At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Offton

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Offton is a scattered village, deep in the valleys to the west of Ipswich, with a good pub, the Limeburners, which seems to survive and thrive despite all the difficulties faced by country pubs in the last few decades. In Offa's time, when all England was being forged by the interplay between the three great kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, there was a castle here, and it may be that the king of Mercia himself had one of his homes here, and he might even have been the Offa that gave his name to this parish. This may only be a story, of course, but it is a good one, and there was a castle, on the hill above the church.

St Mary is all of a pleasing mixture, with its elegant unbuttressed 14th century tower, and windows of all periods. The south entrance predates them all, being a simple Norman doorway. It is set within one of those open timber porches that you often find around here. Wills identified by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton show that the church must have been complete by 1504 when John Wedyrby left a noble to the painting of the candlebeam, and there was a further bequest in 1515 when Richard Takon do give and bequeth to the peyntyng of the half candlebeme... and to the reparacion of the church roof two cows. The most recent addition to the building is a little room added on the north side in 2002, to the design of David Whymark. It has the look of being a converted medieval porch, although in fact there was nothing here before. It is bravely done, because this is the side of the church that faces the road. The oriel window at the end of it is delightful.

I may as well tell you know that Offton church is unusual in this part of Suffolk because it is kept locked, and furthermore there is no keyholder notice nowadays, though there was back in 2008 when I took the photographs at the bottom of the page. Never mind, because perhaps the most interesting thing here is the memorial to the south of the porch. It remembers Sarah Wyard, who was killed by being thrown from her horse in 1867. May the earth rest softly on her gentle frame, reads the inscription. A weeping woman holds a horse by the head, while a body lies slumped on the floor, as if in a scene from a Wilkie Collins novel. James Bettley in the revised Buildings of England volume for Suffolk: West tells us that it is based on an 1844 sculpture, The Mourners, by JG Lough.

Sarah Wyard, 1867 Sarah Wyard, 1867 Sarah Wyard, 1867

Internally this is essentially a 19th Century church, the work of local architect Frederick Barnes. He was also responsible for the restoration of nearby Baylham church, but he is probably best known for designing the elegant railway stations at Needham Market and Stowmarket. The restoration here was a good one, leaving a patina of age and a number of medieval features. It was overseen by John Thompson, rector here for almost half a century from 1858 to 1903, When Thompson arrived here the church was derelict, and he left it in almost exactly the condition it is in now, so the whole building is testament to this remarkable man.

The glass in the east window is by Hardman & Co, and was given by Thompson in memory of his daughter Helen. It depicts Christ summoning the children. What is most striking, and perhaps a little extraordinary, is that the little girl at Christ's feet looks exactly like Tenneil's Alice. Intricate foliage winds elegantly around the scene.. To the south of it is the most interesting glass in the church, an early work by Lavers, Barraud & Westlake depicting the Annunciation. There are also lancet windows of Christ the King and Mary of the Annunciation, both from the early years of the 20th century, I should think. The one piece of medieval glass is a heraldic shield of the Bohuns, who were lords of the manor in these parts in the 14th century. The glass beneath the west window also appears to be by Lavers, Barraud & Westlake, and depicts the Presentation in the Temple.

This church also has an interesting medieval holy water stoup with a triangular hood. Mortlock thought it strange that it had survived, given that the iconoclast William Dowsing visited in 1644 and gave express orders for its removal, but there is no reason to think that it was not simply blocked up, and then uncovered again on its discovery by the Victorians. It may well be that the bowl is a Victorian addition, but the recess itself is original.

The font stands now near the middle of the church, near the south door, making a pleasing focus. It includes the symbol of St Edmund on its panels. The main medieval survival is in the form of woodwork. Part of the medieval roodscreen is set against the south side of the chancel, while the other half has been converted into a bench beneath the tower. There are carvings in the spandrels, and what appear to be traces of original paintwork. Another medieval survival is the beam at the west end of the nave which has intriguing but unclear carvings in the spandrels. Is it an Annunciation scene?

Unfortunately, and as with a number of other country churchyards, Offton has had almost all its older headstones removed, probably at some time in the 1950s. The modern stones that replaced them are in straight lines, and the trim, unfenced graveyard has all the atmosphere of a municipal bowling green. But for all that, St Mary is a lovely church. If only it was easier of access!


Simon Knott, April 2021

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looking east look east cast light
suffer the children Alice suffer the children
Mary at the Annunciation Mary at the Annunciation Joseph and Mary Anna


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