At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary and St Botolph, Whitton, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Christ and St John by Hardman & Co  

Ipswich town centre has twelve medieval churches, six of which are still open for business. There are half a dozen more out in the suburbs, their parishioners beyond the reach of the Borough Council Tax. But there is another medieval church that is within the Borough boundary, and it has seen more extraordinary changes over the last century and a half than any other church in Suffolk.

Regular fans of this site will have come often upon the adventures of the Reverend George Drury, a late 19th century clergyman who managed to capture the headlines for all sorts of reasons, most of them the wrong ones. His story was played out in Claydon, a large village to the north-west of Ipswich, and a cluster of sparse parishes that touch it - Akenham, Thurleston and Whitton. Drury is buried at Claydon, where he is also remembered by a road name. Akenham, where Drury's famous burial case took place, Thurleston and Whitton were tiny hamlets, their churches hardly used - indeed, the one at Thurleston had been derelict for several hundred years. Drury did not have Whitton in his care, but his story touches this parish, because when Thurleston church was finally dismantled and ploughed under in the 1860s, Drury took some of the materials to build a high wall around his Rectory, to keep the anti-papists out. The rest of it came here, to Whitton, where under the watchful eye of Richard Phipson, Diocesan architect, it was used to build the spire and south aisle. The dedication of Thurleston church was brought along as well, and in those heady days of the resacrementalisation of the Church of England, St Mary became St Mary and St Botolph.


Phipson liked spires. Two of Suffolk's most famous are his. At Woolpit, he added an astonishing Nene Valley spire to the grand medieval church there. At Great Finborough, he did something even more extraordinary, which one can only put down to the influence of laudanum, or whatever the drug of choice of the 1860s was. He is also responsible for the landmark St Mary le Tower in the centre of Ipswich.

Here is a spire on a small scale. Indeed, this could be said of the whole church. Here is the 19th century Gothic revival built tiny. Even before Frederick Barnes' restoration of the 1850s, this was a little church, and today I can't help thinking of this as a toy church, as if it had been built by some rich parent for a fortunate child. It has everything you'd expect: tower, nave, aisles, chancel. Everything about it is just perfect, and the interior is jewel-like. This is certainly the prettiest church in the borough of Ipswich.

You will have to find it. Whitton's village centre was on the old Norwich Road, closer to Claydon than to Ipswich. There are still a few surviving 18th and 19th century buildings. But what has happened to this parish is completely overwhelming. Today, the old village centre is surrounded by the northern suburbs of Ipswich. You reach it by turning off of the Norwich Road at the traffic lights, just before the Whitton United football ground and the vast Asda superstore, and continuing until the houses get old. No one would ever know that this was once a hamlet.

Ipswich does not make a habit of swallowing villages; most of the borough is built on former heathland. So here is something unusual. In the 19th century, you would have travelled up Whitton Church Lane through the fields, reaching St Mary after a half a mile or so. You can still make this journey today; but the fields have gone. Instead, you pass the huge Whitton sports complex, and cut across the edge of the Whitton estate, one of Ipswich's three large, poor council estates. In 1841, the population of this parish was 422, which included a large wedge of northern Ipswich. Today, it is a little short of 25,000.

You can walk or cycle, or even drive if you must, from the centre of Ipswich to this church. You cross the ring road, with its large, comfortable houses, and as you head north up Dale Hall Lane into Castle Hill, the houses get smaller. At Castle Hill centre, among the well kept blocks of flats and former council semis, you will notice the fine United Reformed Church, one of Ipswich's best 1960s buildings, before continuing onwards. At once, it gets poorer, the houses scruffier, the roads narrower. Groups of kids spill their games onto the streets, shouting at you cheerily as you cycle past. Eventually, you reach the streets poignantly named the Poets, and here is the high-rise Thurleston High School, now rebadged as the Ormiston Endeavour Academy, the medium-rise tenements, the urban maze of streets. I am afraid that it amuses me to see wide-eyed rural cyclists scurrying through all this on the Historic Churches Bike Ride. They've chosen this route into town to pick up Whitton church, and now they are travelling through an aspect of Suffolk that they had never even imagined existed.

Suddenly, you reach the church - and, surreally, there is open countryside ahead of you. You can just make out Akenham church in the distance. After all this, you will be a bit breathless, I expect. Take a moment to look around. The pretty churchyard extends to the east, and some large monuments to former worthies fill the narrow space between the west end and the fence. One of them is to the Reverend Howorth, who oversaw all the massive changes that happened to this building. Unusually, the main entrace is at the south-east corner, and the doorway is the only survival from the medieval church. Obviously, it was not in the tower originally.

Because this is the second most-populous parish in Suffolk after that of St Francis on Ipswich's Chantry estate, there's a fair chance that if you visit on a Saturday you'll be looking inside just before or after a wedding. My first visit in 1999 came on the Friday of Easter week, and two of the members of the Parish were preparing the building for a wedding. They were filling it with flowers, and erecting an ornate archway of greenery at the west end. This church is such a contrast with the grandeur of the Ipswich town centre churches, but I thought it was just about perfect. Coming back in 2015 I caught the tail end of a wedding, everyone in their best frocks and suits, and waited for them to spill outside for the photographs before venturing inside.

You step into a breathtakingly beautiful interior. Coloured light spills from tiny windows. Ikons gleam, and the occasional candle flickers. This is a church in the Affirming Catholicism wing of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and has a devotional atmosphere. Everything is simple, but of the highest quality.

This church has the best 19th century windows in Ipswich. Some of the glass is by William Morris & co - that by the font at the east end of the north aisle is heart-breakingly lovely. There is a good window by Frederick Preedy depicting Faith, but much of the glass in the church is by Hardman & Co, including a spectacular Seven Works of Mercy at the west end. A recent memorial in glass at the east end of the south aisle is unsigned - I wonder who it was by? The organ behind the font was a recent acquisition; it came from a Baptist church in Cambridge. As the churchwarden pointed out, the gold angels on top of it are a Whitton addition.

This parish is a busy one. As at St Mary at Stoke, massive 20th century expansion of the town has meant the church is blessed with a fair-sized congregation, and a busy liturgical life. But in a place like Whitton, the church has a greater pastoral mission than simply putting on services. Here, it is at the cutting edge of being the body of Christ to the people of God, in this most needy and challenging of East Anglian parishes.

  Works of Mercy by Hardman

Simon Knott, 1999, revised and updated May 2016

looking east font Blessed Virgin and Child by William Morris & Co May 8th 1922 memorial glass (2013) Ascension and Resurrection Saviour of the World Welcome the Stranger by Hardman & Co The Last Supper by Hardman & Co Blessed Virgin and child by William Morris & Co Faith by Frederick Preedy Roman Soldiers at the Resurrection by Hardman


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