St Ethelbert’s, Herringswell
I had delayed visiting Cavenham, north of Bury St Edmunds, as I had spotted Cavenham Heath nearby on the map and wanted to combine my church visit with a walk there: it was a bit too far away to make a separate trip appealing. For nearly the first year of my church tour, having a cello with me made this impractical. This time, however, realising that Cavenham was in fact only fifteen minutes’ drive from my friend Penny’s house in Bury St Edmunds, and that I now had a cello case which I could happily carry on a walk with me, no further delay was necessary. An added benefit of stopping off at Penny’s house for a cup of tea was that she had a map of this small area of northwest Suffolk that I discovered was missing from my collection.
For some inexplicable reason, I felt confident of either finding the church open, or being able to obtain a key. My optimism was misplaced: I spoke to two keyholders, but neither was able to oblige. However, the second turned out to be one of the organisers of my approaching concert in nearby Tuddenham, so was keen to help. I made a provisional arrangement with her to come back in two days’ time, when she assured me she would be at home and available to open the church for me.
I decided to continue to Herringswell. I found the church on a lane lined with standard roses. It was such a pretty scene that I wasn’t overly frustrated to find this church locked too. Again, this seemed a small obstacle to overcome; and, this time, the first keyholder I tried instructed me to walk down the driveway opposite the church to meet her.
She enquired whether I had come to see the windows. ‘Not specifically,’ I replied. ‘I didn’t know about the windows. I’ve come to see the church but also to play the cello, if that’s ok’. She seemed happy with my answer and said she’d like to come and listen, after she’d gone back to lock her house. I walked up to the church, delighted with the sight of swifts circling above it.
Inside the church I found a huge old heater in the nave and heard what I thought were the swifts I’d just seen outside. I remarked to the lady when she arrived how lovely it was to hear them. ‘Oh that’s a recording,’ she said. ‘It’s supposed to encourage them to come, it seems to be working’. I was surprised: I had never heard of this particular method of attracting swifts. But still, the swifts were there, so I didn’t feel entirely tricked.
I played the first Bach suite without warming up: not the most comfortable way to play to someone. But it was good practice, I decided: I had expected this to be a physically painful experience – for my hands and arms – as I hadn’t done a huge amount of practice recently. But it wasn’t, and I concluded my stamina wasn’t in such bad shape after all, which was a relief, as that weekend I was due to give a repeat of June’s challenging solo concert in a village church in Wiltshire.
When I was alone again, I walked round the church to look at the windows. I found I liked them – or most of them, anyway. The less conspicuously religious the better, as far as I am concerned… There were few other interesting details around the outside of the church, too: a holy water stoup that looked more like a font built into the wall, an attractive blocked up window and an enormous tomb that was being reclaimed by nature.
Going for a walk on Cavenham Heath was higher in my priorities that afternoon than trying to visit another church. So, after frequent stops to consult my map – a satnav was of limited use, since I didn’t know the name of the lane – I headed into the woodland, and followed the path through wood and wooded wetland, wondering when it would turn into heath. It never did. I met a couple out walking their dog and asked if there was a circular walk here. No, they said. Unless you cross the fields, you’ll have to turn around a little way further on and come back this way.
It was a beautiful wood, however – and I found a huge and enigmatic oak on the path which I stopped a while to admire – but, admittedly, after such a long wait to visit Cavenham Heath, I was disappointed by the lack of footpath choice. The only circular walk, which in fact only consisted of a small loop right at the end of a single path, involved more road walking than anything else. So I got back in the car and returned to Bury in favour another cup of tea and to give back the map I had borrowed. At least I had had a short walk on this lovely afternoon, I thought. That would have been impossible in the past.
St Andrew’s, Cavenham
I was looking forward to returning to Cavenham a couple of days later. Not only because I knew I would find it open this time, but because it was a lovely looking church, and I hoped it would be just as pretty inside.
This time, in no hurry, I dawdled in the churchyard, admiring the view and revelling in the sound of crickets. The perfect proportions of the church, its patchy render, brick and flint, beautiful but mismatched windows and ivy growing up the wall beside the porch made it the perfect picture of a Suffolk country church. I wanted to imprint the scene permanently on my mind.
On the west side of the tower was a high roof line: evidence of another building or part of building against the tower. It was mysterious: I couldn’t think what it might have been. I wondered if it was perhaps a cruciform church once, but somehow the tower’s proximity to the churchyard wall made this seem unlikely: I couldn’t imagine that the road would have moved since the church was built.
I wasn’t disappointed when I finally entered the church: I found a simple, rustic interior with an odd but charming font, old stove and plentiful graffiti. I knew would enjoy practising here, and I did. I had been struggling with motivation to revive the programme for the Wiltshire concert a few days later, and I had yet to truly commit to it in my mind or practice. Cavenham enabled me to do this: feeling entirely comfortable and happy in my surroundings, and aided by a lovely acoustic, I finally succeeded in concentrating on the task in hand.
All Saints’, Icklingham
It is always exciting when I come across a Churches Conservation Trust church on my travels. Often I turn up to a church having forgotten this fact. On this occasion, however, having encountered too many locked churches for comfort or convenience, I did my research before returning to the area. This church I knew I would get into.
It was as delightful as I had grown accustomed to: an uncluttered interior with a thatched roof, lovely old low, wonky pews, and, treat of all treats, medieval floor tiles in the chancel. The lack of ceiling led me to expect a poor acoustic – Rushmere remains in my memory as the dullest church acoustic I have yet encountered – but it was stunning. Perhaps all those hard stone surfaces were sufficient compensation.
I jumped over the floor tiles in the chancel in order to get a better look without disobeying the instructions not to walk on them. Medieval tiles are, perhaps surprisingly, quite few and far between in churches. But perhaps this is because floors take a battering. Unless they are made of stone – and even stone wears over the centuries – they’d perhaps be unlikely to survive intact for more than two or three centuries, if that.
After an extended stay, both playing and looking around, I went down the road to Icklingham St James. I thought I had checked in advance, but it was locked. I didn’t mind too much, however: I was quite glad of the excuse to go for a little drive in the area. Crossing the A11 to get to Barton Mills, however, was far from straightforward…
St Mary’s, Barton Mills
I was delighted to find Barton Mills church open, and, as I was unloading my equipment from the car, a lady who had just crossed the road to post a letter asked if I would like help. I could have managed, but I sensed that her offer was genuine and she was in no rush, so I accepted and gave her my music stand to carry. As we walked up the path, chatting, I realised how my attitude to accepting offers of help had changed dramatically in recent years. Of course, this was a simple gesture, both in offer and acceptance: I was taking no personal emotional risk by accepting, and she was taking little risk by offering. Still, I was aware that earlier in my life, if I could manage on my own I would most likely have declined. Now I saw this – and many other things in life – differently. Perhaps it is also one of the differences between city life and country life. On the whole, I feel, people wouldn’t offer help unless their offer was genuine; and accepting made people feel good, no matter how small the service rendered. I knew this from my own experiences of offering help.
Besides, I had another incentive for accepting: it was an opportunity for a chat. Church visits can be made so much more memorable and wonderful by encounters with people. I love being in churches alone, and playing the cello alone, but I have enough of these experiences to be delighted also with company and conversation, especially when I find myself in the middle of a large village.
She was friendly, and proud of her open village church, as well she should be. According to the pledge I made to myself a year or two previously, I told her before she left that she was welcome to stay and listen. She replied that she’d better get home as her husband would be wondering where she had got to: ‘I only went out to post a letter!’
The church was clearly well cared for and loved. In every other way – including its immaculate cleaniness – it was a contrast with Icklingham All Saints. Suburban-feeling village churches are not really my cup of tea; but I was pleased to feel welcome, pleased with my chat, and pleased to find an open church, so I set up to practise in a good frame of mind. The only inexplicable disturbance was a smell I could only identify as that of toilets. But there was no toilet in the church. There wasn’t even a kitchen – unless one was hiding behind a locked door. It was a mystery I couldn’t solve. Thankfully the smell was not strong enough to overwhelm my visit or concentration, and I was pleased with my practice session: I left for home feeling much more comfortable about my fast approaching trip to Wiltshire.
Header photo: Medieval floor tiles in Icklingham All Saints
Total churches to the end of July: 322 (+ 3 chapels)