At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Bentley

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Bentley south doorway Bentley

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Bentley is a fairly suburban village between Ipswich and Manningtree, but long, beautiful lanes lead off in several directions into the woods and fields, and the church is along the one which heads in the general direction of Belstead and Wherstead. About a mile from the village you reach a small outlying hamlet, the raggedy hedges giving way to the surprise of a neatly clipped churchyard and St Mary's crisp exterior. Not far off is Jimmy's Farm, made famous by television, and the housing estates of south-west Ipswich glower just over the horizon, but here the setting is intensely rural.

A bequest of 1458 left money to the tower, and in 1487 Nicholas Malebott left half a noble to painting St Christopher, which would have been on the north wall inside the nave and suggests that the rebuilding of the church was complete by then. However, what we see today is essentially a 19th Century church, largely the work of diocesan surveyor Richard Phipson, and very little that is older survives. What does, suggests that this was a Norman building. The grand Norman south doorway is almost entirely renewed, but it is done well, the chevrons and peacock eyes familiar from the surviving genuine articles around the county. A Norman window survives on the north side of the chancel. Phipson brought the Ipswich carpenter Henry Ringham along with him, so we may assume that the furnishings are of the highest quality.

Until the 1960s the Colchester to Hadleigh railway line ran along the edge of this churchyard, and the church tower must have been a familiar landmark to travellers. Now perhaps few people see it, but if, like me, you are enticed by such ghosts of the past, then you too will feel a frisson as you locate the route of the old line. And we know a little about the former life of this church, since Bentley was the seat of the Tollemaches before they established themselves at Helmingham. One of the vast Tollemache memorials there was originally made for this church.

I have to tell you that I have never found this church accessible, not in half a dozen visits, but coming back here during the pandemic summer of 2020 I found busy work afoot, the interior being given a proper going over, a sign perhaps of an energy that may be more welcoming to visitors in the future. I shall go back and have a look soon, because, whatever I find at Bentley church, the lanes around it are idyllic for cycling.


Simon Knott, April 2021

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