At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Ashbocking

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Ashbocking south porch Ashbocking

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We have escaped the orbit of Ipswich and are heading north, the lanes narrow and winding, the fields a hog's back of ridges. Ashbocking church is about a mile far from its village as the crow flies, but to come here by bike involves a longer journey, the road circling wide about the distant tower before you reach the bumpy track which leads to the little hamlet around the Hall where All Saints sits in its narrow churchyard.

The west tower faces the lane, one of those mellow red brick Tudor towers you sometimes find in the Ipswich area, a reminder of 16th Century prosperity, particularly that of Edmund Bocking of Ashbocking Hall. Otherwise this is a fairly small and in essence an almost entirely late 13th Century structure which has been enhanced and restyled as the fashions of the passing centuries dictated. Ashbocking church received plenty of attention from the Victorians in particular, for it was almost derelict by the early 19th Century, and in such a remote spot it might all too easily have been abandoned altogether. The first sign of this is on the south porch, from which a lush Tractarian angel looms, scroll in hand.

The restoring architect at Ashbocking was, perhaps surprisingly, Edward Hakewill, who resisted the temptation to make the interior dark and gloomy or to add a north aisle as was his usual fancy. You step into a warm, handsome interior, the nave pleasing in proportion, not too narrow, not too high. The first sight is of a puzzle, Ashbocking's bulbous font. At first sight it appears Norman, reset by Hakewill on an elegant faux-Romanesque base. The story goes that it was discovered under a layer of brick and cement during the restoration. And yet, it is not a font at all, but a large mortar, originally used for grinding corn, so it is not clear where this story originated. There is one near-identical to it at Sudbourne near Orford.

Above the south door sits a rare set of Charles I royal arms. There are only four of these sets left in Suffolk, the others being at Ampton, Denham St John and Mellis. These ones are perhaps the most striking, because they are dated 1640 and lettered God Save the King. This is a remarkably late date for such a public statement of support for the Crown. Presumably it tells us the political leanings not only of the Bockings but also of Theodore Beale, the vicar of the time who was, as several were in Suffolk, drummed out as a Scandalous Minister (that is to say, a Liberal Intellectual) and died in prison.

There is a delightfully ornate tomb alcove in the south wall, with an elaborate canopy dripping with fruits and flowers. Grinning cowled heads gaze out from the cusping. It may have been built for the tomb of John Bocking in the late 14th Century. Set into the back of it is a small window. Opposite is a set of late 16th Century brass figures of Edmund Bocking who built the tower, and his family, the two wives transposed. Some of the 19th Century furnishings are to the design of Edward Hakewill's brother John, including the pulpit which, as James Bettley observed, looks more like a dock or a witness box.

This is a good building, with evidence of every age in its life, a sense of continuity so often lost elsewhere. This is largely because the Victorians took such good care of it, but also because, despite the proximity of the Hall, it must almost always have been a church of the ordinary people. Some interesting curiosa at the west end of the church recall the mood of a century and more ago: a framed notice lists charges for licenses for armorial bearings, male servants, carriages, while beside it a somewhat moth-eaten tapestry affirms that This is none other than the House of God and this is the Gate of Heaven, perhaps the work of some young local girl in the late 19th Century. It's a nice touch, because Ashbocking church is ordinarily open to pilgrims and strangers every day. Churches like this are not famous or rare, or worthy of mentions in books about England's Best Churches or anything like that. Not so much a museum, there is a sense here that, despite the rupture of the Reformation, this is a place where prayer has been valid for a thousand years or more.


Simon Knott, February 2021

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looking east sanctuary font
font tomb canopy looking west organ
cowled and bearded head two cowled heads bearded cowled head
Holy Trinity shield Charles I royal arms Edmund Bocking and families
armorial bearings, male servants, carriages angel this is none other than the House of God


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