I was back on the east coast the following weekend for a concert at Snape Maltings. My friends in Sibton Green kindly offered me a bed again to spare me a late drive home after the Friday night rehearsal, so I had the luxury of a whole morning on Saturday to explore.
Heading towards Aldeburgh to visit a friend for late morning coffee, Theberton lay along my route. I had a treat in store. Its round tower and thatch were only the beginning: inside, I found an impressive hanging quilt made by the ‘Theberton and Eastbridge village stitchers’, showing scenes of village life. I turned right to walk towards the chancel and saw that the south aisle and its columns were painted. I read afterwards that this painting dates from the 1846 rebuilding of the south aisle1. While I admired it, however, I didn’t really question its age or design, I simply thought how cheerful and bright it made the already lovely church.
The acoustic added to the cheer. It is hard to compare church acoustics when so many of them are good, but Theberton’s must have been amongst the best. I was feeling the cold today, but any physical discomfort was blotted out by exhilaration.
I walked around the church afterwards, as I always do unless time, weather or footwear are severely against me. I was intrigued by the hills and ditches: were the churchyard paths dug out when the church was built on uneven ground, did they wear down over centuries, or did the churchyard gradually rise as human bodies were added to the earth? I have been told more than once that churchyards have risen because of burial upon burial, but I am not entirely sure I believe it. Without observing the surrounding land it was difficult to know what ‘ground level’ was in this location. After pondering this question without conclusion, I continued on my way and stopped at the east end of the church to admire the patchwork wall (see header photo).
As I passed the tower to reach the village hall car park on the north side of the church, I couldn’t resist laying my hands on it. It was the first time I’d experienced this impulse in relation to a church tower; usually it happens when I walk past an ancient oak tree. Its similarity to an oak trunk struck me immediately after I touched it: what might these mighty structures have witnessed in the last half millennium or more? They were tactile, living connections to a history which I could only sense but never witness.
As I stood there, a few dry oak leaves lifted from the ground next to me and whirled around in a dance. All the leaves near them were still. It was magic. Suddenly a thought entered my head. Perhaps it’s not necessary to be in love with a person when you are in love with the planet.
My reverie was soon broken when I saw a sign pinned to a tree beside the churchyard gate: ‘Good neighbors clean up’, with a picture of a dog.
‘Not when they’re spelt like that they don’t’, I thought in a fit of American spelling dislike as I got in the car.
But I wasn’t really irritated. Nothing so trivial could detract from my feeling, once again, that this church tour was one of the most rewarding projects I’d ever embarked on.
St Mary’s, Friston
Indoor temperature: 10.6˚C, humidity: 73%
Friston lay roughly on my way back from Aldeburgh to Snape. I had never been there, but I was familiar with the name through my sister-in-law, who has family there.
It would have been a tall order for Friston church to excite me as much as Theberton did, which was probably a good thing as I didn’t have much time before I had to get to my rehearsal. But it didn’t do a bad job of trying: the exterior was beautiful, with its mixture of brick, flint and render, and two lovely doorways. The interior, though much plainer than Theberton, was welcoming. The decorated chancel walls were far from plain, however, and I thought them rather pretty. A large and impressive 1605 coat of arms was attached to the north wall: apparently it was found dismantled, and was put in this position in 1935. On the doorway arch, I found two carefully crafted graffiti crosses.
Though short, the visit was rewarding, and the acoustic certainly competed with Theberton, making it difficult to tear myself away. I arrived at Snape in good time, however, feeling glad of the extra time and relaxed morning I’d gained by staying in the area overnight, despite my customary reluctance to leave my animals.
St Mary’s, Chilton
Indoor temperature: 8.4˚C, humidity: 72%
I had arranged to meet friends at Newton church on the first Sunday in December, and sometime in the previous fortnight it occurred to me that it could be my 250th church celebration. But this is not necessarily so easy to arrange in advance without making fixed appointments at certain churches. So, I decided, this was what I would have to do. Churches 248 and 249 were arranged for the Saturday and Sunday mornings; so I only needed to fit in number 247 during the week. I was due in Colchester on Monday evening to pick up two rats, so I decided Chilton, near Sudbury, was the most convenient and certain option. I didn’t make an appointment, but I made sure I would be able to get hold of a key before I went: it was a Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) church, and the key was available during office hours at a business next door.
I was surprised to find the church tucked away behind new buildings and industrial complexes; I could imagine that until recently it would have been in a remote spot in the middle of the field. The churchyard was pleasant nonetheless, once I had managed to negotiate my way through the cello-averse kissing gate.
The church looked odd. It was a mix of brick and flint, different window styles and blocked arches. Somehow it gave me the impression of a model church built by a child out of mismatched building blocks. But, ironically, it seems to be one of the most architecturally coherent churches I have yet visited: it was all built within a relatively narrow time frame in the 15th century2.
The key opened a small door that led to a side chapel. Between the chapel and the chancel was a tomb, on view from both directions. The interior looked more regularly in use than many other CCT churches, with chairs in place of pews. Finally having learnt that daylight is in short supply on late November afternoons, and finding no electric lights indoors, I took my photographs before I did anything else. I sensed that before long I would be playing in the dark and would need a torch to find my way out.
Perhaps the cold and the quickly disappearing light made me more eager to leave than I might have been otherwise. I wasn’t aware at the time that this was my coldest church visit of the season, but I was freezing. I could just see my breath, and I struggled to play comfortably, despite keeping on my jacket and scarf. I barely noticed the acoustic, as I was so distracted by my discomfort, but I think it was pleasant enough. I suspect that a return visit on a hot summer’s day would be beneficial to my appreciation of this church; more so, I think, than any other I have yet visited.
Header photo: Theberton church wall detail
Total churches to the end of November: 247 + 3 chapels