At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Great Blakenham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Great Blakenham

Great Blakenham Great Blakenham Great Blakenham
south doorway Great Blakenham Blessed Virgin

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          The town of Ipswich has thirteen surviving medieval churches within its borough boundaries, but half a dozen more are in the greater urban area, and only outwith the town on the whim of a bureaucrat's pen. And then there is the next wave out, villages like Great Blakenham. protected from urban sprawl by a nominal field or two. But if Great Blakenham has escaped being subsumed, it has paid the price for being kept at arms length. It would be tiresome to observe again that it is not Suffolk's most attractive village, for how could it be, when so much industry appears to have come adrift from the neighbouring town to wash up against it. But the cement works have now gone, and the huge new refuse incinerator at the eastern end of the parish gives the effect of mighty castle overseeing a vassal town. And in any case, warehousing and commercial offices have a more deleterious effect on a rural parish than industry does.

The busy A14 runs through immediately to the north. Once, the village street was the main road from Ipswich to Norwich and Cambridge. Further west, the street settles down into the quiet domesticity of 19th and 20th century houses. The church is here, opposite the pub, in a neat little churchyard beside the grand Victorian former rectory, almost as big as the church itself. The churchyard contains several headstones with WWI inscriptions. Three Cresswell brothers are remembered on one, the first killed in the War and the other two dying of injuries soon after. Another remembers the Lucas brothers, killed in 1916 and 1917.

The plain tower, with its Norman lower stages, gives no hint of what we will find within the church, but the fifteenth century wooden porch begins, perhaps, to suggest that here is something a bit out of the ordinary.

As is common to several churches in this area to the west of Ipswich it is an open wooden construction, probably 14th Century. Above the entrance, where we might expect to find a niche for a statue, is a wooden effigy of the Blessed Virgin carved directly onto the beam. It has been weathered by five hundred years of Suffolk wind and rain, and looks rather like one of those pieces of driftwood you find on the beach at Aldeburgh after a storm. Cautley thought it had been mutilated, but Mortlock and Blatchly thought not. The iconoclast William Dowsing visited on 1st February 1644, but in his account he does not mention the effigy on the porch. It was his first church of the day on a morning in late winter, so perhaps the light was not very good that day. Inside, he gave orders for the chancel steps, recently installed by orders of Archbishop Laud, to be removed, but that was all. He may have missed the Instruments of the Passion on the font, or perhaps they were plastered over - or, indeed, perhaps the font has come from elsewhere in the years since.

The nave's thick walls and splayed windows betray its Norman origins, but St Mary has one of Suffolk's few Early English chancels, and the fine set of triple lancets surmounted by a splayed round window is offset in soft pink. These windows were actually blocked off in the 17th century, but the restoration of the 1870s restored them to their original state. The church was closed for 18 months for the restoration, which was carried out by Cory and Ferguson of Carlisle, who also carried out the restoration at Earl Stonham. They had to make room for an organ, and given that this is a small church, the only place they could find to put the 1645 Swift memorial was the space beneath the tower, where it remains to this day, curiously set and seeming to serve a dual purpose as a table. The roodloft stairs were unblocked, the ceilings were removed, but the fine Stuart pulpit survived. All in all, a good restoration.

For many years this church was difficult of access, but now it is warm and welcoming, open every day, and with a sign telling you so.

Simon Knott, March 2019

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looking east sanctuary
glum cherub on the Swift memorial (1645) Swift memorial (1645) glum cherub on the Swift memorial (1645)
font pulpit St Mary's Great Blakenham MU St Mary's Sunday School Great Blakenham WWII war memorial
WWI parish war memorial The following men employed in these works who gave their lives in the Great War

three Cresswell brothers two Lucas brothers 1st Suffolk Rifle Volunteers, 1870 Surgeon in the Royal Navy, lost off the Bay of Tunis (1864)

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