The following Monday I had arranged to meet a friend, Cristina, to visit the Alde Valley Spring Festival at Great Glemham before a rehearsal in Rendham church. I left home in high spirits: I had just heard the tit chicks cheeping in the kitchen ceiling for the first time– the nest entrance was a hole in a wall beam – and the first ox-eye daisies were coming into flower by the driveway.
Unfortunately the morning’s adventures did not start off so well, as neither of us had remembered that the festival was closed on Mondays. Annoyed with myself for not registering this important piece of information when I looked up the website the night before, we came up with an alternative plan to park at Snape Maltings and go for a walk on the marshes – it seemed a promising location to find somewhere to leave my cello for an hour or two.
At Snape Maltings concert hall, a friendly lady on the front desk, at first slightly confused by the appearance of a cello that had no connection with any musical activity taking place there, very generously offered to lock it in a cupboard until my return.
Our walk on the marshes was a wonderful alternative to the festival. We walked towards Iken, whose solitary church tower overlooks the Alde estuary. Cristina suggested I go and play the cello there afterwards, but I had promised my friend Mark that I would not go to Iken church without him. My appetite whetted by this view from afar, I decided to fix a date with him soon. After our walk I headed northwards to Snape church, and rearranged my rehearsal location for Sternfield instead of Rendham.
St John’s, Snape
Although located on the busy road running between the A12 and Aldeburgh, Snape church is set far enough back from the road, behind its churchyard, that it still feels peaceful and rural. I found it a lovely, simple and light church, with an unusual roof. I enjoyed the elaborately carved font, uncovered patches of wall writing or markings, and a small staircase which came out higher up the wall – there are quite a few of these staircases in country churches, which apparently used to lead up to galleries, but they are so tiny it is a wonder anyone could get up them. While I was playing, a churchwarden came in and we had a chat about the church, which he said was sometimes involved in the Aldeburgh Festival, and which they were trying to use more frequently for concerts.
While I was playing I thought a lot about Jack Roberts, my old next door neighbour and honorary grandfather, as Snape was his home village. But whether he would ever have let himself be caught setting foot in the church is another matter.
St Mary’s, Sternfield
For a week, perhaps, I had been feeling something which I believe that all arts, crafts and sports – including speaking foreign languages and playing musical instruments – have in common: off-days, or in the worst cases sometimes seen in professional sportspeople, off-weeks or even months. It is a feeling of discomfort, stagnation and frustration when nothing flows and practice doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere. It is usually most noticeable, and often most problematic for the sufferers, in sport, as they stop scoring, lose matches, lose races, sometimes for months on end… At least the arts are usually non-competitive.
Sometimes the cause seems to be primarily physical, sometimes psychological, but most often I think it is both – although usually there seems to be no obvious or diagnosable reason why one day things work, and on another, they don’t. Sometimes leaving things to settle for a few days can help, but on this occasion it had made no difference and so I was plodding on with reluctance and frustration in the hope that something would eventually shift.
Rehearsing at Sternfield church brought about this shift, and gave me some new insight into the phenomenon – at least in its current incarnation. Being forced, today, to play the cello for around two hours, with less psychological effort and more enjoyment than of late (due to easier but lovely music and the fun of playing with another person), meant that by the end of our rehearsal, I was finally feeling comfortable with my cello for the first time in a week.
It seemed that practising for an hour, or even an hour and a half, had recently been insufficient time to get my left hand moving fluently and feeling comfortable – its stiffness exacerbated by recent overuse in manual house and garden tasks, as I am left handed. But the discomfort created a vicious circle in which I didn’t have the psychological energy to force myself to carry on practising for longer, as it felt so unpleasant and frustrating. It was very inconvenient to realise that sometimes an hour’s practice might barely get me beyond the warming up stage (suggesting I might have to dedicate more time to practising than I had ever done in my life before), but nevertheless it was a huge relief to see the evidence that once I was properly warmed up, however long it took, the feeling of discomfort could disappear.
It will be this aspect of Sternfield that will remain longest in my memory – not its dark interior, nor its crowded pews, nor the fact that there was barely space anywhere in the church to fit two cellos. The only place we could sit was directly in front of the altar, facing each other. Will, the cellist with whom I was rehearsing duets, told me there had once been a chamber music concert here. I wondered how anyone could have managed such a thing.
I noticed a plaque on the wall directly in front of me as I was playing, dedicated to a Susanna Long, 1717-1820, who died aged 102 years, ‘with full possession of all her faculties until the day of her death’. I was impressed. It was put up by her nephew and rector of the parish, William Long. It reminded me that Cristina had told me her great grandfather was vicar here, although she didn’t remember when. The following day I asked her his surname: it was Long. I told her about the plaque and she confirmed Susanna Long was an ancestor of hers. The idea of knowing of someone you were related to in the 18th century – not to mention the grand old age to which she lived – was fantastic to me. I know the names only of my paternal grandparents and never met any of them. That is the extent of my knowledge of my family tree.
St Gregory’s, Hemingstone
On my way home, I made an unplanned stop at Stratford St Andrew, and spent a while trying to figure out which door was the entrance, until I noticed secondary glazing in some of the windows. Finally the penny dropped – not even the post in the porch had aroused my suspicions that this church had been converted into a house. I hope no one thought I was a burglar. Somehow I had left it off my list of converted churches, even though when I checked the Suffolk Churches site on arrival home, I recognised the listing. On the positive side, it did reduce my churches list by one, although from the wrong end… My total church count was now 439.
I soon remembered that there was another church I wanted to visit, and so was glad, in a way, to have failed to get into Stratford St Andrew: I had seen a tempting looking church on a hill to my right as I drove out of Coddenham and towards Wickham Market in the morning. I didn’t know which village it belonged to, but I noticed my reaction to seeing this church was similar to spotting the biggest, rosiest apple on a tree, just out of reach: church visiting, it seemed, was coming to bear some resemblance to fruit picking. I found it without too much trouble, and only when I reached it could I confirm it belonged to Hemingstone village.
As with Bures church, I found I preferred the ‘back’ of the church – the direction from which I entered the churchyard, where the cow parsley grew tall – even though the view was partially obscured by a tree. I walked round to the north side of the church to find the entrance, and in the porch was the largest pair of bellows I have ever seen. There was no notice to explain their presence, and no church guide available inside. Neither could I find any information online, so I still have no idea where they came from or why they are there. But mystery can sometimes be better than an explanation.
With my newly-rediscovered positivity about cello playing, and finding the interior of the church light, well-loved and with a generous acoustic, I had an idea: perhaps the previous two-hours’ playing might also provide the answer to the stamina problem that had been plaguing me. It had improved over the last month or so, but still seemed far from good enough to get me through the first movement of the Bach viola da gamba sonata without significant discomfort in my left hand. So, after a short warm up, I decided to test out my theory by playing it through without stopping.
I was over the moon to discover that this was indeed the case. Now the only problem left to solve was the fact that this would be the first piece in my recital programme. I would feel sorry for any tennis player who had to play a whole match in order to warm up for a match… but that, it seemed, was how I might have to approach it. In any case, I left Hemingstone church in high spirits and with a big thank you, somehow crediting it with solving my problem, as I had Sternfield.
While I was driving home, there was a programme on the radio called ‘With Great Pleasure’. I heard a quotation, apparently by Goethe, that was particularly relevant to my decision to start touring churches: ‘Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back […] Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.’ The quotation was long and rather grand, but these were the phrases that stuck with me until I got home and could look it up.
I did not realise Goethe was responsible for quite such a phenomenal number of memorable quotations. Before I found the one I was looking for, I found dozens of others, including one that struck an even more resonant chord: ‘I call architecture frozen music’.
I loved this image: churches built from music. Perhaps this meant the music I was playing in them was somehow contributing to keeping them alive and standing because this was their fabric, the material required for their continued existence. It reinforced, justified even, my feeling that playing music in these churches could be a symbiotic relationship, that I was giving them something valuable in return for taking advantage of their hospitality.
The other quotation turned out not to be Goethe’s, but rather a misquotation of Goethe by a twentieth century explorer. But it didn’t matter: I had found a far more wonderful image to carry around with me on future church visits.
Header photo: view of Iken church on the Alde estuary