St Peter’s, Stutton
Indoor temperature: 10.2˚C, humidity: 78%
I had made a Saturday morning appointment with Steve, a bassoonist with whom I had played recently in two orchestral concerts, to visit his village church. I had first met him a year or two previously in his official capacity as a woodwind instrument repairer: I went to his house to meet a friend of mine, Joost, who had just come up on the train from London to drop off his bassoon at Steve’s house. Joost had raved about both Steve and his vegetable garden, and had asked if I could have a tour. I was kindly invited to coffee and cake as well. His vegetables were indeed impressive, as was his baking, and he was quite as friendly and lively as Joost had led me to believe.
So, when we met again, we quickly got chatting about all sorts of things, including, of course, churches. I was delighted when he offered to join me at Stutton church, and I was impressed that he was up for the challenge of church playing at this time of year: any rural musician will be partially used to playing in cold churches in the run up to Christmas, but I think not many would choose to do so just for the fun of it.
As we approached the church, we saw a number of cars parked outside. We were mildly alarmed, thinking our plan might be thwarted, although Steve had checked there wasn’t an event on today. Walking up the churchyard path, I suggested that if it was a social event – the most likely for a Saturday morning – we could always ask if they’d like a little background music. But we found no one inside, and concluded that the car owners must all have gone to walk their dogs along the path beyond the church, despite the drizzle.
While we set up we discussed the effect of cold on our respective instruments. The bassoon’s problem was condensation, he told me, which would regularly fill the finger holes with water and have to be blown out. The other issue was tuning: the colder the instrument, the flatter it would be, so I’d have to tune down to the bassoon and then gradually tune up again as the bassoon warmed up. It seemed, on the whole, that the cello suffered fewer difficulties. Perhaps more problematic for a string player, though, is the effect of the cold on one’s ability to play it well, as both hands have to travel a great deal further than a wind player’s, and the notes are much less easily found when one’s fingers are stiff or half numb.
We had fun playing duets for indeterminate bass instruments: most of the duets I had were probably not originally written for cello, and Steve’s not necessarily for bassoon. We had some of the same music, however: the only requirement was that there were no chords, which are stringed instrument-specific, and so we played Telemann, Boismortier and Mozart.
At the end of our visit, Steve offered to accompany me to all the remaining Shotley peninsula churches. I was thrilled: it would be fun to have a partner for a specific area, a bit like having a walking partner for a short section of a long-distance walk. I was glad he’d enjoyed it enough to want more, and I was keen to play with him again.
Afterwards I looked around, noticing in particular the stained glass west window: it was obviously modern, but very unusual. It was installed for the millennium, Steve said. It looked entirely abstract to me, but to my surprise, I found on the Suffolk Churches website that it depicts passages from Isaiah and Revelation1. Where Simon Knott found this information, I am not sure; I don’t think he could have deduced it from the window itself. Now, looking more closely at the photographs I took, I can see it is not really abstract. I can make out two people, a lake, a river and a large tree in the centre. But the story didn’t matter much to me: I thought it was a beautiful regardless of what it depicted.
I was easily persuaded to stop off for soup at Steve’s house, and meeting his sweet little dog was a bonus. We arranged to be in touch after Christmas for our next outing, and I left for home, happy to have got to know another friendly Suffolk musician.
St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Alpheton
Indoor temperature: 13.7˚C, humidity: 76%
I had intended to visit Alpheton church (pronounced Alph-Eton) to practise before playing to friends at Newton church the following day: church number 250, assuming all went to plan. But as I had to ask for Alpheton to be unlocked for me, I didn’t want to turn down the keyholder’s request to stay and listen, and to invite other villagers along too. She, Charlotte, was a horn player, I discovered, but she declined my invitation to bring her horn. So I went with the intention of playing through the same piece that I would later play at Newton: Bach suite no. 2 in D minor. I thought I might at least have time to warm up before anyone arrived to listen, but I entered the church to an audience of perhaps 8 or 10 people, so I knew I would have to start straight away. I had prepared for this eventuality, however, by practising at home beforehand, and I couldn’t have picked a better December day for me or my audience: the sun was shining and the air was warmer than the day I gave a concert in Badley church at the end of April. In addition to which, Charlotte had put on the heating in advance of my arrival.
The church was idyllic in both setting and character: it was located beside Alpheton Hall and possessed a feeling of remoteness that I barely imagined possible for a village on the A134 between Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds. The interior was full of sunshine and felt ancient. I left my explorations till afterwards, and set up somewhat self-consciously in front of my audience. To direct their attention elsewhere until I was ready to play, and because I thought it might be of interest, I passed around my map that showed all of the county’s churches, with the ones I’d visited ticked off.
I knew the acoustic would be wonderful, just from looking at the church. Despite being slightly under-warmed up, it was a pleasure to play there, and my audience was greatly appreciative. Charlotte had brought along an elderly gentleman who turned out to be her old horn teacher. He told me he had played with my father. To my astonishment, he was 93, two years older than my father would have been. If I’d realised Charlotte and I had played in orchestral concerts together, I might have been more nervous performing in front of her – or him for that matter. But luckily I didn’t find out until afterwards.
It was a treat to explore the church with its old brick floor, font, wall painting, image niches, graffiti and some modern stained glass – which, while thoroughly different to Stutton’s, I liked nearly as well. In common with Stutton, however, Alpheton’s is also a millennium window2.
Chatting to the people who had come from various surrounding villages to listen was also a pleasure, and I could have stayed much longer. In the end I had to hurry across to Newton in order not to keep my friends waiting.
All Saints’, Newton
Indoor temperature: 11.6˚C, humidity 84%
I was excited to have reached my 250th church, and it prompted me to reflect on the project, and my decision to start it, during the short journey from Alpheton to Newton Green.
I always worry that if I set myself such an ambitious task, the likelihood is that I won’t finish it. My friend Mark has said more than once that he doesn’t think it is true I don’t finish things. It was pleasant to hear this from someone with whom I exchange far more banter (in the form of plentiful insults and teasing) than compliments, but it didn’t really change my opinion of my own tendencies. What has, however, changed my opinion, is this project. I am glad to be at a point in my life when I am no longer trying to prove anything to anyone, not even to myself, I think – at least, much less persistently and aggressively than in the past. But it feels like a positive thing to discover from time to time that one’s assumptions about oneself aren’t always right.
If there’s one thing I have learnt from my church tour, it is that completing tasks or projects that I start depends entirely on picking the right project in the first place. And, of course, on picking the right circumstances in which to take it on. Both of these depend on gradually improving understanding of oneself, as well as on what the project reveals of its qualities and consequences as it progresses, some of which one cannot predict. It is a bit like making New Year’s resolutions. Having learnt this, I no longer feel such a failure if I give up on a project, resolution or activity; rather, I realise that I didn’t choose the right one, or that it served its purpose for a time, and now that time is over. But I am also getting better at picking the right ones.
In fact, it is not one challenge that I have taken on, but two, simultaneously: visiting all the churches with my cello, and writing about every single one. Neither of them is in at any risk of lapsing, even though I periodically get behind with my write-ups.
I have no concern at all now that I won’t complete my ambition to play in all of Suffolk’s medieval churches – and I expect I will include most, if not all, of those I omitted from my original reckoning, when I thought I might be taking on too much. When anyone asks me how many I have left to play in, although the answer is not entirely certain, the still-large figure doesn’t daunt me in the slightest. It feels similar to asking how many more times I need to practise the cello, how many more concerts I will give, or how many more places in Suffolk I have left to visit. It is a more natural question, perhaps, and theoretically it could have a mathematically correct answer, but my answer is essentially this: it is something I would be happy to have permanently in my life. The idea of putting a figure or end date on it is irrelevant; even undesirable. The danger is rather that I won’t want it to be over when I reach the end.
I was one of the last to reach Newton, and was greeted by my friends in the churchyard – because it was warmer outside than in, they told me. I went straight in to set up, before deciding that it would be prudent to take photographs first, while there was still plenty of light.
As soon as I stepped inside, I could tell there was something unusual about the church. I whistled and counted the seconds before the sound disappeared. It took 4 seconds. Mark, equally astounded by the discovery, asked if it might be better to use the chancel, which was separated from the nave, so we went in to look and check the acoustic. It seemed good, but the nave’s acoustic was so unusual that I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to play in it: I knew the echo wouldn’t bother me, but might bother the listeners. I played a few notes for Mark to check, and he said it was fine. So the nave it would be.
Mark and 8-year-old Molly sat together in the front row, which seemed appropriate. The reason for this is made amply clear by a story Mark tells of a friend’s toddler once asking how old he was, and when his mother replied, ‘the same age as mummy,’ the child immediately retorted, ‘Nooo, Mans is a baby one!’ (‘Mans’ being Mansfield, Mark’s surname). Bob, Mark’s aging dog, paced around scratching himself, which was a challenge to my concentration, but I got used to it and eventually he settled. I was glad to have played through the suite once already, but there was nothing to worry about in this acoustic; I probably could have performed easily with no warm up. It was a unique experience.
Afterwards we enjoyed Christmas biscuits that Molly had baked with her grandmother, and walked around the church. When I was in the chancel writing in the visitors’ book, three men came in through the chancel door, which I hadn’t realised was open. One of them had brought his friends, and walked straight up to a memorial on the wall, saying, ‘that was my great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather’. I had to ask him afterwards how many ‘greats’ that was: I’d lost track after about three. Eleven, he said. His family had lived in the village since the 14th century, although he lived in Halstead, just over the Essex border. I was amazed. How I would love to know where my ancestors were in the 14th century… I don’t even know where or who they were in the 19th, or the names of my maternal grandparents.
After a quick tour of the churchyard, everyone was persuaded back to the Kersey Tea Room, otherwise known as Mark’s house, to warm up and round off the celebrations with that most crucial of party ingredients, the cuppa.
Header photo: Graffiti in Newton church