At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Flixton

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Flixton Flixton Flixton

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As the Waveney twists eastwards, the rolling, tree-shrouded bluffs on either side hide narrow lanes and secrets. St Mary sits on one such bluff above its village, but there are few distant views of it and so it comes as something of a surprise when you climb the path up into the churchyard, because the tower of this important 19th Century church is quite unlike any other in East Anglia. The architect was Anthony Salvin, a flamboyant character, who seems to have based the design of the tower here on the Rhenish helm tower of the church at Sompting in Sussex. Salvin was working here in the 1850s, and earlier in the decade there had been a major restoration at Sompting, which had featured heavily in the architectural press. Perhaps it could be said that Sompting was in the contemporary zeitgeist.

Salvin's work here was at the behest of the Adairs of Flixton Hall. Their predecessors were the Tasburgh family, wealthy Norwich merchants who arrived in the parish in the middle of the 15th Century. The Tasburghs were recusant Catholics after the Reformation, but placed their memorials in the parish church in the usual fashion and probably kept an eye on its upkeep. They are said to have retained a small community of Benedictine monks. Charles II, visiting Flixton Hall, which they built in the ruins of the priory, is reported to have said that "these popish dogs have a beautiful kennel". The Tasburgh line died out in the early 18th Century, and Flixton Hall and the South Elmham estates associated with it came into the hands of the Adairs.

Flixton is the most northerly of the South Elmham villages, overlooking the Waveney. An 1818 sketch of Flixton church by Isaac Johnson shows it to have been a fairly typical church for this part of Suffolk, square-towered, aisleless and with a ruined chancel. The tower fell in the 1830s, and at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship there were sittings for 200 people, eighty of which were free of pew rents, which is to say that it was not a big church. At the time of the census the population of Flixton was 210, and George Sandby the vicar claimed that average attendance on a Sunday was 100, which seems very high for this part of Suffolk but it was probably because Flixton was effectively an estate village for Flixton Hall. Sanby, who was also rector of South Elmham All saints, noted in his return that there were very few dissenters (ie: non-conformists), all but one family occasionally attended church.

It was soon after this that the Adairs began the dramatic reconstruction of Flixton church. Salvin rebuilt the nave in an East Anglian Perpendicular style and, it would seem, added a chancel. He also added a north aisle to match the nave and the helmed faux-Saxon tower. There was further building work in the late 1880s when a vaulted chapel was added at the west end of the aisle, and the earlier chancel was entirely rebuilt in a heavy-handed and rather gloomy Norman manner. The startlingly pointed south porch leads into the inner door, and then down into the nave. As you would expect with those great Perpendicular windows, you step into a building only a little less light than outside, but you look east to a chancel shrouded in Romanesque darkness.

The most memorable feature of the interior is in the vaulted chapel at the west end of the aisle. This is the memorial to Lady Theodosia Adair, who died in 1871. She had married Sir Robert Shafto Adair, an Irish-born Liberal politician, in 1836. Adair was the 2nd Baronet, and two years after hs wife's death he was created Baron Waveney. However, the title fell into disuse when he died because he and his wife had no children. The Adairs owned estates in both Ballymena, County Antrim and here in the South Elmhams, and Adair was often busy with philanthropic building works on the Irish estate, but he was also MP for Cambridge, which brought him more often to Flixton, and thus his plans to rebuild the church here. When his wife died he had her effigy made by John Bell, a Norfolk sculptor who was best known for 'The Babes in the Wood', now in Norwich Castle Museum. The chapel was built in 1889 to house it by John's brother Hugh, who had inherited the baronetcy as 3rd Baronet. It is a remarkably successful combination of vaulted Gothic and late Victorian sentiment, strangely moving.

Lady Theodosia Adair (John Bell, 1870s) Lady Theodosia Adair (John Bell, 1870s) Lady Theodosia Adair (John Bell, 1870s)

The light and simplicity of Lady Waveney's memorial is a contrast to the dark, mysterious neo-Norman of the chancel, with its marble floor and roundels of heavily coloured glass set in the main lancets of the east wall, as if this was the side chapel of a French cathedral. Mortlock says that they are by William Willement, and as they were produced in 1857 they must have been made for the earlier chancel that this one replaced, their shape suggesting that it too was in a Norman style. The glass depicting saints and patriachs in the lancets of the south and north walls is by Burlison & Grylls in 1897, fresher and lighter and the chancel's finishing touch, although they do little to alleviate the darkness. The chancel is home to a number of Adair and Tasburgh memorials.

There is a Neo-Norman echo of the chancel back up at the west end. The font is a solid Victorian attempt to echo the big Norman fonts of north-west Norfolk, with their three-panelled sides depicting symbols and Biblical scenes. Here, the sides seem to have been deliberately carved in a naive style, which is not entirely successful given how imposing the object is. However, none of this really matters because Flixton church is unique, and its curiosities and juxtapositions all add to its flavour.

The Adairs lived here until the 1940s, when the estate was split up, and Flixton Hall sold. In 1950, it was demolished. The last of the Adair line died as recently as 1988. Flixton remains a pleasant and peaceful backwater, but the wider world has been touched by this place. The helpful leaflet in the church remembers a connection which is often forgotten, between the Waveney Valley and the troubled recent history of the United Kingdom. Flixton vicarage, built by the Adairs in the 1870s, was found to be surplus to requirements, and so it was given to the Flixton Estate manager to live in. In the last decade of the 19th century, this was one Captain Charles Boycott, who, having disastrously failed to fulfil the same role in on an estate in Ireland, had given his name as a new word to the English language.

Simon Knott, March 2022

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looking east chancel
north aisle chapel font font
Good Samaritan for William Adair, 1783 Margaret Tasburgh, 1705 Lettice Wybarne relict of John Wybarne Esq and daughter of Richard Tasburgh Esq of Flixton Hall in Suffolk, 1737 Richard Tasburgh, son of Charles and father of John, 1716
David (Burlison & Grylls, 1897) Elias (Burlison & Grylls, 1897) from the Life of Christ Moses (Burlison & Grylls, 1897) St Paul (Burlison & Grylls, 1897)
St Mary's Flixton A O Robert Shafto Adair and of his wife Mary Flixton AD 1916
Elizabeth Tasburgh wife of John Tasburgh esquier lorde and patron of this manner and churche of Flyxton (1583) Charles Tasburgh Esq, 1657


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