Though I didn’t know it until shortly beforehand, I was in for a special treat: my next church visit would be accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra bassoon section.
I had already fixed the date for a church outing with Steve when my friend Joost got in touch to arrange a visit. After discussing a few possibilities, he suggested the Saturday I was meeting Steve, who then mentioned that Joost’s colleague, Dan, was due to pick up his bassoon: Steve had been performing surgery on it. Dan was persuaded to join us for one church in the morning, and I picked up Joost from Manningtree station on the way to Steve’s house, where we all met for coffee.
St Michael’s, Brantham
Brantham church was located away from the main road on a rural lane opposite some cottages. I was surprised to discover that its lychgate was designed by the same architect as that Thai temple-esque gate at Kelsale. Though Kelsale’s was unusual and impressive, Brantham’s looked more of a piece with the church that stood behind it.
The interior was light and friendly, though Victorian in feel. I was worried my two bassoonist guests might regret their decision to come and play, once they felt the temperature inside. But they showed no sign of horror or discomfort, and the only immediate effect of the cold was that I had to tune down my cello by a quarter tone to accommodate their instruments.
I was amused by Steve’s selection of pieces: some were arranged for bassoon ensemble by bassoon enthusiasts, and others were composed by even more enthusiastic bassoon enthusiasts. The funniest was probably a piece called Pigs, which we all deemed a necessary addition to the morning’s music making, and they all deemed a necessary introduction to my life. As a cellist, I was the only member of the party who didn’t know it. I concluded that the bassoon was an instrument with far more comic potential than the cello, and the rendition of ‘My bonny lies over the ocean’ at a ridiculously low pitch on the contrabassoon, played by Steve, will remain etched on my memory forever…
Before Steve drove Dan back to his house to pick up his car, we asked a lady chatting to a neighbour on the lane to take a photo of us. Her companion was accompanied by a very shaggy dog with a pony tail on top of its head, presumably to keep the hair out of its eyes (I hope it was awaiting a haircut, and that this wasn’t the latest fashion in dog hairstyles). Outside the next house along was a man strimming the road verge. Dan said quietly enough not to be overheard by the dog’s owner, ‘Do you think the dog is worried it’s going to get strimmed?’ We all giggled.
Dan and I had a feeling we’d met before, but neither of us could recall where or when; until Dan was about to leave, and he remembered. It was on an orchestra tour to New York in 2011. I had accompanied my father, as his health was in decline, and Dan – already a friend of Joost’s, but not yet a member of the orchestra – was guest principal bassoon. Coincidentally, it was on the same trip that I met Joost through a mutual friend, though I’d seen him playing in the orchestra for several years previously. We all had fun exploring the city together by boat and on foot, with plenty of café stops.
Joost and I remained behind for a few minutes at Brantham church to look around and take photos. Behind the church there was a lovely view over the fields and the River Stour. Inside, we found a photograph of a John Constable painting. The sign below it sounded as though it was written in the 19th Century: ‘patrons’ and ‘livings’ are hardly things we associate with today’s Church of England. And it seemed harsh to me that the painting should no longer be in its rightful place: I’m sure ‘on loan’ can be translated as ‘permanently residing’. But if that is the price to pay for the church being open all day every day, then it is probably worth paying.
All Saints’, Holbrook
After lunch at Steve’s house, we headed for the other church nearby that Steve knew to be kept open: Holbrook. The sun was shining and we stopped to admire the snowdrops and narcissi in the churchyard on our way in.
We started playing an entertaining bassoon trio by a certain Julius Weissenborn, including a ‘Tea dance in a country manor’. Soon after a lady came in and walked up the aisle. At a convenient moment we stopped and I spoke to her. She’d come to lock up, she said, but were we practising for the wedding? No one had mentioned it, or she’d have come later. I replied that we knew nothing about any wedding and had just turned up to play for fun. She agreed that we could play to the end of the piece before packing up, and afterwards asked if we could we come back to give a concert. I volunteered Steve (without asking his permission) and myself, briefly explaining my project and giving her a card with my contact details.
We spent such a short time inside the church that I noticed very little about the interior except that it was rather Victorian; but we wandered around the churchyard at our leisure (photo right: Joost and me). The exterior of the church was pretty, with patchwork walls. Steve told us they were partially made of hardened mud from the estuary – called septaria – that crumbles much more quickly than stone. (See above and header photo).
On our next outing, Steve and I stopped at Holbrook church for me to take photos indoors. A large tomb in the south aisle was impossible to miss this time: Simon Knott describes it as a monument to an ‘arch-villain’ of the reformation. I had no idea the position of High Sheriff of Suffolk went back so many centuries. Now I am wondering if it is not more surprising that such an ancient position still exists: I can’t imagine that its original functions are really applicable in this day and age. The post – which exists in every county of England and Wales – dates back more than 1000 years to Saxon times. Although its functions are not the same as they were historically, the role of High Sheriff is apparently still an important one.
The other feature of interest we found was a large amount of graffiti in the porch, including many names and other writing which was harder to decipher. Steve kindly served as my ‘lighter of graffiti’, holding his phone torch at an angle to better show up the carvings. He recognised the strangest of the names, Hunniball, as a local family.
St Andrew’s, Chelmondiston
The drive to Chelmondiston church was principally taken up with Steve trying to teach Joost and me how to pronounce the name. I still struggle with it: like the word ‘formidable’ (which the vast majority of people pronounce wrongly, with the stress on the ‘i’, instead of the ‘o’), you have to think about the pronunciation before you say the word. Every time. I am sure that speakers of any other language would find completely ridiculous the idea of not being sure how to pronounce a word or name in their native tongue, or not being able to do so fluently. Personally, I think this tells us something: that the official pronunciation is ludicrous, and should be changed. Perhaps in time it will be, as the correct pronunciation may fall away entirely until no one remembers it.
So it is with Chelmondiston, but in reverse: the stress falls on the ‘i’ instead of the first ‘o’. A more unnatural pronunciation I can’t imagine. The solution to this, Steve informed us, is that everyone calls the village ‘Chelmo’. I think this sounds like a character out of Sesame Street, and I can’t yet bring myself to use the nickname: it seems a liberty to adopt such familiar terms with a place I have only visited once.
Steve explained that the church was made of concrete, having been bombed almost to oblivion in the Second World War. Joost queried whether I should be including it in my tour, and I explained my criterion that the church should be of ‘medieval foundation’. I hadn’t yet checked how much, if any, of the original church was still in existence; but we were here now, so I was committed.
A traditional-looking church built entirely of concrete was a strange sight. But perhaps less strange than if some modern monstrosity had been constructed in the middle of an old village. Steve went to check if it was open, and came back with his thumbs pointing downwards: he thought it had been locked early, as Holbrook was. I asked him if there was a phone number on the board, so he went again, and came back with the number dialled into his phone, and handed it to me. When I expressed surprise, he said he thought I had a facility with words that he didn’t. I doubted his diagnosis, remembering my horrible experience at Copdock, but took the phone anyway and rang, feeling a little self-conscious about having to speak in front of an audience.
Attempting my friendliest, politest tone, I said hello, told the lady my name (to avoid the question ‘who are you?’ which has baffled me on more than one occasion), and asked if it might be possible to borrow the key, please. My effort was in vain. The reply was, ‘I don’t know who you are. Who’s Yalda? Why would I lend you the key when I don’t know who you are?’ I was rather taken aback, and this response only added to my paranoia that I didn’t, in fact, have any facility whatsoever with words where obtaining church keys was concerned. Keyholders sometimes seem to be an alien breed with which I have no idea how to interact.
But this time, thankfully, the odd exchange turned out to be something of a misunderstanding: the church was in fact always open, and therefore the keyholder didn’t understand why I needed a key. I explained we thought it was locked, and she in turn explained that the door could sometimes be stiff, but it should be open. Steve went back and tried it again, this time returning with thumbs up. With great relief at this outcome, I thanked the keyholder and hung up, recounting to my companions on the way to the church the other half of the very disconcerting conversation I had just had.
Inside, it was only the ceiling that was noticeably different to older churches. The rest was friendly and colourful, helped by the array of kneelers. Joost noticed the hard acoustic created by the concrete, but I couldn’t really tell the difference between the resonance of concrete and that of stone, plaster and wood: any resonance sounded good to me. Joost was by now starting to feel the cold, and accepted my repeated offer of a pair of fingerless mittens. We played the rest of the piece we had started at Holbrook, and, satisfied with our musical conclusion to the day, hurried back to Steve’s house for a warming cup of tea.
Header photo: Septaria at Holbrook church
Total churches to end of January: 268 + 3 chapels