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St Thomas of Canterbury, Woodbridge

 

I'm prepared to accept that Woodbridge is not the poshest town in Suffolk, and that the citizens of Southwold, Framlingham and Aldeburgh are up in arms at the very suggestion. But it certainly feels like it. In Lost Continent, Bill Bryson memorably describes the shop owners in a resort town in the hills of Colorado watching him suspiciously as he browsed in their shops, just in case he 'decided to do a poo in the corner'. That's what Woodbridge is like, or so it seems to me.

The mouth. St Thomas of Canterbury makes its presence felt.

 

Any other town, you chat with the shopkeeper - in Saxmundham, they may even make you a cup of tea, they're so pleased to see you - but here there's a cold stare and pursed lips. Still, the houses are beautiful, and the streets tree-lined, so you pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

There is more than one Woodbridge. There is the Woodbridge of the mind, which I equate roughly with the shops of the Thoroughfare. There is the picture postcard Woodbridge of the Market Hill and St Mary, the glorious medieval parish church.

There are the excellent pubs (some of Suffolk's best) and the relatively democratic quayside area.

My favourite Woodbridge is the Victorian one, to the north east of the town centre.

Here, as well as the fascinating Victorian Anglican church of St John, we find Woodbridge's Catholic presence, the neo-Classical St Thomas of Canterbury.

St John's Road is a bold statement in domestic Classical, which is itself unusual in East Anglia. The gentle rise peaks with two-and-a-half-storey Georgian town houses, St Thomas of Canterbury set among them, and two storey equivalents lending scale on either side.

It is all very impressive. In urban terms, there is nothing like this in Ipswich. Perhaps Bury has something similar to offer.

However, like so much neo-Classical architecture, this church is all mouth and no trousers. Behind the immense, impressive frontage is a tiny church, as wide as it is deep. Why?

Well, St Thomas of Canterbury is dated quite exactly 1850 on its pediment. This was the time of the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England, of Cardinal Wiseman making his bold statement from without the Flaminian Gate; it was important for the Catholic Church to express its presence.

Ten years either side, and it might have been quite different.

You step through the doors into a vestibule, and beyond the inner doors is a small, square space. The fine altar is surmounted by a grand baldachino, the whole decked out in wedding-cake-white and topped with the Papal crest.

The simple benches are in light pine, the statues in terracotta. Everything is pleasingly harmonious. You just can't help feeling a little disappointed that it isn't all a bit, well, grander.

One point to ponder: the font of this church appears to be medieval, in a familiar East Anglian design. Where did it come from?

Was it bought up from a medieval church undergoing restoration in the late 19th century? Was it more recently acquired from a redundant Anglican church? perhaps one in the parish? Debach? I shall endeavour to find out.

St Thomas of Canterbury has a huge Parish, with an outstation church of St Clare, Framlingham. Catholic priests in East Anglia must get a fair few miles under their belts every year.

 

The trousers. Note that font on the far left, though.

St Thomas of Canterbury is in Woodbridge town centre, just off the A12 to the east of Ipswich. I found it open.