I have recently begun a short course at the Suffolk Record Office about five
Suffolk estates, taught by the excellent Dr Margaret Thomas. (As a complete
ignoramus about this kind of stuff I apologise for any inaccuracies that
might follow, which are all my own work.) The first session was about
Christchurch, here in Ipswich, and Margaret showed us maps, engravings
and photos detailing the development of the house, park and estate over
This spurred us on to visit the Mansion for the first time in ages. En
route we looked at the site of the extensive formal water gardens which
used to run from (roughly) the War Memorial down to Bethesda Baptist
Chapel and realised this may be why this area often seems so soggy.
Margaret had explained the dates of the different windows on the front
elevation, so we understood the motley look. So far, so good; but from
then on, things got less explicable - especially why they didn't remove
previous fittings when they made alterations as it ruins the effect they
were trying to achieve?
For example, the strange window mullions on the first floor of the hall
were on an outside wall before they built the corridor behind them, and
the bottom half of a filled- in window opposite must date from when the
ceiling was put in (the previous design being open to the rafters). And
when they built the corridor, why didn't they line it up with the floors
of the wings it connected so you don't have to go up and down steps?
But the weirdest thing was the grand staircase. Knowing it was a later
insertion explained the odd angle of the archway leading to it from the
hall, but it was built to give access to a suite of rooms above, which
according to the fashion of the time had been built the full width of
the wing with no corridor - a series of connecting doors in line with
each other on the east side made a 'virtual corridor' if they were all
open. Logically the staircase should end in a landing on the east with
two of these doors leading off it, but they took the stairs to the other
side and had to insert a whole new row of doors along the western length
of the wing. And then they left the original doors in situ - two of which
now opened on to thin air several feet above the turn of the stairs. Was
the staircase a bargain that came from somewhere else? And I really don't
understand the double doors in the panelling that open on either side
above the stairs; was this to make the rooms look larger?
So then we started going round and noticing the oddities. The pretty
door on to the gallery above the hall has an amazing number of bolts,
given that it doesn't open on to the outside of the house. And if the
bedrooms were in the west wing then they were directly above the kitchens
and sculleries which must have been really noisy at 5.30 in the morning
with all those buckets and clogs on the stone stairs.
A little courtyard on the east side has its knocker and letterbox on
the courtyard side. And why should such a small(ish) house need three
doors giving on to the entrance court? One of these has a pretty oval
window above it let into a wall that appears to be more than a foot and a
half thick in a house allegedly not made of stone. There were strangely
curving walls in odd places and two rooms appeared to be adjoining -
but the party wall would have to be more than two feet thick if they do.
I wanted to ask Margaret all about it but she pre-empted me by saying how
puzzling it all was and what a pity it was that the Mansion had never
been properly recorded. And that all the date plaques had been moved -
one of the few things we had assumed we could rely on. Oh well.
I'm sure we'll be going back many more times, noticing more strange
things on each visit. And I'm sure many members are groaning and tutting
at my woeful ignorance and are eager to enlighten me - please do. I'd
love to know.