During the week I decided to go to some local churches on my way to Lavenham and Bury St Edmunds. I have begun to find the varying contexts of my church visits and their accompanying states of mind fascinating: I often notice in myself some reluctance to visit local churches that I pass on a regular basis, or at least whose villages I have long been acquainted with. I can only assume this is because they lack the element of adventure: not exciting enough a destination for a day out, they are relegated to errand-running trips, mere cello practice necessity (still, more exciting than practising at home), or other humdrum contexts, with their relative dullness of mind compared to the excitement of the unknown and the prospect of a day’s adventure. However, on most if not all occasions, these local visits have transformed the mundane into something memorable and special, and given me new insight into places on my doorstep that I had never properly appreciated or perhaps even bothered to get to know. This week’s visits were no exception.
St Peter’s, Monks Eleigh
Monks Eleigh is a village about 5 miles from my house which I remembered cycling to on many a bike ride as a child. The last time I went inside Monks Eleigh church was also on a bike ride, in June 2009. The only reason I remember is because a colleague asked me to write about my Suffolk cycling holiday for his cycling blog. This was partly because he was a fan of my vintage Raleigh bicycle (it was my dad’s, and belonged to the daughter of a friend of his before that), which he had featured on his blog the hope of finding out the year it was made. Sadly we did not succeed, but it was nice to finally hear some admiration of my single gear, ancient-looking bicycle, which had until then mostly been an object of amusement or derision.
The cycling blog post was my first ‘creative writing’ effort as an adult, which is probably why I remember it so well, and although it was not very accomplished, it surprised me by being enjoyable. My only previous experiences were obligatory and usually painful school English assignments, of which my enduring memory is a teacher’s despairing comment on my homework when I was 12: ‘you always write about animals’. Admittedly, not too much has changed on that front, except that I have at least now added churches to my list of topics.
Walking up to the church along a small pollard lime avenue, I could tell that the interior would be relatively dark due to the presence of large trees all around. The church is positioned on a hill but is not highly visible except from the north and northeast, for this reason. Nevertheless it was a pleasant church. It was a sticky, humid day, and finally I could feel an increase in the indoor temperature: for the first time on my church visits, my hands weren’t cold when playing the cello. Its acoustic wasn’t as boomy as I expected, perhaps due to its side isles, I thought. But I still wasn’t sure if this affected acoustics in a predictable way, so, finally remembering the possible usefulness of the internet, I looked it up when I got home.
On this occasion, however, I found no enlightenment. I did find an academic article on an experiment to determine whether room shape affects acoustics. The conclusion was that it does, but the results were written up in a series of graphs and explained in such a way that was not comprehensible to a mere mortal who does not understand much about physics.
St Mary’s, Brent Eleigh
I pass Brent Eleigh church at least once a week on my way to Lavenham, and had been looking forward to going back. I had visited it more recently than Monks Eleigh, after finding the church guide in my father’s bookshelves after his death. I knew there were medieval wall paintings inside, but otherwise I remembered little about its interior.
It was a lovely but very dark little church. The windows were small, and the whole of the north side was overshadowed by large trees. To view the wall paintings properly it was necessary to turn on a light provided for this purpose.
As usual, although I appreciated the paintings and knew I was looking at something special and impressive, my emotional attention was engaged more fully by the floor: Brent Eleigh definitely merited inclusion in my new category of ‘floor churches’.
Several walkers came in while I was playing; I stopped to say hello and they asked me to carry on. Some of them sat down to listen: my first official audience so far. As I was practising rather than performing, it felt a little odd; however, before they left, they told me it was the nicest accompaniment to a church visit they had ever had.
St George’s, Bradfield St George
The following day I went to find Bradfield St George church on my way to Bury St Edmunds. I had never stopped there before as the church is not visible from the road that it is accessed by: it can only be seen from half a mile or more further along the road to Bury, approaching from the opposite direction.
At the end of a fairly long driveway, the church was hidden behind an avenue of tall, unpollarded limes. There was a musty smell as I entered the church; but a nice must, not that of long neglect and damp, just the comforting smell of old buildings. The church was friendly-feeling, light, clean and spacious, with almost no stained glass. I was touched beyond reason at finding a plastic box filled with mugs, biscuits, tea and coffee, with a note saying ‘please help yourself’, and instructions on where to find the water tap in the churchyard. There was something about the thoughtfulness and generosity in this gesture towards strangers that embodied for me the very best qualities of the human race, and brings me almost to tears every time I remember it. Such gestures, which always restore my faith in people, are more often found in the context of a direct interaction between welcomer and stranger. But in this case, the extender of the welcome was absent; the one being welcomed, abstract; but nevertheless the feeling of welcome and embrace was as warm as one could wish for.
Feeling weary from spending the morning on garden work and leaving home in a hurry, I couldn’t have been more grateful for the opportunity to accompany my cello practice with a restorative hot drink. I tried the coffee first, but unfortunately the sachets were no longer usable, so I decided to bring some from home to add to the box the next time I was passing, as a little contribution of my own to the welcoming of future strangers. After I finished my practice, I put some money in the donation box, wrote a message in the visitors’ book expressing my gratitude, and left the church with a spring in my step.