At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John the Baptist, Saxmundham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Sermon on the Mount - detail (Harry Ellis Wooldridge for Powell & Sons, 1875)   Saxmundham is a fine little town more or less halfway between Ipswich and Lowestoft. Saxmundham, or 'Sax' as locals call it, grew to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it still retains something of that period's character. But it is not a tourist town, unlike its rival Framlingham, or 'Fram', just across the A12.

The Waitrose and Tesco superstores, which the locals fought long and hard against because of the effect they would have on local shops, are set sensitively just off the high street, which still retains some interesting shops, though none of them sell food of course. And the other thing missing, although this can't be blamed on the superstores, is a dominating medieval church, because St John the Baptist is away from the main street on the road to Leiston.

The church sits up on a hill, his higgledy-piggledy churchyard falling away on all sides and full of interest. The headstones of 18th and 19th century worthies point to the wealth of the town in the past. Most famous is the headstone to John Noller, which has its own sundial.

There is a crisp 19th century feel to the church in this sea of headstones. It was subject to an 1870s restoration at the hands of Diocesan architect Richard Phipson. However, Phipson was more sensitive to the need to preserve medieval survivals than his successor Herbert Green, and so the church is also full of interest. More recently, at the start of the 21st Century, there has been a splendid reordering and restoration of the nave, and so you step into wooden floors and modern chairs set sparingly in the light. I had remembered this as rather a gloomy space, and so coming back in early 2018 I was pleased and surprised.

The simplicity and sensitiveness of the modern reordering allows the 19th Century windows to be a feature, and they are all good of their kind. Most are to members of the Long family of Hurts Hall. In the south chancel aisle, the former Swans Chapel now set aside for prayer, is Harry Ellis Wooldridge's window of 1875 for Powell & Sons depicting the Sermon on the Mount, full of character and interest in an early Arts and Crafts style. Dominating the west end of the south aisle is a vivid depiction of the Ascension made by the O'Connor workshop after George Taylor had taken over as its boss. It is believed to have been designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Louisa Beresford. The setting of the new kitchen area beneath it is slightly surreal, though not unsuccessful.

The most interesting glass is in the east window of the south chancel aisle. Here, Powell & Sons reset a collection of 17th Century roundels and ovals, including a hermit representing one of the four seasons, the Holy Kinship of St Anne, the Blessed Virgin and the infant Christ, as well as other Saints, the Prodigal Son and scenes of the Works of Mercy.

Blessed Virgin and the infant Christ with St John the Baptist (17th Century) Winter: a hermit warms his hands under the signs of Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces (17th Century) St Peter (17th Century)
Works of Mercy: welcome the stranger  (17th Century) Charlemagne? (17th Century) Works of Mercy: give water to the thirsty (17th Century)
Holy Kinship: Blessed Virgin and St Anne with the infant Christ (17th Century) Reset 17th Century glass (Powell & Sons, 1870s) The Prodigal Son (17th Century)

The font, though considerably recut, is one of the best Suffolk examples of the 15th century East Anglian style. There are feisty little wild men around the base, and one of the shields features the instruments of the passion. Another medieval survival here, and a rare one, can be seen in the most easterly windows of each of the clerestories. This is a pair of stone corbel ledges that once supported the canopy of honour over the rood. They are both carved elaborately, and the northern one is castellated. The inscription on the southern side reads Sancta Johnannes, Ora Pro Nobis ('St John pray for us').

When the antiquarian David Elisha Davy visited the church on Thursday 21st August 1834, he was rather overwhelmed by what he found. This was, of course, before Phipson's restoration and the installation of the present stained glass windows. Rather, Davy got bogged down with memorials to, and records of, the Long family, and ran out of time, because the carriage he was travelling by was only stopping in the town for two hours on its way from Yoxford to Ufford, while the horse was baited. I found so much that I was obliged to leave a part undone, Davy complained, and Mrs Long's death which took place the evening before will, probably, add somewhat to the novelties which I shall find on my next visit.

Saxmundham was unusual for a town in that it was almost entirely contained in one manor, Hurts, the domain for centuries of the Long family. One small part of the town was a separate manor, Swans, and this gave its name to the south aisle chapel of the church. In the early 19th Century, Swans was in the ownership of Dudley Long North, whose grand and slightly alarming effigy can be seen in the North mausoleum down the road at Little Glemham.

At the time of the 1851 census of religious worship, Saxmundham had a population of just under 1200, some 200 of whom tipped up for morning worship on the morning of the census. This compared favourably with a similar number turning up that morning at the independent chapel, because in most East Anglian towns the non-conformists greatly outnumbered the adherents to the established church. Even so, Robert Mann, the minister of St John the Baptist, was sensitive about the size of his congregation and felt the need to explain it. In common with many of his colleagues across Suffolk, he made an excuse for the poor attendance when he filled in the census return. Uniquely in the county, he put the blame on the absence of children, many of whom are suffering from hooping cough. Saxmundham church would, I am sure, need to make no such excuses today. It feels a lively place, at once mindful of its past and fitting for its present.

  St Mark (17th Century)

Simon Knott, April 2018


looking east looking west
font chancel south aisle looking west (window by O'Connors, 1870s) rood screen panels weeping cherub with an upturned torch, 1813
Sermon on the Mount - detail (Harry Ellis Wooldridge for Powell & Sons, 1875) Sermon on the Mount - detail (Harry Ellis Wooldridge for Powell & Sons, 1875) Sermon on the Mount - detail (Harry Ellis Wooldridge for Powell & Sons, 1875) Sermon on the Mount - detail (Harry Ellis Wooldridge for Powell & Sons, 1875)
Sermon on the Mount (Harry Ellis Wooldridge for Powell & Sons, 1875) Hagar and Ishmael in exile (Harry Ellis Wooldridge for Powell & Sons, 1870s) Christ meets the Samaritan woman at the well (Harry Ellis Wooldridge for Powell & Sons, 1870s) Haggar and Ishmael in exile, Christ meets the Samaritan woman at the well (Harry Ellis Wooldridge for Powell & Sons, 1870s) Ascension of Christ (Louisa Beresford for O'Connor and Taylor, 1870s)

the Saxmundham dead

graveyard graveyard graveyard

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