St Peter’s, Monk Soham
On the first Saturday in March I was due in Covehithe church for an evening concert. For this trip I had a travelling companion – Maureen from Monks Eleigh – whom I had warned in advance that I was planning to visit another church on my way there. Covehithe was nearly as far away from my house as it was possible to get without leaving the county, and I wanted to take advantage of the journey. She wasn’t put off, so we set off together in the middle of the afternoon.
I chose Monk Soham, which was more or less on the route northeast-wards, and more or less half way to Covehithe. We got to within sight of the church with little difficulty, but the next part was harder: there had been a sign to the church at an earlier junction, but since then nothing to direct us. We had nearly completed a full loop at a field’s distance away before we found a farm track which seemed to be the only way to get closer. We took it, hoping we weren’t trespassing.
Soon we arrived at the churchyard gate, where another car was parked. I walked round the church to the south porch to see if it was open while Maureen waited at the car. The presence of a couple in the churchyard gave me hope, but they were in fact tending a grave. It was even more of a relief than usual to find the church door unlocked, as – not for the first time – my timing calculations left something to be desired. I had promised Maureen a stop at Blythburgh church as well: by some inconceivable omission she had lived in Suffolk for more than 40 years without visiting that iconic church, and it almost felt like my moral duty to introduce her to it.
On my way back to the car I admired the narcissi, primroses, and what would have been a carpet of snowdrops a couple of weeks earlier. My own snowdrops at home were still going strong.
Monk Soham was quite large for an aisle-less church. I liked it. Small aisle-less churches are the best, as far as I am concerned, but larger churches in the shape of small ones aren’t bad either. I think it is something to do with forms and symmetry, as well as the usually superior acoustics.
I was getting better at identifying seven sacraments fonts, and saw immediately that Monk Soham’s was such a one: defaced, as most of them are, but still impressive.
I practised a sonata by Francoeur which I was due to play that evening. It was the only piece I slightly regretted choosing: although I have played it many times now, it is so difficult that it is never a question of reviving it a few days before each concert, as is the case with most other pieces that I know well. It requires a type of thumb-fitness that has to be maintained. I appreciate keeping this fitness – which is partly why I continued to play the piece – but I was steadily losing the motivation to keep practising this particularly painful version of thumb position1, required in no other piece of cello music I have lately come across or am ever likely to perform. Therefore I felt less and less, instead of more and more, comfortable performing it. I do owe it some gratitude, however: other pieces involving a much more straightforward use of this technique definitely feel easier and less awkward thanks to the hours I have put in on this sonata.
I didn’t practise long, and still I barely managed to keep my promise to Maureen: I stopped in Blythburgh church car park and stayed in the car while she dashed into the church to take a look. I had to work out the route to Covehithe avoiding the various road closures I’d been warned about. Maureen reappeared five minutes later, and we left. I felt bad for the rush – not just for Maureen but also out of respect for the church – but hoped at least this would provide her with the motivation to come back another time for a more thorough and leisurely visit.
St Andrew’s, Covehithe
Covehithe was as beautiful as I had imagined: its tower and ruined body were on the scale of Blythburgh, and a little church was built against the tower, within the ruins.
I had mistakenly thought the intact church building was ‘new’, and had planned instead to play outside in the medieval ruins in the summer months (which I still intend to do). I was surprised to find that it was in fact a delightful little 17th century building of perfect size and acoustic for a solo cello concert. It looked in proportion only because of the church’s outer shell: the actual size of the roofed building was miniscule in comparison to the giant tower it was attached to. Interestingly, the tower is older than the ruins, which are contemporary with Blythburgh church. The roof was taken off in 16722 and the new building started in the same year, because the small parish couldn’t afford to maintain such a grand church.
The organiser’s January panic that the church couldn’t be heated sufficiently was unfounded: I was so warm I had to take off my woollen jacket, bought especially for cold church concerts. He, David, told me the heating had been on since that morning. That was better than my house, I told him: to get it to this temperature I would have to turn on the heating two days before. We were lucky with the weather, however: a repeat of last year’s early March snow would have meant cancelling the concert.
During our rehearsal, James was puzzled by the two plaques on the wall, each one stating the name of a churchwarden, then the phrase ‘put it out 1672’. He enquired of David what this meant, and was told these two churchwardens were responsible for the arranging the building of the new nave and chancel. James wondered therefore why the plaques didn’t say ‘put it up’. I have now discovered that ‘put it out’ means they put the building work out to contractors. An odd phrase for odd memorials.
It was the first time I’d played in public since Mandy’s funeral, and it was a huge relief not to be nervous, even though I felt lethargic until the last moment and wondered how I would summon up the energy to give a decent concert. But, as always – and thankfully I have had enough experience of this now to be able to (almost) fully trust that it will happen – the energy appeared at the crucial moment, and I enjoyed the evening thoroughly despite my slight displeasure with the first piece, the Francoeur sonata. That would go back in the cupboard for a long time, I decided before I had even finished playing it, and retrieved the piano part from James at the end of the concert.
I was sorry not to have planned an earlier arrival for some daylight exploration. I couldn’t even see how far from the sea the church was. My friend Nick, who knew the area quite well, told me the lane carried on past the church and then just stopped: it had fallen into the sea, as the church would in not too many decades. I went back with him three weeks later for a walk on the beach, but by then, somehow, I had entirely forgotten that I hadn’t explored the ruins or taken any photos of the interior of the church. From a photographic point of view, it wouldn’t have made any difference: I had forgotten my camera, and my phone was malfunctioning. I managed only a couple of photos of the exterior before it steadfastly refused to cooperate. But there is no danger of my failing to pay this extraordinary place another visit or ten. Before leaving after the concert, I told David of my plan to come back and play in the ruins. A musical picnic perhaps…
I always seem to forget something when I take Maureen to a concert; last time it was my bag with phone and wallet, and this time it was my bottle of water. I thought there would be no problem acquiring some later in the day, but it didn’t occur to me to look out for a shop, and, unusually, there was nothing at all on offer at the church. I should have asked, but I didn’t. By the time the concert was over I was desperate for a drink. Inspiration struck and, feeling cheeky but entirely confident of a positive response to my request, I begged a cup of tea from Nick, who had come to the concert: his house was on my way home, which would also break up the journey a little.
He made us both very welcome, and the evening was rounded off perfectly with a chat and a cup of tea at his kitchen table.
Header photo: Covehithe church
1. Using the side of the left thumb as an extra finger to stop the string, which is usually required in higher registers, or where the distance between two notes played together is too great to reach only with the fingers.