Suffolk churches 1: Harleston, Mellis and Thornham Parva (April 2017)

Please note: this blog has no ambitions to provide comprehensive descriptions of Suffolk churches – this work has already been carried out wonderfully by Simon Knott at www.suffolkchurches.co.uk, where you will find further information and photos if you are interested in learning more.

The real decision to start touring Suffolk churches with my cello was, in the end, not really a decision at all. After several weeks of mulling it over, unsure whether it was too unrealistic an ambition even to begin, I discovered suddenly that I had been approaching the idea from the wrong set of circumstances. The question was not would I like to take my bulky, heavy cello on a tour of Suffolk churches (well… not particularly), but rather, if I had to do a lot of cello practice, probably more than I’ve done in 15 years, would I prefer, and be more motivated, to do it at home or in different churches around Suffolk?

One day in mid April I took out my cello to look at the programme I had just chosen for a recital in Long Melford church in June. I had played all of the pieces before, but not for a very long time. I realised within a few minutes that not only were they much harder than I remembered, but my stamina was nowhere near sufficient. The cramp in my left hand after playing just a few lines of a Bach Viola da Gamba sonata1 was an unpleasant surprise. I started to think in terms of ‘training’ rather than ‘practice’. I had intended to choose a challenging programme that would force me to practise, and knew it would involve technical difficulties that I had barely encountered in well over a decade, but this was somewhat beyond my intentions.

Suddenly the idea of touring the county in order to get enough hours of practice in without locking myself inside the house for the next two months became exceptionally appealing. When my stamina ran out I could have a wander round the church or pack up and move on to the next one, giving my hand time to recover, providing motivation to continue practising, and therefore, with any luck, helping to accumulate more hours of playing than I would have managed at home. Two months, the time I had to prepare for the recital, would not cover many of Suffolk’s churches, no matter how enthusiastic my touring, but the solution was obvious: to arrange subsequent challenging concerts for which to practise, preferably in village churches…

It was my last free day before a run of guests and visitors, and I had the desire to practise the cello but not to stay at home. Spring was under way and the sun was shining, which gave me hope that the churches would be tolerably mild inside, and so I packed the cello, stand, spike holder and music in the car and set off towards north Suffolk.

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It was a good number of months since I had visited Mellis, and l felt that the arrival of spring was ample excuse to go back, in part to see which flowers would be popping up on its vast and marshy common. It is summed up well by David Stanford in his book, Suffolk Churches (in a sentence that coincidentally has clear resonances with my impression of Burgate Great Green not two miles away):

‘What a strange spot this is. Despite the Diss to London trains rushing by, the village, divided by a sweeping green, seems to be in the middle of nowhere’.2

Mellis boasts the largest common in the county, and houses are dotted on either side, often behind a moat or barrier of trees, giving anything but the feel of a village. Almost the only prominent building in the village is the former steam mill (now used as a warehouse) next to the level crossing. Apart from its curious character, my attachment to Mellis is also due to the fact it was home for nearly forty years to Roger Deakin, a nature writer, film maker and broadcaster – though it is only his books I am acquainted with. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, a book published after his death in 2006 and comprising journal entries mostly about his house and land in Mellis, has felt like a close friend over the past 4 years since it was given to me by a friend after her first visit to Crossways Farm. It is largely responsible for keeping me going during the difficult transition period after deciding to live here permanently after my father’s death. I also have it to thank for opening my eyes to the dramas and delights unfolding on my doorstep every day of every season: ‘You could spend a lifetime studying a hedgerow, or a pond’3.

It wasn’t just the destination I was considering, however; it was the route and the churches on the way. I remembered a church down a grassy drive somewhere near Haughley, along my preferred route to the Diss area to avoid driving through Stowmarket, a town that instantly drops my daydreams to the ground with a resounding thud. More than once I had intended to stop at the church, but either missed it due to its being hidden away, or was in too much of a hurry to get to my destination. Feeling a little apprehensive about the circumstances that might accompany each church visit, I thought this would be a perfect church to start with: well off the road, tiny, and therefore (if it was open) extremely unlikely to have any visitors on a weekday morning.

St Augustine’s, Harleston
Harleston entranceThe church in fact belonged to Harleston village, but was located outside the village on the road to Haughley. It must be in possession of one of the most attractive unpaved drives in the county: a metal entrance gate with a pond on either side within the hedged boundary, and the drive itself lined with birches just coming into leaf. Not finding any indication as to where to park, but wanting to check if the church was open before getting my cello out of the car, I opened the gate and drove up, already feeling somewhat illegal. When I approached the churchyard gate, there were two dog walkers not far away, as well as people visible in the garden of Harleston Hall across the field, on whose land I feared I might somehow be trespassing. Worrying that I might be told off, I left the cello in the car, partly as proof of necessity of driving up to the church, and went to check if it was open. By the time I returned to retrieve the cello, the walkers had passed and were on the birch avenue.

Due to my nervousness, I didn’t notice many details about the church on the way in; only that it was pretty and situated on a hill in an open churchyard with views all round. Entering the church with my cello, I realised that the equipment I had brought with me was not quite suitable. In the absence of any chairs, I could not use my spikeholder which was designed to go round chair legs. So I sat on a pew in the choir stalls and stuck the spike in a floor grate, which, while not ideal as it kept getting stuck and was holding my cello more upright than I wanted, did the job adequately.

The acoustic of the church, as in so many old, tiny churches, was a dream. It made playing the cello easy. The received wisdom is that you should not practise in a good acoustic: you don’t have to work hard enough, and you might get a nasty shock when arriving at the concert venue. However, this was not an important consideration to me at this early stage of preparation – building up my playing strength, learning music and playing in tune are not much affected by acoustic, and it is more important that I put in the hours, however those might come about. If anything, a good acoustic is helpful to me at this point where anything that will encourage me to keep practising for longer is a decidedly Good Thing.

Harleston churchIts effects were slightly offset by the difficult of practising with cold hands, however – the temperature inside couldn’t have been more than low teens. This was something I was going to have to get used to. Churchyard oakThe acoustic also couldn’t prevent the cramp in my hand after less than half an hour so I decided to stop and move onto the next church after having a look around outside. It was only now that I saw the church had no tower, only a small belfry, and was thatched. The churchyard looked as though either there had been no hedge previously and one had recently been planted, or perhaps an old one had been replaced. The lack of established hedge allowed greater admiration of the single oak tree adorning one of its boundaries.

When I returned to the car there was a programme on the radio which seemed to be a discussion of personal experiences of Bach and the cello. I sometimes enjoy the slightly dreamy experience of listening to a programme (in this case punctuated by plenty of music) where it is not entirely obvious what the exact focus of the discussion is, so diverse are the speakers and experiences being referred to. But Bach and cello were enough for me to receive it as a good omen for my recently begun adventure.

St Mary’s, Mellis
The first thing I noticed as I entered Mellis was the quantity of horse chestnut trees, and that their delicate, unfurling green hands were further advanced than those around Hitcham. I later doubted my observation – were they actually ahead in their growth, or were there were simply many more of them here than where I live, and that was why I hadn’t noticed them in leaf sooner? On subsequent days I took note of the few horse chestnuts around my home and decided that they were indeed lagging behind those in Mellis, but the effect was exaggerated by the difference in quantity.

When I arrived at Mellis church, I met an obstacle I hadn’t considered in my scant planning: a coffee morning. It appeared to be nearly over, but the packing up was happening at a leisurely pace. I half considered telling them I had come to play the cello (they might not have minded packing up to some music) but my courage failed me – no doubt I will become blasé about such things after a few more churches – so after establishing that the church would be open all day, I decided to go to a café for lunch before returning.

Mellis phoneboxNear the level crossing, I noticed some rather lovely stained glass in an unexpected place, and stopped to admire it before continuing. Then, on the road to Thornham Magna, the location of Thornham Walks and the café I had found online that morning, I spotted a remarkable church across a field which caused me to exclaim aloud and have to pull over in order not to pose a danger to other road users. I had been down this road several times before, and once on a bicycle, but I had never noticed it. It was small and thatched, with a square, thatched tower. Although different in construction, its ancient, fairy-tale appearance reminded me of Butley church. I checked on the map: Thornham Parva. There was my next appointment, after Mellis.

When I arrived back at Mellis church, it was empty, as I hoped. I had a look around the church and churchyard, noticing a strange lime tree with giant bird’s nest-looking growth around its waist, which a friend later assured me was quite common in limes, as burrs are in oaks, although until that moment I had never noticed them. For the first time I realised that the church was lacking a tower, but looking at it from the western end, I could see from the ruins that it must once have had one. The literature inside the church informed me that the tower had fallen down in 1730 and was never replaced.

Mellis churchWhen I started to play the cello, thinking the place deserted, one of the ladies who had been there in the morning came in. I felt awkward and wondered whether to keep playing or to stop, and whether to say something. In my uncertainty I stated the obvious, ‘I’m just playing the cello, I hope that’s ok’, and immediately felt very silly. She responded, ‘Yes, carry on, I’m just looking for something to tie the lawnmower handle back on with!’ which had a reassuring effect on me: this at least was familiar territory.

Shortly afterwards the sound of mowing filtered through the walls, and then a little while later a second lady, to whom I had spoken that morning, came into the church dancing to the fiery Spanish piece I was playing. This time I decided to carry on playing, encouraged by the dancing, until she approached me to look for something near the altar, at which point I stopped and said hello. She recognised me from earlier in the day so I explained what I was doing. She was delighted with the music and thought it a wonderful idea, asking hopefully if Mellis was the first church I’d played in; I was sorry to disappoint her. She was a churchwarden and told me that the following day she and two others were going to be interviewed for Suffolk radio a year after a crisis meeting held to determine the future of Mellis church, and that she would mention it.

Her invitation to write in the visitors’ book made me realise I hadn’t thought to do this in Harleston, not having noticed one there. It gave me the idea that since – for practical reasons – I would need to keep a numbered list of the churches I visited, I could write a message in every church visitors’ book which included the church’s number. This would provide a sort of secret trail of clues that would create a join-the-dots zigzag around the county, for my own amusement but also as a record of the church’s generous embracing of music that disappears as soon as it is created.

St Mary’s, Thornham Parva
Thornham wall paintings
I knew nothing of Thornham Parva church or its fame before visiting. I had not considered yet whether to research churches in advance, but today, surprise was part of the fun. The setting was as beautiful as such a special church could wish for: an avenue of flowering cherries up the drive, a gate leading to a narrow Norman north side entrance door. Round the back of the church – which seemed in fact to be the front, if a driveway and road access aren’t the determinants of front and back – I found a right-angled avenue of tall lime trees in a primrose-filled churchyard. Indoors, there were wall paintings depicting the story of St Edmund on one side of the church, and the life of Christ on the other. Thornham galleryThere was a beautiful gallery at the back of the church. I did not know at the time that there was anything unusual about the gallery – though I didn’t feel the need for any official excuse to admire it greatly – but I later read there is no other like it in Suffolk4. Apparently a valuable 14th century retable was the church’s main attraction before the wall paintings were uncovered and restored, but amongst the church’s many other treasures, I barely noticed it.

This church provided new challenges as far as cello playing was concerned. Not only was there no chair, but there was barely anywhere I could sit with enough sideways space to play and frontways space to accommodate a cello. I identified only two possibilities, neither of which was ideal: the end of one pew in the choir stalls, or the base of the 14th century font at the back of the church. I chose the font, sitting on two kneelers for added height, and making use of the only angle that would allow me not to hit the cello scroll on the font bowl.

I was facing towards the larger of the entrance doors, the south door to which the lime tree avenue led. I soon heard tapping outside the door. I was momentarily confused, thinking someone was knocking, and then realised it must be a blackbird tapping a snail on the doorstep. The door was locked, so after I’d packed up to leave I went round to check and found the remains of more than one snail shell lying just outside the door. It must have been a favourite snail-eating location.

Thornham Parva church

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I returned home via Harleston church to write in the visitors’ book. My first cello-church excursion was a wonderful spring day out, more uplifting and full of delights than I could have anticipated – and it had resulted in more cello practice than I ever would have achieved at home. Excited and encouraged, I could not wait for my next adventure.

Header photo: Mellis Common


1. The bass viol or viola da gamba is a baroque instrument with 6 or sometimes 7 strings, compared to 4 strings on a cello.

2. Stanford, D. 2005. Suffolk Churches.

3. Deakin, R. 2006. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, p. 97.

4. www.suffolkchurches.co.uk/thornhamentry.htm

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