St Mary’s, Farnham
The only Farnham I was aware of, until I examined my church map closely, was in Surrey. I was just as ignorant of the fact there was an accessible church so close to Stratford St Andrew, which I attempted to visit once about two years ago, forgetting it had been converted into a house. It was a good job no one arrested me on suspicion of trying to break in. If I’d known about Farnham, I would certainly have been delighted to cross the road and leave the A12.
Despite its proximity to this busy road, it was a quiet, rural church. I was glad, as I needed to do as much practice here as possible, partly because my next two church visits of the day would be accompanied by friends, which would make extensive practice impractical (and antisocial), and partly because I’d asked them to be my test audience at Wantisden in a few hours’ time. The pieces were coming along, but it was Thursday, and there were only 3 days to go until the most challenging concert of my life so far.
Farnham was a lovely setting for practice, and I enjoyed my surroundings: the framed rood screen panels, Norman windows and brick floor. The south nave wall was sloping as much as the walls at Levington, I thought, and when I went outside afterwards to explore the churchyard, I found a row of huge buttresses supporting it. They were rather less attractive than Levington’s brick ones.
I soon came upon a large area of ground covered with a red flowering plant which I thought might possibly be sorrel (see header photo). This supposedly common plant is one that continues to elude me – or perhaps simply my powers of observation and identification. I walked through it in search of a better view of the church, and noticed a fragrance rise up from the ground. Not the citrus scent I would have expected from sorrel, but a more herbal aroma. I would have to follow up afterwards with the help of books and the internet, I thought, and took some photos of the plant to assist me1.
Near the church was a tomb bound in orange plastic fencing. I thought at first the reason for this was simply that the tomb was falling apart; and then I saw a large trunk sticking out at the base, which, though cut off close to the tomb, was growing new shoots which allowed me to identify it as a yew. I wondered at its perseverance in finding a way out of the tomb before succumbing to the dark, and thought what a pity it was that it had been cut down. I would have liked to see it standing.
Soon I had to tear myself away from all that had aroused my curiosity in the churchyard, and make my way to Tunstall church: I was due there at one. I had intended to arrive at least half an hour earlier, but I am coming to terms with the fact lovely little country churches – not to mention urgent cello practice – have a habit of making me late…
St Michael’s, Tunstall
Tunstall was not at all what I expected. It was huge, bright and plain, in the best sense of the word. Like Rendlesham, Tunstall also reminded me of Gipping Chapel. The next thing I noticed amused me greatly: the church was clearly extremely proud to offer high-speed wifi. This is not something usually associated with churches – they’re lucky enough if they have electricity – but Tunstall has a mast on its tower, as Buxhall does. But I don’t remember Buxhall advertising its wifi.
I was more interested in Tunstall’s historical treasures than its internet connection, however, and after admiring the font and the brightly painted pulpit, I went to examine an unusually large area of wall at the back of the nave where graffiti had been preserved, and picked out in black ink, which I wasn’t entirely convinced was necessary. The most numerous carvings were initials and boats.
It was difficult to practice in the detail required with an audience – even though the audience had been warned, and was himself a musician. I persevered, however, out of necessity and encouraged by the acoustic; but before the end of my session I had decided that, despite my plan to play through my concert programme at Wantisden, it would be inadvisable to give a practice performance of the Prokofiev sonata. If it went badly, which I suspected it would, it would only make me panic more. So I settled on Telemann, Walton and Bloch – the last of which I had already performed once, at Levington, the previous Sunday.
There was time for a short tour of the church and churchyard afterwards, and a few giggles at the memorials to members of the Jeaffreson family. Samuel, in whom ‘the firm Intrepidity of a BRITISH SAILOR was united with the mild Virtues of Social Life; Christopher, who ‘adorned every sphere by a life of usefulness’; and Chris, ‘in whom were emminently united, Conjugal & parental affection, Cemented with universal benevolence, and every other Social Virtue’. Others had ‘exchanged time for eternity’. This made it sound like a good deal. Perhaps, after all, it is…
Wantisden was an even greater surprise to me, and, I think, no less surprising to my companions. Before even going inside I had added it to my mental list of favourite Suffolk churches: outside, it was simple and beautiful. It gave the impression of standing in an isolated spot, despite the fact there were warehouses behind the ugly high fence beside the lane. But they were far enough away to respect the churchyard’s space, and because of their location gave the impression of being farm buildings rather than anything more industrial. Somehow this made them less conspicuous. Inside, the church had qualities I had come to associate with Churches Conservation Trust churches: unspoilt, with countless fascinating historical details, and a feel of ancientness that was almost overwhelming. The driftwood decorations were thoroughly in keeping with its atmosphere.
We spent a long time looking in awe at the church, inside and out, before I felt ready to fill it with the sound of a cello. It was a perfect late spring afternoon, and the churchyard was wholly unmown. The tower was built of coralline crag: the only other such tower in England is at nearby Chillesford. There were scratch dials, Norman windows and doorways, wall paintings, more souls who had ‘exchanged time for eternity’, and ancient pews – which I mistakenly thought more recent than the decorated pews, simply because I had never seen such old plain pews before. On the backs of the pews were engraved ships and writing. The font was particularly remarkable: I couldn’t identify the period of its unusual construction, but the church guide enlightened me: it was Norman.
I didn’t know there had never been a village of Wantisden, though I had wondered what was at Wantisden. I knew Butley, and Staverton Thicks, with which I associated the name of Wantisden, but I had never been past the church. Now I knew why: there would never be a reason to go past the church. There is only great cause to go to it.
I wanted to play in the spacious chancel, but once we established that the chancel arch prevented the sound from travelling well to the nave, I sat in front of it. Peter had to leave to get home for a delivery, which made me feel bad for not playing sooner; but he hadn’t mentioned his time restriction. Perhaps he was happier just looking around anyway.
I was glad I had decided not to attempt the Prokofiev: the other pieces left a lot to be desired, and I had thought those were ready. It was helpful to have a run through, nevertheless, and sometimes they go badly. I knew this didn’t mean that the performance would. Still, I felt I should have warmed up before playing: bizarrely, my hands had already become stiff again since playing at Tunstall. This was perhaps the most frustrating part about it.
But the church was too incredible for my mood to be greatly affected by my suboptimal cello playing. After spending a long while taking photos, we went outside, sat in the drive and enjoyed coffee and apples that Nick had brought. While we sat there, Kim asked some interesting questions: she had been taking notes while I played, which she assured me was an addiction of hers and had nothing to do with me.
‘What would the people buried at Wantisden church make of future music being played here that is now in the past?’
It took me a few moments, and further explanation, to understand what she meant. I had played pieces written in the mid to late 20th century: the future to the people buried here, but to us, the past. Even the 18th century music would have been the future to some of those buried here. Kim thought it might make them happy. I said I hadn’t thought about it in that way before, but that I certainly thought music made the buildings happy. She agreed.
This was an unique church visit in that I knew it wouldn’t only be me writing about it: Kim would also. Our accounts would be entirely different: mine, a first-impressions and music-orientated description; Kim’s a thoroughly researched and deeply considered composition of history and place. I am greatly looking forward to reading it2.
We rounded off the glorious afternoon with a walk in nearby Staverton Thicks: a woodland version of awe-inspiring place we had just visited.
Header photo: Sheep’s sorrel in Farnham churchyard
Total churches to the end of June: 319 (+3 chapels)