St John the Baptist, Felixstowe
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www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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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.
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
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.
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.
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
Simon Knott, October 2020
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