St Margaret’s, Cowlinge
On a cold and drizzly bank holiday Monday, I set off westwards cross-country to Cowlinge church, near the border with Cambridgeshire. But this was a special, somewhat surreal journey: beside me was not my cello, which had been relegated to the back seat, but Carolina, a Belizean friend whom I had known for 20 years, since she was 8, but she had never been to England before. I had been dreaming of having her to visit almost since I first knew her. Her older sister, Gloria, had been over twice, but circumstances had prevented Carolina from coming. I stayed with her family – four girls and three boys – for two months while helping at her village primary school on my gap year. I got to know the girls best as the boys were already teenagers doing their own thing. Their house had no electricity or running water and we used to walk down to the river every day after school.
Times have changed of course. Belize went straight from no telephones to the latest technology of mobile phones. Carolina and her family almost certainly acquired smart phones before I did. I’m glad that now it’s much easier and cheaper to keep in touch with friends from around the world: Whatsapp is the latest welcome development in our regular communications.
Her visit to England came about through her work as a nanny for an American family. They were visiting London for two weeks, and she got 24 hours off each week, in which she braved the London Underground and national rail to come and visit me in Suffolk. I had a concert in the afternoon, but she’d always wanted to hear me play the cello. So it was that we were in a car together travelling to Cowlinge. It seemed so odd to be visiting the wilds of west Suffolk, and a village I’d never even been to, with someone who’d never been to England before. I shouldn’t think that many people end up in a remote village church on their first trip across the Atlantic, unless they are Americans searching for the graves of ancestors… I couldn’t imagine how it must seem to her.
I knew nothing about Cowlinge – not even how its name was pronounced. When I did find out, I felt silly saying it correctly, and still do: Coolinje. Though the weather left something to be desired for someone used to a hot climate, I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier place to take Carolina on her first visit to Suffolk: we found a remote and beautiful little church full of welcoming people and historical treasures. Teddy bears on the font base added to the church’s friendly feel. Another nice, and fitting, detail was one Carolina noticed before me: the church was called St Margaret’s, which was also the name of the village in Belize where she grew up, and where we met.
First I had to concentrate on music, however. The acoustic was lovely and it was no hardship giving a concert there: I enjoyed every minute, though the feeling of surreality stayed with me all afternoon. ‘Are you Yalda’s daughter?’ someone asked Carolina after the concert. We both laughed: we had always been mistaken for sisters in Belize. Perhaps this time someone had picked up on the differences as well as similarities between our features and, particularly, hair. It made me laugh also because this was the first time someone had imagined I had a grown-up daughter (though she could pass for a teenager) rather than that I was a music student recently out of school.
The opportunity to examine Cowlinge’s treasures had finally arrived, and I was astounded by the quantity of graffiti in the church: boats, symbols, initials, names, and even whole lines of writing. I thought they must say something profound, simply because of the beauty of the script. According to one source there is some religious verse amongst the engravings, but I seem to remember signs indicating that most of the rest was surprisingly, perhaps disappointingly, mundane.
The rood and parclose screens and doom painting were the other remarkable features of Cowlinge church. There seemed to be so many wonderful churches in this area of Suffolk that I was losing track. Apparently this is because it was a poor agricultural area where there was no money around for extensive restoration in the Victorian era. Thank God for that.
After a tour around the churchyard, we packed up and left for home. Duties over, I was excited to spend a relaxed evening at home with my Belizean sister, introducing her properly to her numerous feathery and furry nieces and nephews.
St Edmund’s, Southwold
A few days later, it was my mum’s 80th birthday – or would have been – and Nick had a great idea: to have fish and chips at Southwold harbour: supposedly the best in Suffolk. I had mentioned a week or two before my mother’s strange delight in fish and chips – strange, because she was Iranian, and normally she was quite averse to bland, greasy English food. I had completely forgotten about this conversation, but Nick apparently had not.
I had heard a lot about Southwold church, and decided we should make the most of our fish and chip visit. It was my first ‘chosen’ town church visit – not for a concert, or by accident because it was the nearest open church. In fact, I think it was my first visit to Southwold too.
It was a perfect choice for my first town church. Every part of it seemed special and unique. Wherever I looked there was something for my eyes to dwell on: the door, floor, font, roof, rood screen, parclose screens, bench ends, misericords, graffiti, a dragon above a doorway… and, standing back from these marvellous details, the overall effect was one of uplifting and light-filled majesty, despite the heavy clouds that were regularly releasing their loads of water over its roof. I didn’t check for medieval glass, but we were told by a volunteer that the reason for the clear glass was a World War Two bomb that shattered the windows. Prior to that, they contained Victorian glass only. Perhaps this is one of the few positive effects a bomb can have: clear-windowed churches are a delight.
The final majestic dimension of Southwold church was one I wouldn’t have been properly able to appreciate without my cello: its acoustic. I was amazed. I usually find large churches difficult to play in: Lavenham, Long Melford, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, to name just a few. This was a completely different experience, and I practised for an hour, despite visitors coming and going. It brought into focus the difference in my attitude and confidence since visiting Blythburgh church almost exactly two years earlier, only a month after starting my church tour.
Then, I was worried about playing when people came into the church, and only managed 5 minutes between visitors’ comings and goings before giving up. Now, I continue playing unless someone comes to speak to me, or if I feel I am disturbing in any way – although I’ve played alone in few churches, perhaps none, with so many visitors as Blythburgh or Southwold. I’m sure having someone there with me increased my confidence to continue playing, but there have also been enough occasions now when people have told me how special it is to walk into a church and hear unexpected cello music, that I feel it is more likely I am adding to their experience rather than detracting from it. I might change which piece I am playing in order to ensure it classifies as ‘music’ rather than cello practice, but otherwise I don’t feel the awkwardness I used to.
Our fish and chips worked out perfectly. We arrived just in time: the shop was soon to close, which meant we couldn’t eat indoors in the restaurant. Preparing ourselves to take shelter in the car instead, for an even more English experience, the rain stopped just as our food was presented to us ten minutes later. We wiped down the picnic table and benches outside, sat on a plastic bag each, and enjoyed our meal. There was hardly anyone around, and even the seagulls didn’t bother us.
Just as we drove away, the rain started again.
I was glad, then, that I practised so long at Southwold: to my frustration, we had no luck contacting a keyholder at either Wrentham or Frostenden, and it was not the weather for a cross-country walk to Sotterley, much as I was looking forward to visiting that remote church. Instead, we stopped at Blythburgh church on our way home to pay our respects to another magnificent building.
Header photo: Graffiti in Cowlinge church