Exploring the Exterior
St John’s has a quiet and elevated setting, away from the centre of the town, in its sloping, tree-shaded churchyard. A beautiful distant view of it may be seen when approaching Saxmundham from the south. Here it looks most imposing, rising above the trees and, to the south of it, the stately red-brick Hurts Hall, rebuilt in 1893 to the designs of Thomas Cotman, who created many distinctive buildings in Felixstowe and Ipswich.
Like so many East Anglian churches, St John’s is built mainly of flint and one wonders how many thousands of flints from the fields were lovingly gathered to form its thick flint-rubble walls.
The western tower, which is strengthened (and its profile enhanced) by western diagonal buttresses, has a west window and two-light belfry windows, with cusped ‘Y’ tracery of c.1300. A single south window lights the intermediate chamber. On the west side is the face of the clock, which was given in 1880 and restored in 1938. The masonry of the lower 12 or so feet of its north and south walls shows signs of being set in layers, which often indicates an early date. Whilst some authorities have suggested that this may indicate Norman work, it could also be that this is the c.1300 facing, whereas the upper stages have been re-faced. Above the west window is a niche for a statue and beside the west doorway is the wall-plaque of William Alabaster (+1743), his wife Hannah (+1754) and their daughter. The tower is crowned by a parapet, added in the 1400s, with flint and stone ‘flushwork’ paneling and short corner pinnacles. Beneath it is a band of flowers and carved heads, in addition to a large head at the centre of the west side and a gargoyle head on the south side which was designed to throw rainwater clear of the wall.
The tower is home to a ring of six bells. Three of these were cast c.1480-1510 by John Kebyll of London. Another was made in 1609 by Brend, the Norwich bell-founder, and the tenor, weighing 8cwt.3qtr.7lb, is by Lester and Pack of Whitechapel, made in 1762. The ring was completed by the addition of a new treble bell by John Warner of London in 1880.The second bell was recast in 1938, when the bells were rehung in a new oak frame by the Ipswich bell-founder, Alfred Bowell.
This bell has the inscription:
Alfred Bowell made me
And hung us all’
The north aisle, added in 1851 to the designs of Henry Roberts (who added the north aisle to Yoxford church) has simple two-light Perpendicular windows on the North side. It was extended westwards in 1872-3 and its lovely west window of c.1400 was moved here from the north chancel wall in 1908, when the organ chamber/choir vestry was added to the east. Further east is the smaller vestry of 1872-3.
The east window of the chancel dates from the church’s major restoration, carried out to the designs of RM Phipson in 1872-3. It has four lights and handsome Decorated tracery of the style of c.1320-30.
The south aisle, now extends the entire length of the nave and chancel and it is interesting to compare what we see today with Henry Davy’s etching from the south-west, made in 1848. In 1872-3 RM Phipson extended it westwards to the end of the nave, removing the 15th century south porch and also the south doorway of the 1000s which it sheltered. He provided two entirely new triple Perpendicular windows on the south side and a new west window and refaced the entire aisle with split flints.
The aisle’s eastern section forms the Swan Chapel, founded in 1308 and this has remained intact, although its windows have been repaired and a new doorway has been provided. The two-light window is of this period and the handsome three-light window to the west of it was added in the 1400s, as was the much-renewed east window.
A major re-ordering took place during the 1400s, when the nave walls were heightened to form a clerestory, equipped with sets of handsome two-light Perpendicular windows each side to flood the upper part of the church with light. Those on the south side are linked by a horizontal stone string-course, forming hood-moulds around them. Surrounding the two western windows on this side is the remains of exquisite flint and stone ‘flushwork’ paneling, which certainly extended further – maybe along the entire length. Flanking the arches of the two windows are little wheel designs, a knot pattern looking like a portcullis and the ‘M’ (Maria) emblem of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
What is even more interesting are the fragments of mediaeval lettering which have survived in the stone inscription above. It reads, ‘…omas / Norm………………./ Boteler chirch [?reves]………..Wa….’. The late Dr John Blatchly has suggested that it originally stated ‘Thomas Norman and Robert Boteler… Wa’. Thomas Norman’s will is dated 1513 and that of Robert Boteler, dated 1501, indicates that he may have been a churchwarden. The ‘Wa’ may have been part of the name of William Watkynson, who became rector in 1501. This therefore probably indicates an approximate date for the completion of this beautiful craftsmanship.
Thanks to the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund and funds raised by the PCC St John’s received a new slate roof to the Nave and Chancel in 2017/8 and also new lead to the South Aisle. The two ancient Clerestory windows at the Southwest end were repaired with significant new stonework and all south side Clerestory windows were reglazed. The Principal Contractor was Universal Stone Ltd from Wickford in Essex and we acknowledge the excellent work by the craftsmen from all over East Anglia who contributed to this project.
The stone cross on the Eastern apex of the Nave was replaced as part of the repair.