St Mary-at-the-Quay church by the Waterfront to open in the summer

St Mary-at-the-Quay church.

St Mary-at-the-Quay church. - Credit: Su Anderson

The medieval Waterfront building is undergoing a £5million transformation to become a multi-use community centre with a wellbeing and heritage centre theme.

During a site tour of the 15th century building, which will be renamed Quay Place, officials confirmed that construction work should have finished in time for a grand opening by the school holidays.

The community centre will offer a range of services, from business meetings and private workshops to yoga sessions and film nights using a projector. A permanent café will offer seating for up to 50 people, while there will be underground heating beneath the original stone floor. There could even be farmers’ markets.

“It will be very striking when it finishes,” remarked Sue Gray, head of operations at Suffolk Mind, as she took this newspaper on a tour around the site in Key Street.

The seven-year project is being run by Suffolk Mind, a mental health and wellbeing charity, and the Churches Conservation Trust. The scheme was awarded a £3.4m funding boost by the Heritage Lottery Fund in November 2012.

“The project has involved a huge combination of people and is going to be a brilliant meld of beautifully restored medieval buildings which have been here for 600 years, with a modern touch to it,” Mrs Gray added.

The first phase of construction work began in April 2014, which focused on repairing the timber hammerbeam roof and parapet. Phase two started in January last year and has involved repairing the rest of the historical fabric and the construction of the new-build work in the church and the two-storey extension.

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“We want it to become a community venue; a space which people enjoy coming to. Our byline is ‘come as you, leave better’,” Mrs Gray explained.

“You might ask, what is a mental health charity doing muddling with a heritage charity – what is the connection? It has several connections: when you bring people together with a common interest, they will build relationships and feel happier and connected; it will be a place to explore the local history of Ipswich and you feel like you belong. Heritage grounds people and make them feel like they belong. There is a solidity and longevity to what’s happening.

“It will offer a variety of services, depending on what people rent it for, but the theme of it is wellbeing and heritage.

“The therapy centre is mainly for people who want to book a space for all sort of therapies. It might be counselling, homeopathy, Pilates or massages – we don’t know what people are going to book it for yet. But we are trying to get that message out for therapists who might want to base their business here, and they will be able to book online in an easy system to use.

“Similarly, it might be an interesting place to have a meeting for an hour or so. With the café, we hope it will become a dropping in place for anybody. We are between the town and the Waterfront.

“We would also like to have things like a farmers’ market here. It doesn’t have to be a sit-down event; it can be an exhibition that people come to. We are hoping it will get used for all sorts of different things. We are trying to make it a neutral space where people could bring in their own stage, you could have a film here – it is a multi-use space in a beautiful building.

“If people are having a conference, they are bringing people here from across the country. It’s bringing an old building back into use. You might ask why we are not doing this in a new-build. But actually, you feel it in yourself – the solidity of the building; it has always been a sanctuary, a place of refuge, a place to meet friends.”

She said Quay Place will help drive the local economy.

“It has got one or two architectural features which people from across the world come to see,” she said.

“People come to see the hammerbeam roof, and the Flemish 15th century Pounder brass is one of the finest examples in the country and we are aiming to have the original in here, so people will come to see it.”

Details of the next set of open days will soon be released.

History of the church

St Mary-at-the-Quay was built between 1450 and 1550 at which time it would have stood right on the quayside of the River Orwell.

It has a well-preserved hammer-beam roof which is one of the earliest examples of its type. The restoration of the roof is a key part of the overall work at the church.

The church was partially restored in the 1870s, but during the first half of the 20th century much of its congregation moved out of the town centre to new estates like Chantry, Whitton and Gainsborough.

In 1943 it was damaged by a bomb that fell near the docks and blew out many of its windows. It was not used regularly as a church after then.

At one stage it was used by the Boys Brigade as a hall and over recent years it has been used for theatre productions.

The restoration will give it a new permanent use for the first time in nearly three quarters of a century.