Instead of going in search of sunshine this February, I decided in favour of a four-night church-visiting and writing break. I am having no trouble tolerating winter this year; in fact, I am thoroughly enjoying it, so there is no need to escape. I wasn’t really in need of an escape from home, either, but I have learnt to recognise the benefits of a prophylactic holiday: life tends to get very busy from March onwards, with few convenient opportunities after that to take a break until the autumn. For me, now, holidays usually just mean a change of scene and making the time for the important activities that tend to get squeezed when I am busy: church visiting, cello practice, thinking, writing, walking and seeing friends further from home.
I left home at 2pm: later than I intended. It was such a glorious day that, aside from my usual slowness in getting myself and the animals ready, I had to go for a walk before getting into the car. It was a cold, frosty day but the sunshine was warm and bright. I examined my church map and decided to try a couple of churches near the A143 east of Diss: just off my route to Metfield, where I was staying the first night. I couldn’t remember if this was an area with mostly locked churches or mostly open ones, but there were a number of churches along this stretch that I hadn’t yet visited, so I wouldn’t run out of choices.
St Nicholas, Oakley
Outdoor temperature: 4˚C; indoor temperature: 7.4˚C, humidity: 69%
I took a right turn up the hill from Oakley village, and followed the lane for half a mile or so until I reached a ‘church open’ sign beside the road. I was delighted to be able to walk straight up to the church with my cello and no uncertainty as to the outcome of my attempt to turn the door handle.
The church was lovely, and so was the acoustic. I warmed up fairly quickly with the help of the sun streaming in through the clear windows. It was my first time alone in a church with my cello since my friend Mandy’s death, and it felt like the only medium suited to expressing the emotions I was feeling.
Nick, Mandy’s husband, had asked me to play the Prelude from the Bach D minor suite at Mandy’s funeral, and it seemed fitting: Nick chose it for different reasons, but it was the last piece I played to Mandy, and she told me it was her favourite suite. At first I worried it might be too sombre, but as soon as I played it I realised it was perfect. I wanted to play it perfectly, too.
I was determined to play from memory, which I never do, even when I know the piece inside out. I don’t do it because I want the security of knowing the music is there, so I can concentrate on the expression of it instead of worrying that I might forget the notes. Sometimes I also find the visual aid helps me to shape phrases better. On this occasion, however, I wanted there to be no physical barrier between the cello – the speaker of music and emotion – and the people listening. And I knew, after playing through it a couple of times, that there wasn’t the slightest danger of my forgetting the notes: it was in my blood.
After playing some other pieces I stopped to admire the pretty image niches, rood stairs and porch, which apparently used to have a first floor. It wasn’t until I was walking back toward the car that I fully appreciated the church’s surroundings: I could hear traffic very faintly from the two main roads nearby, but it wasn’t loud enough to detract from the sense that there was no habitation for miles around. Oakley village wasn’t far away in the valley, but the houses were invisible from the church’s hilltop location. I turned around 360 degrees, seeing nothing but fields and trees, and absorbing the peace.
St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Hoxne
I only discovered a few days ago that Hoxne is pronounced ‘Hoxen’; and I had forgotten that it was one of the (many, no doubt) supposed sites of the martyrdom of King Edmund. But I was thinking about neither name nor history as I entered the churchyard: I was concentrating on the unusual trees in front of me, the first of which I recognised – perhaps by its smooth, grey bark – as a weeping ash well before I saw the few keys hanging from its branches. The second was an extremely tall wellingtonia, or giant redwood. I am not very good at estimating tree heights, but I would guess it was at least 30 metres tall, perhaps much more. In any case it was a very unusual sight for any churchyard. The ash tree had remarkable twisted branches coming from what might have been a pollarded trunk.
The church was big, and the tower tall. The interior felt narrow and long inside, and its stained glass and the descent towards dusk made it feel very dark, despite the large windows. I couldn’t locate any lights for the nave, only the chancel, but these sufficiently brightened the church for me be able to see both my music and to admire the paintings high up on the north nave wall.
It was a church not really to my taste – in shape, brightness or size – but I stayed longer than I intended nevertheless, because of the seductive acoustic. I played the Bach D minor Prelude over and over, trying to put all of my emotions and love into it, as though it was a supplication – or even magic spell – through which transcendence and acceptance of death would be granted to me if I could get it just right; and would be granted to everyone listening at the funeral, if only I could do the same there in much more difficult circumstances.
I was already wearing the fingerless mittens Mandy knitted for me, and it occurred to me to ask Nick if I might borrow her spikeholder for the funeral: it was made by her son Stephen in his early teenage years, and painted in bright colours. It almost seemed a crucial ingredient that the cello, which I was attempting to coax into delivering the spell to perfection, should be supported top and bottom by personally cherished items of Mandy’s. Playing without the music, I realised, had taken on a similar significance.
I felt emotionally drained by the time I stopped playing. I packed up in the half-light and walked back down the north aisle, where I noticed a village museum display. A tile made by Albert Bridges of Hoxne in 1765, and bearing his name, caught my eye. I didn’t stay long to look at the rest of the display, tiredness and darkness making me hurry towards the prospect of a cosy evening in Metfield.
Header photo: Mandy’s spikeholder