St Mary’s, Akenham
I was due at Akenham church, near Ipswich, to play at a cream tea and evensong on the first Sunday in August. Akenham was a Churches Conservation Trust church, and, I was informed, the evensong services in August are held there, the first of which was always preceded by a cream tea. I managed to rope in Steve to play duets with me during the cream tea; I felt solo Bach was suitable for the service but not for the jollities in the churchyard.
Getting there was an adventure. Despite being almost on the outskirts of Ipswich – only a mile from Whitton – it felt as though it was on a hill in the middle of nowhere. Along the lane before I came to the rough track leading to the church, I passed a tractor and baler that looked like two of the first mechanised pieces of farming equipment to appear in the countryside. They had an amusing charm about them, but looked somewhat impractical for the task in hand. Clearing a field of cut straw is a big job.
I arrived at the church feeling nauseous; a baffling state of affairs. It was almost as though I was car sick, despite driving the car myself. I had to lie on the grass for a few minutes before gathering myself and my equipment. Steve came to help me, and I was grateful for the human as well as musical company. Hardly a minute passes when we are not laughing or joking about something.
Akenham was a stubby looking church, though lovely in its churchyard and remote setting. My first attentions, however, were on the task in hand. A cup of tea from the beautifully converted tomb-tea-serving-tables aided my revival, and we turned our attention to finding a place to sit where our chair legs wouldn’t disappear down a mole hole or our music slide off the stand. This job completed, we warmed up while we waited for a few more people to arrive.
The music was interspersed with tea and cake, and I was sorry when the cream tea was over and Steve packed up to leave, especially as Steve’s name had mistakenly been included in the order of service, causing various people to ask me why he was leaving. But the acoustic of the church made playing indoors a unique experience: I felt as though I was holding a magic cello that could play by itself, without any input from me. It was an odd and wonderful feeling. It wasn’t as though I’d never experienced wonderful church acoustics before, but the effect was startling. Perhaps it was simply the contrast from playing outdoors.
The service only lasted 40 minutes, which, as far as I am concerned, is the perfect length for a service. But still, I had only played three movements of Bach and would happily have stayed to play all evening.
After the service, a member of the congregation explained to me that Akenham church was famous for a great controversy here in 1878 over the burial rites given to a two year old unbaptised child. This was due to non-conformists being advocates of adult rather than infant baptism. Whatever the truth behind the condradictory accounts of which minister was at fault, if either,1 I thought it deeply touching that the child’s grave was still kept with flowers and a toy sheep.
The vicar accompanied me to my car and told me she’d taken some video clips which she would send to me. ‘During the service?’ I asked, in astonishment. ‘Yes, and during the cream tea,’ she replied, without batting an eyelid. I managed, somehow, not to burst out laughing. (A video will be added here as soon as technology permits!)
As I drove back to the road, I saw that much of the straw baling had been completed. After a fashion. There were rectangular pancake-like bales strewn across the field, as though the machine had finally gone on strike and dumped its loads as and when it saw fit. There were some pancake stacks, some single storey pancakes, and others whose top storeys were tumbling off onto the ground, or looked somehow as though they had got left behind, on the move. I had to pull over to marvel and laugh out loud at this scene which was so delightfully out of place in our overly efficient and neat twenty-first century.
St Mary’s, Bentley
The next day, I had arranged to meet Steve for some duets before having a pub supper, so I chose the two remaining churches near his house, Bentley and Capel St Mary. This time I knew to phone ahead before turning up at Bentley; Capel St Mary, I understood, was kept open, but I phoned anyway to check we’d still be able to get in at 6pm.
The keyholder met me at Bentley church – where, I noticed, the welcome sign on the door had been removed. I had defaced it (in a minor and easily erasable way, I hasten to add) on my last frustrated visit. Perhaps the parish had decided it was advisable not to provoke church visiting enthusiasts further with a misleading notice: they are an irate bunch, I suppose. Having just reread Simon Knott’s entry for Bentley, which reads as a activist’s sermon in support of open churches, and the unchristian, even blasphemous, leanings of locked ones, it might well come to this conclusion. Of course I agree with Simon Knott entirely.
The keyholder was a friendly man, and I was glad to overwrite the memory of the last unpleasant day I had come here. His helpfulness also caused me small pangs of guilt over my misdemeanour. He left once he had shown me through the fake Norman doorway to a Victorian, well-cared-for interior. My motivation to play the cello was, admittedly, little above zero. But I persevered: after all, that was half the reason I had come.
After a short while, a man delivering village newsletters came in and we chatted for a while. Then I packed up and looked around. Despite the church’s relative lack of historical interest, there were some interesting details, particularly the graffiti and the faces on the doorway arch. Most of all, however, I enjoyed the sight of the church lit up in the late afternoon sun.
On my way to Capel St Mary, I passed a huge and partially derelict barn just around the corner from Bentley church. It was stunning. I couldn’t tell if it was being repaired, converted or left to rot. I stopped to admire it and thought how I would love to know its story. I have now found a Historic England entry describing it as 15th century and mentioning discussions about its preservation, but this was all the information available.
St Mary’s, Capel St Mary
Capel St Mary felt so urban that I thought it must be a suburb of Ipswich. But it is entirely separate. Its church being open daily endeared it to me. In fact, I would go so far as to say if the church was locked, I probably would have disliked the village. The fact it was open made me like it instead. What a huge difference such things can make!
Steve was already there when I arrived. The church wasn’t at all what I expected: the exterior was old, patchy and beautiful. The interior, however, was a complete contrast. It was modern, with new floor tiles and chairs in place of pews. But what it lacked in historic character, it made up for in cheeriness and light.
We played some new pieces, thinking ahead to future concerts, and chatted about other pieces we could look up, or arrangements we could make ourselves. I suggested we pack up at around 6.45pm, as we were due at the pub at 7.15pm and the keyholder had told me he would come to lock up at 7pm – but he and his wife appeared as we were packing up, greeting us with, ‘we’re early!’
Seeing that we’d been playing music, his wife particularly expressed disappointment that they had missed hearing us play. I couldn’t remember what I’d said to whom on the phone, but clearly on this occasion I hadn’t mentioned that we wanted to play music, and he hadn’t asked. After much dithering, since packing up a bassoon is much more labour intensive than packing up a cello, we finally got our instruments out again to play them a tune. They seemed happy with their brief concert, and afterwards we chatted about why we were there, and what alterations had been made to the church: it now had underfloor heating. There can’t be many churches with underfloor heating. Capel St Mary was also, sadly, one of few open churches without a visitor’s book, so I wrote the church number 325 on a contact card for them, which they had requested in case of a possible future concert…
We were late for our supper booking, but it didn’t matter and we happy to have met the couple. The pub had a wonderful view over the Brett Valley, and it was a perfect evening. But harvesting was in progress, which meant that – while the air smelled wonderfully of wheat and straw – every time the combine passed, we were told, a huge cloud of wheat chaff would blow up the hill on to the terrace where we wanted to sit. So we decided just to have a drink outside and see what happened.
Amazingly, the harvest was over before we had even ordered our food, so we were able to stay to enjoy the view, chatting and enjoying our meal until well after dark.
Header photos: Capel St Mary chancel roof