless Churches offered to take the church on, but the Diocese refused. Instead, it was sold to an Israeli businessman for conversion into apartments. But the businessman went bankrupt, and the church was left derelict for a quarter of a century, prey to vandalism and arson attacks. Fortunately, thanks to a compulsory purchase order, it is now in the care of a local trust and in use as a church again.

There were a couple of other unhappy endings before the Diocese saw sense and began to cluster its churches into interdependent benefices. Today, of course, we are much more mindful of our heritage and we have much more money available to save it. The rise of organisations like the Churches Conservation Trust and the various county Historic Churches Trusts came about largely as a result of the destruction and losses of the 1960s and 1970s. The Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich no longer sells off its medieval churches, thank goodness.

However, St Peter at Ubbeston had a happy ending, at least in terms of the preservation of its fabric. It was saved from the possibility of dereliction or demolition by a young couple who bought it and converted it into a home and studio. You can see the report at the time from the East Anglian Daily Times below right. Today, the size of the car park beside the church suggests that the building has some commercial use, although I couldn't say what. It is a handsome structure, immaculately cared for, standing proud on its hill of green.

When the church was first declared redundant, most of the headstones were removed in preparation for the sale. I don't think this happened at any other churches that were sold off, so I don't know why it happened here. When I first visited the church in the early 1990s, they had been laid flat to form a path. This appalled me, and I said so, comparing it with the reuse of Jewish headstones that I had seen in Eastern Europe. However, soon after this, the people who now owned the church paid for them all to be uplifted and reset along the path, which they now line, a fine sight. The path leads to a sad little burial ground to the west of the church. It no longer appears to be in use, and in all honesty I do not think that I would care to see out eternity there. However, the headstones that line the path are in immaculate condition, and full of interest. They are well worth exploring - you can see images of some of them below.

An English country church is the spiritual and historic heart of its parish, a touchstone down the long generations. Ubbeston church is a lovely building, but of course when a parish loses the use of its church it loses its heart. In his forward to Billa Harrod's Norfolk Country Churches and the Future, the late John Betjeman wrote that we cannot spare a single country church. When a church has been pulled down the country seems empty or like a necklace with a jewel missing. This is a faithful county to have kept so many of its churches standing through the centuries. Like St Mary Magdalene, it has not suggested selling its precious gift to give to the poor, but has known the true value of witness to the faith.

Fortunately for us, Ubbeston church still stands. But that, of course, is all. Its beautiful 15th Century tower is a landmark among the restless trees, but it no longer belongs to us, and we can never have it back. Thank God it was saved from destruction by the loving care of its new owners, but it stands as a reminder, perhaps, of the short term folly of commercial thinking when applied to the numinous and the eternal.

  couple spend all spare time in church

Simon Knott, August 2014

being ever ready to relieve ye poor & needy Simon and Joanna Baldry at all times to ye sick compassionate and to the poor charitable

Ellen Georgina, the gentle daughter of the Rev.  E.A. Watkins Alice Jane, daughter of the Rev. E. A. Watkins many years surgeon to the Hertfordshire Regiment of militia sleeping cherub

aged 9 months

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