St Mary’s, Stratford St Mary
After a weekend of rehearsing a challenging cello duet programme, I managed to persuade my sister, Sheida, into a brief stop off on her way home, to play in a church with Steve and me. The plan was to meet at East Bergholt, but although I had made sure it was open and there were no services that afternoon, it hadn’t occurred to me to check for events. On arrival, I saw a banner outside the churchyard advertising a concert that day, but it didn’t say at what time. Then I found a message from Steve on my phone saying there was a rehearsal already underway for a concert at 4pm.
I was annoyed with myself for the oversight, but at least there was another church close by: Stratford St Mary. Reaching it involved a one-junction run on the A12; and there it was, only a few seconds from the turn-off. Its tower is a Suffolk border landmark, a welcome sight from the main road. But this proximity benefits only the A12, not the church. Still, the fields behind the churchyard and a farm shop and café next door made its location feel more pleasantly rural than it might otherwise have done.
I had been to the church once before, but I didn’t remember anything about it except for its location. It was more or less as I anticipated: a large church restored fairly comprehensively by the Victorians. But I left exploring until afterwards, not wanting to delay my sister longer than necessary. First we played through two cello duets we hadn’t got round to that morning. They needed more work, but we had another week to practice – individually at least. Then we all played some strange but entertaining bassoon trios with Steve. Despite complaints about the cold, I suppose Sheida must have been enjoying herself, as she didn’t leave until a good half hour later than she intended.
Steve and I played a few duets before packing up and taking a walk around the church and the freezing and windy churchyard. We found an odd spiral conifer, and admired the church exterior: I think it may be the first I’ve seen composed almost entirely of flint flushwork – cut flint of semi-regular shape and colour. Although I prefer more rustic finishes, the effect was undoubtedly impressive. We also pondered the mysterious symbols on the northeast buttress. I have now read that they were monograms: EA for Edward and Alice (Mors), and AMR for the Blessed Virgin. In between was the Mors family merchant mark1.
Eventually forced to take shelter, we hurried inside to retrieve our equipment, and then I followed Steve back to his house through the Essex countryside. I would have got very lost if I had been driving on my own, but I enjoyed my winding tour through Dedham and Lawford. We took Floss, Steve’s dog, for a walk on the ‘beach’: the shore of the Stour estuary. It was isolated and beautiful. It wasn’t accessible by road, Steve told me, so it was always deserted, and they used to have summer barbecues on the beach, carrying just a grill and making a fire pit with stones. I experienced a moment of longing for the warmer months…
St Mary’s, East Bergholt
I arranged to meet Steve at East Bergholt on my way back from the London and Surrey duet concerts a week later, but in the end he had too much work and couldn’t come. I hadn’t made a contingency plan, and had only brought duet music with me. I still had plenty of work to do on the pieces my sister and I had just performed (and would play again in a month or two), but it was the last thing I felt like doing after intensive practice and rehearsals followed by two concerts. I am also quite sure it would have been unhelpful to attempt it so soon: knowing when to take a break is just as important as practice in the preparation of difficult pieces. One’s brain and fingers need time to internalise the training you have drilled into them. I don’t understand how it works, but there seems to come a point at which leaving a piece alone for a day or two (preferably longer, if you have time) is more beneficial to progress than plugging away at it. Recently I have come to think of this as something akin to leaving bread dough to prove.
In fact, I soon realised, it wasn’t just those pieces I didn’t feel like playing: I didn’t want to play the cello at all. But I always like visiting East Bergholt, and the church is special: the tower is ruined, and it never ceases to astound me that the ‘temporary’ bell cage, at ground level in the churchyard, has stood for more than 500 years. Our ‘permanent’ structures these days will probably have fallen down well before that period of time has elapsed.
I spent a short time playing some music from memory, feeling stiff and lethargic, before packing up and looking around instead. I am sure I will go back for a more fulfilling musical experience of the church another time.
My tour around the church and churchyard, followed by a visit to the village shop for groceries, were more uplifting. I was pleased to be back in the countryside. It was a long time since I’d driven into London, and although it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared, I hoped not to repeat the experience any time soon.
My friend Mark arrived at my house shortly after I did, to continue work on the problematic courtyard drain which he’d kindly agreed to tackle, despite drains not being part of his usual job description. We both sat down at the kitchen table for a cup of tea. I laid my head on the table and breathed a sigh of relief.
‘It’s good to be home’ I said.
‘Yes…’ Mark replied. ‘The chicken-to-person ratio isn’t great over in That Lundun, is it.’
I laughed. Yes. That was precisely the problem.
Header photo: Chancel wall painting, Stratford St Mary