Our Treasurer, Ken Wilson, has been a director of the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust for some twenty years now and thinks that recent achievements mean that this is a good time to put something in our Newsletter for the benefit of those who perhaps do not know much about the Trust - and some who might wish to join.
The Trust was formed in 1979 to care for the town's redundant medieval churches on behalf of the Borough Council whose ultimate responsibility they are. Such a charitable trust has access to funding, mainly from English Heritage, that the Council does not.
Ipswich has twelve medieval churches (only Norwich and York have more) and over the years the Trust has spent many tens of thousands of pounds in repairing and maintaining those in its care. For several years, despite numerous enquiries and many false starts, no permanent tenants could be found although there were many temporary uses, all of which were very welcome.
Eventually in the early 1990s as part of the Buttermarket shopping development, St Stephen's was renovated to become the first-class Tourist Information Centre that we know today. Shortly afterwards, St Nicholas's became redundant but was soon taken over by the diocesan authorities for use in association with their new offices nearby. It is also available for hire, as we know. A restaurant linking the two buildings is an attractive feature of this development.
Other successes followed. St Peter's was taken on by Ipswich Hospital Band (Music for Health) and with the help of a lottery grant was restored wonderfully; it is now used for rehearsals and performances. The Trust has arranged the display of historical information and artefacts. Others may use the church and the recent Awards Evening there was a great success. As St Peter's was being restored, St Lawrence's was being transformed by the Borough Council and is now a very attractive and popular venue for public use including a busy restaurant.
Negotiations are currently proceeding for St Clement's to be used once more as a place of worship, this time by the local Orthodox community; if they are successful then, for the first time in many years, not one of our fine medieval churches will be seen to be lying empty.
St Mary at the Quay was the first church to be declared redundant. It has since been in the care of the national Churches Conservation Trust and is now used for artistic events of many kinds, but may be taken over by East Suffolk MIND. Ipswich Historic Churches Trust is still the main leaseholder of the other churches mentioned and so its responsibilities continue, but a little less anxiously.
A final note: all twelve churches have many interesting features, but St Lawrence's is unique. Its ring of five bells is the oldest in Christendom and the most precious item in the care of the Trust. Although they have been rung in recent years they must now be lowered so that this may be done more safely and the Trust has raised almost all the necessary funds. When before long we hear these bells once more, then we shall thrill to those very same sounds that the townsfolk of Ipswich - including a young Thomas Wolsey - would have heard ... half a millennium ago.