St Edmund’s, Hargrave
Due in Gazeley church for a concert the next evening, I decided to visit one of the churches in the area to practise beforehand. My intention was Denham, as I had checked it was likely to be open. But somewhere along the way the names got muddled in my head, and I thought I was looking for Depden. I only realised my mistake once I arrived in Chedburgh, where I decided to stop, on the offchance, not really expecting to find it open. It wasn’t, and since I was now so close to Depden, it seemed silly to turn around without trying that too. Soon I found myself at the end of a narrow driveway with a list of keyholders, which provided enough evidence that Depden, too, would be locked. Frustrated, and realising now that Hargrave was now closer than my original destination, I set off for that village instead, thinking the likelihood of my getting into any church now was slim.
Nearly an hour after leaving home, ready to give up if Hargrave was locked, I drove up a grassy driveway with a sign stating, ‘no cars: please park on the grass’. My disobedience was due as much to the fact I couldn’t determine on which patch of grass I was supposed to park, and had run out of patience, as to the diminishing number minutes I had left in which to practise the cello.
To my great relief, I found the door unlocked. It was a lovely little church: quite Victorian, but with a proper atmosphere of a small village church. I decided immediately that I wouldn’t take any photos today: I knew I would feel better if I used all my time on practice.
I sat in the chancel to play. It was cold, but I knew I would warm up soon enough. Practice went well: I got through more music in an hour than I thought possible – all of the pieces for the concert, and some new solo cello music I had to learn urgently. I left Hargrave in a far better frame of mind than I arrived, on a beautiful May evening, now looking forward to the evening’s concert in Gazeley.
I experienced a moment of alarm when I drew up to Gazeley churchyard: I was confronted with an enormous board by the road, in the centre of which was my name in huge letters. On the concert poster by the churchyard gate I was even more alarmed to find the word ‘renowned’ before ‘cellist’. But it was an amused kind of alarm: I have got used to the funny ways people advertise concerts, and I just hoped I wouldn’t be a disappointment to anyone expecting to hear a world-famous soloist.
The concert was a success: the acoustic was delightful, the audience was sizeable, I found making tuneful noises on my cello even more satisfying than usual, and I felt that we all enjoyed our evening greatly. It is very special feeling to take music to rural churches and create a community event that is both rare for the village and treasured by everyone involved.
St Gregory’s, Sudbury
On the second bank holiday weekend of May I was due to give a concert in honour of a newly restored 18th century cello, named Gabriel, who lived in Great Waldingfield. The Mitchell family apparently routinely name their cellos. Though I find the concept funny and odd, admittedly Gabriel seemed a fitting name for this particular cello. When Stephen brought round his great grandfather’s cello, he asked me if my cello had a name. ‘No’, I replied, ‘but a friend at school once called it Boris…’ A less fitting name for my cello I could barely imagine, but it was the only one it had ever been given, so it stuck in my mind.
I had been worried about playing on someone else’s cello. I couldn’t even try it out before agreeing to the concert: it was in London being restored. I’d had my small full-size cello since I was twelve, and I’d never performed on any other cello since. I knew that the positions of notes could be very different, and so even playing a piece I knew well could be a challenge. Then of course there was the quality of the cello, which no one could confidently vouch for, since it had been unplayable before its restoration. But the impression of the restorer was apparently that it would ‘probably be quite good’.
To put my mind at rest, I arranged a visit to Stephen’s house to try out Gabriel shortly after he arrived back in Suffolk in early April. He was thoroughly different to my cello, but thankfully about the same size, and quite nice to play.
I had hoped to practise on Gabriel for a couple of weeks before the concert, but now, faced with the prospect of the most challenging solo concert of my life in London two weeks afterwards, and worried about both confusing my fingers and not learning the music in time, I ended up starting Gabriel practice in earnest only four days before the concert. This session reassured me, however: I had almost immediately chosen to perform the first Bach suite in G major, mainly because most of it was in first position: here, the difference in note location was at its minimum. The higher I played, the more nerve-racking it became, with as much as half a centimetre’s difference in note location only half way up the fingerboard.
It was only the day before the concert that I finally realised why the notes were in different places. It was because the f-holes (so called because they are shaped like the letter f) were lower on the cello, and therefore the bridge was lower (usually lining up with the cross of the f), and therefore the string length, from scroll to bridge, was longer. It is the length of the string, I realised, not its pitch or thickness, which determines the distance between notes.
St Gregory’s was a lovely church on a small green near the centre of Sudbury. As I arrived at the church door, I met a lady walking her dog. She asked if I was giving a concert, and when. Then she asked me who my cello teacher was. I was surprised, but answered her, not expecting the information to be received with any recognition. But, to my astonishment, came the response, ‘Oh yes, David Strange, he was at the Royal Philharmonic and Royal Opera House’. She explained that she’d been married to a professional cellist for many years. She’d try and get back in time for the concert, she said, and we went our separate ways.
The interior of the church was urban and victorianised, but warm and bright with a pleasant, used feel. I was surprised to learn, from Stephen’s welcome to the audience, of the church’s possession of the head of a 14th century archbishop, Simon of Sudbury. I assumed this would be a bust, or replica, and thought no more of it.
In the end, the Gabriel performance was the part of the concert I enjoyed most. I didn’t quite feel in total control of the other pieces. Perhaps because I was tired and had had a busy day preparing for the arrival of B&B guests; perhaps because in my nervousness about both the different cello and the London music, I hadn’t spent long enough practising the other pieces in the programme, nearly all of which I had played before. But I knew that the feeling was personal to me, and was confident that despite any minor discomforts or mistakes, the audience would have enjoyed it. And I felt that Gabriel had had a good christening.
Afterwards, we were invited to go and view Simon of Sudbury’s head in the vestry. He had been beheaded by a lynch mob at the Tower of London in 1381. I had an unpleasant shock: it really was his head. I had to ask if it was a real skull. ‘Not a skull’, I was told, ‘his head’. The distinction seemed a little academic to me: his head was mummified, but there was not a huge amount left of it aside from the skull. I looked more closely, in equal measure horrified, spooked and fascinated that here was a physical part of someone who lived in the 14th century. Of course, this is not very old in relation to the history of the human race, but nevertheless it was part of a history that seems to me more myth than reality most of the time. Finally, however, I had to turn away from the ghoulish sight in favour of a cup of tea.
While we were enjoying tea and cake, the lady who I’d met with her dog came up to me and said, ‘I made it back, and I’m so glad I did – it made my day’. The more I am the recipient of such heart-felt comments, the more I appreciate them and feel their significance. I used not to believe people when they said such things; I brushed them aside as exaggeration or flattery, as I would most compliments. But now I do believe them, and I know that to be able to make an impact on the life of a stranger whom you may never have seen or spoken to before, and may never again, is not so much a gift given by me as one given to me.
On my way back to the car, I admired the alpine daisies growing out of the churchyard wall.
Total churches to the end of May: 307 + 3 chapels
Header photo: Misericord at Sudbury St Gregory’s