All Saints’, Acton
Indoor temperature: 11.1˚C, humidity: 62%
I had arranged in advance to visit Acton church after going to try out a newly restored cello in Great Waldingfield, having agreed to give a concert on it. Christopher, the keyholder, said he’d leave the church open for me and would return after his meeting to give me a tour of the church.
I had tried to visit Acton church early in my tour, when I didn’t know it was kept locked. I hadn’t tried to visit again until now, nearly two years later. The warmth with which my request was received on this occasion immediately banished from my mind any lingering reservations caused by its state of lockedness. This warmth continued on my arrival, despite the church being empty: I found a chair set out for me in front of the chancel, with a welcome note on it. It made me smile.
I had arrived late, and Christoper arrived early, so I had barely begun to play when he came in, but he assured me he didn’t mind waiting. The acoustic surprised me: with two aisles and a fairly square shape, I wasn’t expecting anything special. But it was – as special as the treasures I was shown proudly afterwards by Christopher. The oldest brass in Suffolk, apparently, of Robert de Bures, who died in 1331, was in near perfect condition in the north aisle chapel, and around it were several other brasses. Next, the remains of the medieval font that had been found in the rectory garden rockery and put back in the south aisle, in front of the memorial chapel of the Jennans family. I was fascinated to learn that the Jennans story formed the basis of the court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens’ Bleak House – a dispute over inheritance that went on for the best part of a century until the large fortune was absorbed in costs. I had always assumed that particular horror story was a warped invention of Dickens’.
I found faces on the roof, and Christopher showed me Green Men. He explained that the loose wooden bricks on the floor of the church had been laid in Victorian times so that farm labourers with hobnailed boots wouldn’t make so much noise when they came into the church. I also enjoyed the story that there was still money in the Kerington fund (photo below) – a legacy left in 1691 to provide all the widows of Acton with bread every Sunday and a new pair of shoes every year – and whenever enough interest was accrued, the widows of the parish were taken out to lunch.
After a tour of the churchyard, I thanked Christopher profusely for his time and generosity, and made my way home, feeling that my visit to Acton church was certainly worthy of honorary 300th church status.
St Nicholas’, Bedfield
On my way to Blythburgh for a concert – a much anticipated feature of my calendar, excited as I was to have the opportunity of playing there in an official capacity – I broke the journey with a church visit. I intended to go to Tannington, but, spontaneously following signposts instead of my satnav, judging them perhaps the more reliable, I ended up taking a detour to Bedfield.
Apart from possibly losing a few minutes of practice time, it was no hardship visiting Bedfield instead: it was small and out of the way, both qualities that endeared it to me immediately. But it also possessed many beautiful and interesting details: an original rood screen – though with faces sadly attacked by a knife – a Norman doorway, and the possibility of a medieval wall painting yet to be fully discovered. The most charming scrolled bench ends, apparently dating from the late 17th century, were probably my favourite so far, but perhaps I am biased in favour of wood carvings that resemble cello scrolls…
My left hand fingers gave me a few minutes of alarm by going rapidly numb when I started playing, for no discernible reason: I wasn’t wearing too many thick fleeces liable to cut off circulation, as had happened once before. It wasn’t just a sensation: my fingertips had gone white. It took a good few minutes of finger rubbing, arm shaking, and other hand and arm contortions to finally restore the blood to my fingers, when I was able to practise again with a sigh of relief.
Apart from this disconcerting experience, I thoroughly enjoyed Bedfield church, and three weeks’ gap in my church visits made me appreciate it all the more. It was an unintended break, and probably the longest since the start of my tour, but every activity benefits from a pause from time to time; and, as I constantly remind myself, I shouldn’t be in a rush to ‘get through’ all Suffolk’s churches, as the elation of finishing will be quickly followed by disappointment that the project is over.
The evening’s concert in Blythburgh church was special, not only because of its unsurpassed setting, but also due to the addition of a four-part sheep chorus coming from a neighbouring field that continued after the music stopped, and a church cat who did his best to distract both performers and audience by wandering about and demanding strokes.
St Mary’s, Kettlebaston
On the afternoon following the Blythburgh concert there was a repeat concert at Kettlebaston church, near my home. It was fitting that we should give a concert there, since Gordon, who’d arranged the Bristol Chamber Choir tour to Suffolk this weekend, used to live there and run an annual music festival over the August bank holiday weekend. This was how I met him when I was 14, and I had played there many times since, with my sister and, later, alone. They were some of my earliest concerts in Suffolk churches. But I hadn’t been back there since the beginning of my church tour, and I hadn’t played there for at least five years, both of which facts seemed odd, given how much time I have spent playing in churches recently.
The biggest change was apparent from the road: a delightfully ramshackle corner of land adjacent to the church path which had been left as an overgrown orchard had been sold off for development, cleared of trees and scrub, enclosed in plastic sheets – something to do with great crested newts, apparently – and was awaiting its fate. It meant that for the first time in decades, or much longer perhaps, the church was clearly visible from the road. I spent a minute or two ambivalently admiring the church from this new perspective; but the price of this view was too high, and my dismay at its cause was great. I mourned the old Victoria plum tree and its overgrown home.
Nothing inside the churchyard gate had changed, however. But when I entered the church, it was almost as though for the first time: I knew I would see it in a different light now, and notice things I’d never noticed before. There were also things I’d forgotten: there were chairs in place of pews, and I asked if they’d been replaced recently. No, was the answer, the pews went many years ago. I also saw as if for the first time the Norman font and blocked Norman window. The only thing I remembered vaguely was the brightly painted rood screen. There was no lapse in my memory of the acoustic, however, but I was surprised how much it deadened once the church was filled with people.
It was a lovely occasion, a reunion of musicians and audience members. We enjoyed tea and cake in the village hall afterwards, and it seemed fitting that a few days later I was contacted by Gordon to enquire about my availability for a Kettlebaston ‘mini-festival’ in August: a true reunion.
I was glad, in the end, to have forgotten to take photos after the concert: it prompted a return visit almost two months later. Kettlebaston is a church that I remember predominantly from concerts, rather than solo visits or bike rides. Not only were these concerts years before I began my church tour, but, of course, I am least observant of my surroundings when I am there to play the cello, in a full church. Even though on the last occasion my eyes were open, I was still there for a concert, not to look around. This time, however, I fully absorbed the church and its atmosphere. It was spacious, though small, and felt ancient. I noticed for the first time medieval floor tiles near the font. The font itself is one of my favourites in all of Suffolk: late Norman, and simply and beautifully decorated.
I had been puzzled by Simon Knott’s statement, ‘it is likely that anyone who knows the churches of Suffolk well will have Kettlebaston among their favourites’1. I liked it very much, but it had never struck me as anything out of the ordinary, as far as Suffolk village churches go. My return visit alone on a breezy, warm early summer day made me properly appreciate its beauty for the first time. It is indeed a wonderful church.
Header photo: Pyramidal orchids in June in Kettlebaston churchyard
Total churches to the end of April: 303 + 3 chapels