At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Clare, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


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In context - the former St Clare

The northern extension

The site from the east.


Keep off.

I'm very fond of Ipswich's Chantry estate, despite all its problems. I've worked here on the estate for the last quarter of a century, and so I know it pretty well. During the 1980s it was generally a poor old place - 30,000 people living shoulder to shoulder in what was mostly run-down council accomodation. Things are a lot better nowadays; this is partly because of Britain's markedly increased prosperity over the last ten years or so, but also because the estate has been massively extended by mostly private housing. The new estates prefer to avoid the indignity of calling themselves Chantry, and so we have 'Pinebrook', 'Brookwood', 'Thorrington Hall' and the laughable 'Belstead Hills'. But it is all essentially an extension of Chantry.

If you look at a map of Ipswich before about 1955, it is curious how the town stops immediately south of the river Gipping; indeed, the railway station was right on the very edge of the town. Unlike many expanding towns, early industrial Ipswich had not consumed little villages as it spread, because until the 19th century it was completely surrounded by empty heathland. Here were the terraced streets and factories built, with their grand redbrick churches. Only Whitton suffered swamping; Rushmere, Kesgrave, Westerfield, Sproughton and Bramford managed to stay outside the Borough boundaries, although by little more than sleight of planner's hand in the first two cases.

So, when the local authority built the massive Chantry estate in what was then the parish of Sproughton in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was building on virgin land. No period of history had lived here to any extent, except possibly the ancient Celts, who left behind the famous Belstead Torques, now in the British Museum. There were three grand country houses, Sproughton Chantry, Belstead House and Stone Lodge (the last of these now demolished, its gardens a public park) and a few narrow lanes used by tractors, which petered out in the middle of nowhere, that's all. You can still get a feel for what it was like by wandering the lanes around Belstead, Copdock and Washbrook. The new scheme was grandly titled Sproughton Chantry Estate, after the largest house, named itself from the medieval Chantry lands on which it was built. But the 'Sproughton' bit was soon quietly dropped. Other historic names survive in the field names given to local amenities; The former gardens of the house called Stone Lodge are now Stone Lodge Park, Spreights fields are now under Johns Slater Howard's excellent Sprites Schools, The ancient manor of Gusford gave its name to another school, and so on.

At the heart of the estate is one of those three-sided shopping centre plazas familiar from 1960s estates everywhere - it is pretty well identical to the one on the Arbury estate in Cambridge. Across the road were built the obligatory three churches, all of them reasonably successful designs; Basil Hatcher's Anglican St Francis is in an Italian hilltop style, the Catholic St Mark is built somewhat bizarrely as a triangular prism, and the workaday Chantry Methodist church has Suffolk vernacular proportions.

But faith communities are organic, and the Christian presence on the estate has developed in the last forty years. Most notably, the most successful post-war denomination, the Baptists, have arrived, with the simple Greenfinch Mission Church and the out-of-town-supermarket style Sherpherd's Drive Baptist church. As the estate expanded southwards, the Anglicans also planted a mission church, St Clare, on Belmont Road. It was constructed from salvaged portakabins, with a view to the construction of a more permanent building in the future. This, of course, never happened.

St Clare was intended for worship, but it was also designed as a social centre, and to host day-to-day activities such as day care for the elderly and pre-school groups. The three portakabins were cobbled together on the site in the early 1970s. The hillside setting means that the site drops away to the east, and the new buildings appear rather curious at this end. The materials were simple; clapboard and panelling, and the church itself appears to be wooden framed, with a corrugated iron roof. The high trees behind made it all appear very organic, almost pastoral.

While the intentions of St Clare were admirable, the aspirations were unrealistic. Today, local authorities tend to work with churches and other charitable organisations when planning social facilities, but this wasn't the case in the 1970s. Also, the funding for a permanent building was never forthcoming, and there did not appear to be a will at Diocesan level for the building to happen. The retreat from public view of the Church of England didn't help either; the Baptists are now in possession of the soul of Chantry.

By the mid 1990s, the building was unfit for use; wooden floors were rotten, and beyond repair. the congregation moved out to share facilities at nearby St Peter Stoke Park, eventually merging with the congregation there.

In the late 1990s, there was a serious fire at St Clare which completely destroyed the most northerly part of the structure, and caused considerable damage to the rest of it. The church would never be used again. The Anglicans surrounded the site with a secure fence and abandoned it, retreating to St Francis a mile nearer into town.

The site is now for sale, and planning permission is being sought for residential use. It would probably have reached the end of its natural life by now anyway; no doubt the peeling back of the roof by vandals has accelerated this process, but in any event it is unlikely that the building could be put to any use now, even if anyone wanted to. The site is fairly large, and would be attractive to the right kind of developer; there is a big carpark stretching northwards from the site, now mostly overgrown with buddleia and gorse. However, located on a sharp bend at the bottom of a steep hill as it is, the site will not easily get permission for residential use, and must remain as it is, a considerable eyesore, for the moment at least.

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