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St Mary, Lakenheath, Suffolk

(52°24′55″N, 0°31′7″E)
TL 714 827
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Suffolk
now Suffolk
  • Ron Baxter

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Feature Sets

Lakenheath is a large village in the NW of Suffolk, between Ely and Thetford and only 10 miles from either. To the W is the fenland that runs into Cambridgeshire, and the Cut-off Channel, built in 1964 as part of the fen drainage system, runs alongside the B1112 that forms Lakenheath High Street. To the E was once Lakenheath Warren, set up by the prior of Ely in 1251 as a source of rabbits for the table — a practical solution to the exploitation of land that was unsuitable for crops or pasture. Over the centuries the land was over-grazed by the rabbits, and soil erosion became a problem. In the 1660s sand dunes spread over 1000 acres at Lakenheath warren. The site of the warren is now Lakenheath airfield, built for the RAF in 1941. In 1948 the Americans moved B-29 bombers in, and they took over the administration of the airfield in 1951. Today Lakenheath is home to the 48th Fighter Wing of the USAF, England's largest USAF operated fighter base.

St Mary's is a large, imposing flint and ironstone church with brick repairs and traces of lost mortar rendering, situated on the E side of the High Street and standing in a spacious churchyard. It consists of an aisled and clerestoried nave with five-bay arcades, an unaisled chancel and a W tower with a Hertfordshire spike. There is a two-storey western extension to the tower. This was built after the Reformation, with stone from the old church at Eriswell, as a schoolroom, and it was still used as the village school in the 19thc. It is also recorded that it was used as the manor office. The earliest work in the church is the chancel arch, of c.1130-50, and the W end of the chancel with the remains of 12thc. wall-arcading and a blocked window on the N wall. The chancel was remodelled in the 13thc. and given a N chapel (now removed and its arches to chancel and aisle blocked but still visible). A doorway pierced through the blocking has itself been blocked. The S chancel doorway also belongs to the 13thc. remodelling and the font, described by Pevsner as the finest 13thc. font in the county, also dates from this period. The chancel has been heightened with brick and ashlar and its present slate roof with tile cresting is 19thc. The nave arcades have octagonal piers and moulded capitals with chamfered arches. Pier 3 of the N nave arcade is a short stretch of walling with responds, indicating to Pevsner that this was the position of the 12thc. W end. E of this, the arcade is early 14thc., and to the W it is mid-14thc. with slimmer piers. The S arcade is uniformly mid-14thc. The aisle windows are likewise reticulated on the N (c.1320) and Perpendicular on the S. Both lateral nave doorways have porches; the N Perpendicular and the S rebuilt in the 19thc. There is also a fine 14thc. W doorway with continuously moulded orders, now inside the western extension. The nave is much taller than the chancel and has a fine 15thc. angel roof with alternating hammerbeam and tie beam trusses. Its clerestory and battlements are Perpendicular. The tower is early 13thc. in its lower parts, late 13thc. at the bell-stage and Perpendicular at the parapet, which has battlements and a chimera. The lead spike relates more to churches in Cambridgeshire than Suffolk. Romanesque work recorded here comprises the chancel arch, the remains of the wall-arcade in the chancel N wall and a section of string course re-set in the N chancel wall.


Lakenheath was held as a manor by St Aethelthryth (Ely Priory) before and after the Conquest. In 1086 the manor had three carucates of ploughland, meadow for five head of cattle, 17 pigs and 100 sheep, a hall and a church with 60 acres of land. A smaller holding in Lakenheath was Richard fitzGilbert's (one carucate). Richard's descendants were the Clares, Earls of Gloucester from 1217. In 1201 King John granted a market here to the prior and monks of Ely, but in the following year an inquest decided that it was damaging to the market at Bury St Edmunds. In 1250, Henry III granted a Thursday market and a fair to the Earl of Gloucester, to be held at the manor. In 1309 Edward II granted a Wednesday market and a fair to the prior and chapter of Ely, again at the manor. The setting up of Lakenheath warren by the prior of Ely in 1251 has been noted above.

Benefice of Brandon and Santon Downham with Elveden and Lakenheath.


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Interior Decoration

Blind arcades
String courses

The chancel arch capitals are relatively simple types, but suggest connections with Ely cathedral. The volute capital is of the Ely transept type; fluted bells are found at Ely in the nave clerestory and the W transept, and the first order N capital at Lakenheath may be an inaccurate interpretation of the type of Ely trefoil found on the clerestory of the W transept.

G. Briscoe, A History of Lakenheath. 1951.
H. M. Cautley, Suffolk Churches and their Treasures. London 1937.
S. Jenkins, England's Thousand Best Churches. 1999.
D. P. Mortlock, The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches: 1 W Suffolk. Cambridge 1988, 129-30.
J. T. Munday, Lakenheath Manor of Clare Fee 1086-1331. 1970
N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Suffolk. Harmondsworth 1961, rev. E. Radcliffe 1975, 319-21.