At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John the Baptist, Felixstowe

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

Felixstowe St John

'pray for those who gave their all for you' south doorway Deputy Provincial Grand Master of the Freemasons of Suffolk
Felixstowe spire pinnacle

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Just as we might go to Blythburgh or Long Melford to find out about the devotions and liturgy of the 15th Century, the great church of St John the Baptist is a good place to come to chart the course of what happened as the 19th Century became the 20th Century. The church is the definitive statement in Suffolk of the liturgy and practice of High Church Anglicanism. Neither as eclectic as Spooner's Ipswich St Bartholomew, or as provincial as Phipson's Ipswich St Mary le Tower, this mighty church, the last work of the great Sir Arthur Blomfield, is the nearest thing Suffolk has to the grand and uncompromising High Church temples of west London.

And, excluding Lowestoft for its size, Felixstowe is the nearest thing Suffolk has to a traditional seaside town now that Southwold and Aldeburgh are lost to the colour supplements, albeit not as brash as Walton-on-the-Naze and Clacton across the river in Essex. Five hundred years ago Felixstowe was a small fishing village sitting away to the north from the confluence of the rivers Orwell and Stour as they poured out to sea, its medieval church of St Peter and St Paul a mile or two from St John the Baptist. The centre of modern Felixstowe was in the parish of neighbouring Walton, and Walton Castle, now lost beneath the waves, was probably the Dumnoc where St Felix began his mission and which was thus the first cathedral of East Anglia. The centuries have altered and shaped the fortunes of the settlements along all of the Suffolk coast, and they gave this village, uniquely in East Anglia, a south-facing beach and a wide, deep river estuary which would together prove its fortune.

Like all good seaside towns, the growth of Felixstowe was fuelled in the early 20th Century by the enthusiasm of the working classes for a sight of the sea and all that went with it. The middle classes had got here first with hotels and spas in the 1830s and 1840s when the village enjoyed great popularity as a bathing place, but the arrival of the railways in the 1870s changed the resort for ever. The great days of Felixstowe were the last decades of the 19th Century and the first of the next, and as the town expanded westwards the West End grew as an area of substantial red-brick town houses, some of them hotels and guesthouses, some sanitoriums, but the whole piece grander than anything else in urban Suffolk outside of Southwold or the Christchurch Park area of Ipswich. Nestled into this very comfortable area, St John the Baptist on Orwell Road is a beacon, the town's tallest building, a landmark from land and sea alike. It was also the only Suffolk church enshrined in verse by John Betjeman, in his poem Felixstowe, or the Last of her Order, and not surprisingly, since it would be quite at home among the London churches he loved:

With one consuming roar along the shingle
The long wave claws and rakes the pebbles down
To where its backwash and the next wave mingle,
A mounting arch of water weedy-brown
Against the tide the off-shore breezes blow.
Oh wind and water, this is Felixstowe.

In winter when the sea winds chill and shriller
Than those of summer, all their cold unload
Full on the gimcrack attic of the villa
Where I am lodging off the Orwell Road,
I put my final shilling in the meter
And only make my loneliness completer.

In eighteen ninety-four when we were founded,
Counting our Reverend Mother we were six,
How full of hope we were and prayer-surrounded
'The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx'.
We built our orphanage. We built our school.
Now only I am left to keep the rule.

Here in the gardens of the Spa Pavillion
Warm in the whisper of the summer sea,
The cushioned scabious, a deep vermillion,
With white pins stuck in it, looks up at me
A sun-lit kingdom touched by butterflies
And so my memory of the winter dies.

Across the grass the poplar shades grow longer
And louder clang the waves along the coast.
The band packs up. The evening breeze is stronger
And all the world goes home to tea and toast.
I hurry past a cakeshop's tempting scones
Bound for the red brick twilight of St.John's.

"Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising"
Here where the white light burns with steady glow
Safe from the vain world's silly sympathising,
Safe with the love I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.

The small coal and grain wharf at the mouth of the rivers was developed by the land owners Trinity College, Cambridge, in the middle years of the 20th Century and eventually became the busiest container port in Britain, and the eighth busiest in Europe. At one time Felixstowe had no fewer than three railway stations, one of which, Felixstowe Beach, was a short walk from this church, but only the rump of one of them, Felixstowe Town, survives, for Felixstowe is no longer a place where thousands come to spend a week of their summer holidays. It is now but the favourite destination for daytrippers from Ipswich, the urban sprawl of which lies a bare six miles from the edge of Felixstowe's, and the main employer these days is the docks rather than the holiday industry. And yet Felixstowe still has a pleasing holiday town atmosphere. From this church it is a short walk and a steep descent down through the Cliff Gardens or the memorably named Convalescent Hill to the beach below, with crowds thronging the shingle and the leisure centre, but up here it is still a former age, the comfortable spring sunshine baking the red bricks of the quiet three-storey houses.

St John the Baptist's concrete-white spire emerges from its redbrick tower. Blomfield had built the rest of the church in the early 1890s, but the Lady chapel followed in 1899, the year of his death, and his son Charles added the tower and spire, which stand at the west end of the south aisle, on the eve of the First World War. One of Blomfield's hallmarks is the way his buildings appear to be a cluster of smaller buildings around the great nave, like a medieval city. That illusion is successfully created here by the way the rooflines contrast, and from the east, the direction from which you would most likely approach, this is particularly striking. The inscription on the war memorial at this corner urges us to 'pray for those who gave their all for you', an anglo-catholic sentiment that suggests correctly what we will find inside the church.

The feeling of a citadel is further reinforced by the way St John the Baptist is shoe-horned into its site, with barely room to breathe except on the north side, where the former rectory lawn spreads towards the house. In the old days, it must have been pleasant to step from High Mass into a summer fete or garden party. To the west of the church stands a convent, with the 'crashing tide' below, the sisters come and go, and it would be romantic to imagine that they are a surviving relic of the extraordinary flourishing of Anglican religious orders at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, you might almost imagine that this is the very convent that Betjeman had in mind, despite the fact that he suggested himself that these orders were withering away when he wrote this poem in the 1950s. But in fact, this is a Catholic convent, the house of the Religious of Jesus and Mary.

For many years the entrance to the church was through Munro Cautley's 1940 south porch, but in recent years the main entrance through a grand archway beneath the tower has been returned to use, and it was embellished in 2020 with a glass door that allows light into what was previously a rather gloomy corridor. But as you step through the doors at the west of the great nave the first impression is of a dimness, the imagination detecting perhaps a whiff of Edwardian incense filtering the rich light from the coloured glass, the years falling away. Sir John Betjeman wrote of St John's red brick twilight, and the same is true today as then.

And yet, perhaps the mark of any successful church, the building feels as alive now as it would have done then. While it is hard to imagine the vast nave filled on a Sunday morning, the church is a happy civic church for the town, lending itself easily for use on all important secular occasions as well as liturgical ones. And the 'twilight' is punctuated by an unparalleled collection of 20th century stained glass, the largest in Suffolk and almost all the work over a century of one workshop, Powell & Sons, whose customary High Church grandeur suits the church entirely.

Bapistery glass detail: two Brooks children (Powell & Sons, 1899) St Felix with the Brooks children (Powell & Sons, 1897) St Felix baptising Felix Brooks (Powell & Sons, 1897) Baptism
Abraham (Powell & Sons) Noah (Powell & Sons) Gideon (Powell & Sons) Joshua (Powell & Sons) Joseph (Powell & Sons)
David (Powell & Sons) Moses (Powell & Sons) Elijah (Powell & Sons) Christ and St Peter: 'feed my sheep' (Powell & Sons, 1931) St Paul (Henry Holiday for Powell & Sons)
St Barnabas (Powell & Sons) St Mark (Powell & Sons) St Philip (Powell & Sons) St James (Powell & Sons) St Peter (Powell & Sons)
St John (Powell & Sons) St Matthew (Powell & Sons) St Andrew (Powell & Sons) St Luke (Powell & Sons) St Edmund (Powell & Sons)
St Felix (Powell & Sons) St Etheldreda (Powell & Sons) St Fursey (Powell & Sons) St John the Baptist (Powell & Sons) St Thomas More (Powell & Sons)
St Michael (Goddard & Gibbs, 2005) St Cuthbert (Goddard & Gibbs) St Hilda (Goddard & Gibbs) St Benedict Biscop and St Bede (Goddard & Gibbs) St Cecilia (Powell & Sons)
6th July 1535 Tower Hill angel wreaths Behold theLamb of God
Jesu redemptor Omnium organist and choirmaster St Hilda's seagull
Madonna and child St Joseph

There are more than thirty figures in all. The earliest glass is to east and west, the most interesting that in the baptistery at the end of the north aisle depicting St Felix with the children of the Brooks family commemorating the baptism and death of Felix Charles Brooks at the age of three months in 1897. The main range is of Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, starting in the north-east corner of the nave and continuing on the south side of the nave with evangelists, disciples and martyrs. The most recent glass is in the Lady Chapel at the east end of the south aisle, and at the west end of the north aisle depicting old English saints, all by Goddard & Gibbs in the 1980s and 1900s, by which time Powell & Sons had closed. The most recent window, St Michael of 2005, is in the baptistery. It is an interesting catalogue of glass through the long 20th Century. Henry Holiday provided the cartoon for the 1909 window of St Paul and there is a sweet window of Christ asking St Peter to 'feed my sheep' above a door in the north aisle in memory of John George Munday, first rector of the church, who died in 1930. Most of the glass dates from the mid-century, with another burst of activity in the 1980s and 1990s.

There are broad similarities with Blomfield's other Suffolk church of the 1890s, St John the Baptist in east Ipswich, but in both cases the flavour of the church is to a large extent determined by what has happened in the years since. At Felixstowe the great nave, its barn-like roof accentuated by the wide arcades with low aisles beyond, was furnished in the High Anglican tradition in the early years of the 20th Century. The chancel was separated off by an oak rood screen in 1910, a perfect foil for the choir stalls and Powell & Sons' opus sectile reredos in the sanctuary beyond. In 1940 diocesan architect Munro Cautley refurnished the east end of the south aisle as a Blessed Sacrament chapel in his usual style complete with his prayerful angels familiar from Harleston, Mildenhall and elsewhere. The opposite corner of the nave has the baptistery with its wrought iron screen, the inscription on the font of 1896 reminding us to suffer little children to come unto me.

A couple of times I've been able to go up the tower, through the ringing chamber, past the surreal view of the interior of the great clock, where surviving graffiti from the First World War when the tower was new reminds us that it was used as a lookout point, and no wonder, for from the platform at the base of the spire above you can see for miles. Beyond the rooftops of the enchanting red brick town you look out to the deep blue of a sea beyond punctuated by container ships and the curious WWII fort of Sealand, unilaterally declared an independent state in the 1960s. Turning inland, there is a clear view to Ramsholt church away to the north, to the BT research headquarters at Martlesham, the grey smudge of Ipswich in the western distance and the mighty herd of insect-like cranes at the mouth of the rivers. But if there is one thing that diminishes the view it is obviously enough that this is the only high point in Felixstowe from which you cannot see the church of St John the Baptist, this lovely town's most beautiful building.

Here where the white light burns with steady glow
Safe from the vain world's silly sympathising,
Safe with the love I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.

Simon Knott, October 2020

red brick twilight 'the red brick twilight of St John's' red brick twilight
baptistery font pulpit high windows
ikon Cautley's angel Cautley's angel
guild banner St John's Felixstowe and the word was made flesh Mothers Union

P Cuthbert 3 Suffolks 1918 inside the tower clock
the church in the distance Felixstowe docks Felixstowe west end

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