St Mary’s, Bawdsey
The following morning I decided to drive to the end of the peninsula and work backwards: Bawdsey was my first stop. I found the church within a park-like, dripping churchyard. It was a pity it was too wet to enjoy exploring thoroughly: it is difficult to choose clothing suitable both for outdoor wet weather exploring and practising the cello in churches. Bawdsey possessed an outsized, stumpy tower, and a body that clearly once used to be larger: the roof had been lowered and there was a series of blocked archways on the north and south walls, within which windows had been placed. According to Simon Knott, this church, similar to Covehithe, was a small church was built in the ruins of a larger one1. This would also explain the outsized – though shortened – tower, but I found no evidence of ruins.
The interior was tiny and delightful. The font was one of the strangest I’d seen, and there was a 13th century embroidered banner framed on the wall. I knew I would enjoy practising here. The acoustic was a treat, as I anticipated. I made good progress on one of my pieces, by Walton: it was encouraging as well as satisfying to find that I could now nearly play it. It felt a little like painting a large wall: progress was slow but sure. The unpainted expanse of wall in front of me was getting smaller, and I could look back and see evidence that my time and effort were producing results.
I stayed nearly two hours. I knew that this meant my time at the other churches would have to be shortened, but I have enough experience now to know that if I am enjoying myself I should stay as long as I want or can. You never know what will happen at the next church; and – especially when practice is a priority – an open, empty and lovely church should be appreciated to the full.
St Andrew’s, Alderton
Nearby at Alderton I found an enormous church: its proportions were almost the opposite of Bawdsey, with an outsized body and an almost non-existent tower. What was left of the tower was invisible at first, until I realised the crumbling remains were hidden behind trees and overgrown shrubs.
I went inside to find an even larger nave than I expected: it was spacious and long, and the front half of the nave was filled with uniform rows of modern, rather bright, wooden benches. It somehow felt too big for its contents. It took me a minute to identify an odd smell, and realise that it was being produced by the can of petrol left by the door, no doubt by someone in charge of mowing or strimming the churchyard. I was surprised that one can of petrol could permeate such a huge space.
The tower was bricked up on the inside, which contributed to the church’s strange feel. I didn’t dislike it, but I certainly didn’t feel as though I could settle here for the rest of the afternoon, which justified pleasingly, in hindsight, my inclination to dawdle at Bawdsey. But the acoustic was good, and practice was by no means a trial.
Before long, however, I acquired a headache and started to feel sick. I had no doubt it was due to the petrol smell. It had occurred to me to take the can outside, but I didn’t think it would make a difference quickly enough. So my practice was short-lived, and the weather prevented much more lingering in the churchyard than was necessary to circumnavigate the church and satisfy my curiosity about the remains of the tower.
St Margaret’s, Shottisham
I found Shottisham church beside the picturesque pub where Marie, a neighbour, and I enjoyed lunch last summer when we found our pub of choice, The Unruly Pig in Bromeswell, closed due to electrical problems.
The first thing that attracted me about the church was its ‘open’ sign. Yes, I thought, if you are an open church, you have a right to be proud and shout about it!
It was a pretty little church with a Victorian interior. On the step of the 13th century font was another lovely and welcoming notice, inviting visitors to take a drink, biscuit or pot plant as a reminder of their visit. I could only see drinks – no biscuits or plants – but I thought the pot plant idea eccentrically sweet.
I was feeling extremely tired now, and the lingering effects of petrol fumes were no help at all. I hadn’t slept very well the previous night due to the lack of effective curtains in my room, but still, I had thought my energy might last a bit longer, after my early evening nap and leisurely morning. I didn’t have the option of stopping after this church: I was meeting Steve to play duets at Rendlesham at 6pm, and then we were going for supper at the Unruly Pig, my first return visit since the unsuccessful attempt with Marie. I was looking forward to supper despite my tiredness, and perhaps the church visit would just have to be a brief one; I was sure Steve wouldn’t mind. Shottisham would have to be brief too if I was to get there on time, so I managed a little practice and a look round the church, where I enjoyed the brass memorial inscription dated 1620.
Even if tiredness and time limitations hadn’t been such influencing factors, I felt that my time was distributed appropriately between my three solo church visits today: Bawdsey was undoubtedly my favourite.
St Gregory’s, Rendlesham
I made sure to arrive on time at Rendlesham, as the keyholder I’d spoken to earlier in the day said that if the church wasn’t going to be open at 6pm she’d meet me there with the key. But I was glad to find the church open sign as I pulled up, so she didn’t have to go to extra trouble. Steve, usually punctual, was absent. A little while later, after I had carried my equipment inside, I looked at my phone and found a message that said ‘I am 12 minutes late’. I laughed.
I practised until Steve arrived. ‘Was that 12 minutes?’ I asked him, thinking it had seemed a very long 12 minutes. ‘No!’ he replied. ‘There are two churches in Rendlesham and I went to the wrong one!’ He told me the reason for his amusingly worded text was that he was dictating it to his phone and had to keep it as simple as possible. ‘Still, the 12 minutes was your dictation!’ I said. Precision in arrival times – or lack thereof, usually in my case – had become a running joke between us.
Rendlesham was a lovely church; for some reason more interesting than I expected. It reminded me of Gipping chapel, although it was much larger and the walls were pink. The huge, empty chancel, where I had already set up to play, was echoey. Steve went into the nave to listen. He reported that it didn’t echo in the nave, but you could hear the echo of the chancel. This was unusual and fascinating to me, although it did make some kind of sense. Afterwards I wished I’d asked him to play something so I could hear it for myself.
I didn’t mention to Steve how tired I was, thinking that we wouldn’t have long to play now anyway. But eventually we got carried away with Bartok, I forgot about my tiredness, and we ended up arriving late at our dinner appointment. It was a good supper with good conversation, and I went to bed no longer feeling the weariness I had been suffering from since mid-afternoon, though still happy to have reached a bed to collapse on.
Header photo: Bawdsey church wall