The following morning was perfect and un-forecast. It was a day for walking in the marshes, and I set off for Blythburgh. Without any thought beforehand as to whether I would go inside the church – I had visited on a few previous occasions, the last accompanied by my cello – I found when I arrived that I had to. It is impossible to walk past such a building.
It was no less bright than on the May afternoon of my last visit. I sat down on the step of the font and absorbed my surroundings. This might be the only building I know that the same effect on me as a beautiful outdoor landscape. If any church could make me believe in God, I thought, this was it.
Afterwards I went looking for the footpath across the marshes. Not realising there was more than one, I initially took the wrong one, causing me a half-hour detour and sending my plan of a circular walk to pot. When I found the correct path, it said ‘no through route: parts of the river wall have been washed away’. But I took the path anyway, and found it had been repaired in places. My boots gradually got heavier as they accumulated marsh mud, but I kept walking. I was happy meandering about in the marshes as the river did.
I passed two swans on the river, preening and splashing. Skylarks were singing: the first I’d heard this year. The sun was strong, the air mild, and after a short time I had to take off my jacket. I heard my favourite of all coastal sounds: the curlew.
A short time later a rasping noise began. Having initially taken it for granted as a common background noise, I suddenly became aware of it and struggled to identify the sound. When I finally did, I laughed at myself. Pheasants. So little did I expect to hear this sound, standing in the middle of the marshes, that my ears had become disorientated.
I stopped and turned around. Blythburgh church, the ‘Cathedral of the Marshes’, was in front of me, on the edge of dry land. In the other direction were miles of reed beds, mud flats and water. I listened to the birds, felt the sun on my face, and thought how the bad press February gets is not always justified.
Returning to my car, I saw my first crocuses of the year growing at the bottom of the churchyard steps.
St Margaret’s, Reydon
Outdoor temperature: 10.9˚C; indoor temperature: 8.2˚C, humidity: 78%
Feeling buoyant after my walk, I set off for Reydon, near Southwold. I was expecting a suburban church, but I found it out in the countryside. Two ladies entered the church as I was getting out of the car, but once I got inside, no one was to be seen or heard anywhere. It did occur to me momentarily that there might be a room on the far side of the north door; but still, the lack of any sound coming from that direction seemed odd.
I quickly forgot about the possible presence of other people and set up to play: the interior was beautiful and light, and its multi-coloured pamment floor was a treat: going straight from Blythburgh’s work of art to a Victorian tiled floor would have been a strain.
The mystery was soon solved: another lady entered the church, and explained there was a meeting beyond the north door. I asked if I’d be disturbing, and she reassured me that I wouldn’t. Still, I changed the music I was playing to Bach: in case they could hear me, I didn’t want to torture them with out-of-tune double stops (playing two notes at once) in the piece I had been practising.
When I stopped playing to look around the church, a gentleman who had gone through the same north door returned to the nave, and told me he had been looking for papers for the architect who was preparing the quinquennial report for the church: a document written every five years and intended to assist in the care of the church building. He was now waiting for him to arrive for a meeting. We chatted while I wandered around taking photographs. A floor memorial caught my attention: someone’s age had been recorded as ‘about 56 years’. This was the first time I’d seen such an approximation, but it made me think. Perhaps it was quite common in the 17th century for people’s birthdays not to be recorded or remembered; but the people most likely to be memorialised in a church would be the gentry, and I would have thought it far less likely that their birthdays would be forgotten…
I walked around the outside of the church, and soon saw why no sound had reached the church from the meeting room on the north side of the church: there was not just one room, but a large extension over two floors, with several rooms located off a glass-walled corridor.
I went back inside to retrieve my cello, and said goodbye to the gentleman and the architect.
The drive to South Cove was unique: the road was flanked by reeds above the height of my car. I had no idea what to expect at South Cove church, and for some reason I thought it might be locked. But I was worrying unnecessarily: I found a beautiful thatched church beside the main road from Southwold to Wrentham, with a Norman doorway, brick floor and coffin lids set into the church floor around the font.
At the bottom of the rood stairs was a wooden door with a painting on it. According to Simon Knott, it is not clear where this panel came from, and he doesn’t think it was originally a door. To me, however, it looked decidedly like a door, with the door handle location visible, and the painting placed very precisely within the framing of the doorway. The description on the listed buildings website is: ‘C15 painting of St. Michael on boarded door to rood loft stairs: if original this door is a rare survival’. No definitive diagnosis then, but beautiful nonetheless.
After a respectable dose of practice on the piece I’d abandoned at Reydon, I decided to move on to Frostenden church. I was glad I’d taken advantage of the beautiful morning for a walk, as the clouds had descended and it had become a dreary, though still mild, afternoon.
St Margaret’s, Stoven
Indoor temperature: 7˚C, humidity: 79%
To my surprise and disappointment, after finding Frostenden church in an enticing location up a track, I found it locked. I could have rung for the key but, seeing it was open on Saturday mornings, decided I would come back another time and continue to Stoven church instead. I’d looked it up that morning and was fairly sure I would find it open.
I found a couple outside the door holding a folder, and asked them if they’d come to lock up. They misheard me, and thought that I’d come to lock up. Once the mistake was cleared up, we chatted for a few minutes and I went back to the car to get my cello. Just before they left I remembered to ask how to pronounce the name Stoven: they seemed to know the church and I thought they were local enough to be likely to be familiar with the village name. My gut instinct was that it was ‘Stuven’, rather than ‘Stove-n’ or ‘Stov-n’ but I had been wrong many times before. On this occasion, to my satisfaction, I had guessed correctly.
I went inside to an odd and not entirely pleasant smell. I think it is the first church I’ve not liked the smell of, and definitely the first church font of which I have taken a photo for its ugliness rather than beauty. The church was cold, dark and austere, and possessed an uncomfortable atmosphere. Probably it would have been significantly less disturbing if I had visited on a hot summer’s day.
Prior to my visit I had read Simon Knott’s entry for the Stoven, in which he invents a science fiction plot involving aliens trying to take over the planet and building Norman-style churches as a cover for their activities1. I found his story – not to mention his imagination – bizarre and I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. Now I was at the church, however, it became all too clear. Here was a Victorian imitation of a Norman church so exaggerated that it had become a parody.
I couldn’t find a chair anywhere, so the only place to play was on a wobbly pew near the door. I could have fetched the fold-up chair from the boot of my car, but I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, tired as I was, and disliking my surroundings. The church’s only redeeming features were the fact it was open, its acoustic, and a couple of genuine historic features: one real Norman doorway and crumbling render on the south wall, revealing brickwork that was indicative of an older building.
I played the Bach D minor prelude a couple of times, thinking that the acoustic reminded me of the concrete church at Chelmondiston. Was Stoven church made of concrete? It certainly looked like it, but I thought stone was more probable.
I headed back to my accommodation in Westleton with no small sense of relief, glad to be out of that strange building and to get back into a warm and welcoming room with a cup of tea.
Header photo: Reydon church floor detail