Judging it prudent to reserve a couple of days’ ‘sanity break’ in the first of two brief gaps in summer bed and breakfast bookings, I saw a good opportunity for a church-visiting holiday. A scan of my church map revealed a glaring gap in the far southwest corner of Suffolk. Searching for accommodation is not amongst my list of enjoyable leisure activities when time is short, so, having quickly found an attractive-looking converted outbuilding in Withersfield, near Haverhill, I booked it without too much further thought, besides checking the location and size of Withersfield: I didn’t want to stay in a suburb of Haverhill. What I didn’t realise, however, was that the building was right beside the main road through the village – something that wasn’t apparent from the photos or the description – and that the road through Withersfield is a commuter route into Haverhill and therefore suffers from rush hour. But these are things that require prior acquaintance with an area, and rush hour was not something I was used to anticipating in rural Suffolk. Except for the harvest time sort of rush hour, which also happened to coincide with my visit, and led to earthquake-like shocks every time a combine harvester (beetle-monster) passed my window late into the evening.
St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Clare
Before I made these unwelcome discoveries, however, I was able to fit in three church visits. My first stop was Clare, a church that I had tried to visit once before and was disappointed to find locked. I suspected that I was too late on that occasion, and that a lunchtime visit would be more successful, which indeed it was. I find it curious that Clare (which seems to me more a little town than a village) isn’t classified as a town, whereas Orford (which seems more of a village than a town) is. I am not sure of the criteria used for these classifications.
I felt I must have been inside Clare church before, with my parents, as it lay on their preferred route from London to Hitcham. We had stopped countless times at the bakery (sadly no longer in existence) and the fish and chip shop – a somewhat unlikely favourite English meal of my mother’s – so I thought we must also have stopped at the church, but I didn’t remember it. I was astonished by the size of the church once I was inside: it looked far larger inside than out. It was bright, and had many lovely features, including a 17th century gallery in the south aisle, a beautiful brick floor, a beer jug (gotch) dated 1729 and plenty of graffiti.
Clare had a wonderful acoustic for such a large church. I loved playing there, although the large number of visitors meant that I didn’t play as long as I might have otherwise. At the end of my visit I took a look at the large stall at the back of the church selling every sort of item, bought or made, that you could imagine making its way into such a display. I bought a pair of hand-knitted fingerless gloves which – although the reddish brown colour wouldn’t have been my first choice – I thought would be perfect for my friend Steve to wear in cold churches, since they were also thumbless, and bassoonists thumbs are required to work harder than a cellist’s.
My loop around the churchyard was interrupted by the fence joining the tower, and I had to retrace my steps. But it was a lovely churchyard, a focal point for the village.
When I was leaving, I texted Steve that I had bought him a present at Clare church, but it was at least four months early.
‘A nativity scene!’ he replied. ‘I’ve always wanted a nativity scene!’ I laughed out loud.
As I was writing in the visitors’ book at Clare, I met two ladies who asked me if Clare church was connected with Kedington, since they shared the same dedication. I didn’t know the answer, but quickly spotted a contact card for the benefice beside the visitors’ book, which informed us, at least, that they weren’t in the same benefice. ‘I’m going there now,’ I told them. ‘I think it’s kept open, do you happen to know?’ They replied that they didn’t, and although from that village, they had never actually visited the church. I was surprised, but thought no more of it.
Until I entered Kedington church. And then I was flabbergasted. Nearly as soon as I was inside, I realised that this was probably the church my friend Mark had mentioned to me – he and a couple of friends had taken a detour through west Suffolk on their way back from Ely recently.
I stood in awe. I found it hard to believe I was looking at something more than a millennium old.
Once I had managed to tear myself away I was able to pay more attention to the other features of the church – of which there were countless. Tombs, memorials, graffiti (including, unusually, pencil graffiti), areas of old floor including a medieval tile or two, dated roof beams, medieval pews, font, rood screen, a three-decker 17th century pulpit with hat pegs and wig poles… The strangest thing about it was the nave roof: it had skylights. It was odd, possibly even unique in Suffolk, but there was no doubting that what would have been a gloomy nave was much brighter for them.
The acoustic was much as I expected for a low-roofed, somewhat cluttered church. But much as I usually prefer simple church interiors, there was no denying the charms and historical significance of Kedington’s building and contents. It reminded me vaguely of my parents’ house, although of course much more impressive: it contained items and features of different ages and styles, all mismatched, but all unique, and all beautiful in their own right. Admittedly, however, I could appreciate this more in a church – a community building with a long history, which was appropriately represented by such a collection – than I could in our home.
On arrival, I had seen the church’s opening times advertised as 9-4pm, so I took a chance and played until 3.50, hoping the church wouldn’t be locked up punctually. Usually in this situation I would take photos first, so that if someone turned up I could pack up and leave straight away. But here, I was worried I’d get no practice done at all if I did that, because there was so much to see. I couldn’t resist a quick look around at the start of my visit, but I left gawping until the end.
I found the exterior of the church even more curious than the interior: it resembled a train carriage, far too long, close to the ground, and from the outside (more than the inside), the chancel roof appeared almost flat. The top of the nave roof had been shaved off to make way for the skylights, and the old roof line was much higher. I was puzzled by the bricked-up five-leaf clover shape on the tower above it.
My gamble paid off; by 4.30 I was still alone, and I had had my fill of Kedington’s treasures. I’m not sure I have ever taken so many photos of a church.
I had spent longer than I anticipated at Kedington, but I wanted to visit one more church. I tried Little and Great Wratting on my way to Withersfield but found both locked, and, unusually, with no keyholder details listed. But I saw a notice mentioning the Stourhead benefice website, so I wasn’t too disheartened: I would look it up later. By now it was nearly 5pm and I was running out of energy. So I made a compromise: I would continue to Withersfield, and if the church was open I would play there before going to my accommodation, but would leave taking photos till the next day. It was only down the road, after all.
Withersfield was a complete contrast to Kedington: it was bright, uncluttered and spacious. Although Kedington was awe-inspiring and had far more historical features of interest, this was more in line with my taste in country churches. It wasn’t a museum, and I could appreciate it with little effort. It was simple and peaceful, and it had a wonderful acoustic.
I enjoyed practising here, and still more because I’d warmed up properly now. I hadn’t practised regularly of late, and was noticing the stamina problem. A recital coming up in Long Melford church the following week made my church-visiting break timely.
A dog walker came in as I was packing up. ‘I walk this way every day and saw the porch gate was open so I thought I’d just check everything was ok,’ she said, when I enquired if she’d come to lock the church. How nice, I thought, that the church has someone to look out for it. I assured her I wasn’t a suspicious character – apart from the cello – and we chatted a little before she continued on her way.
I left for my accommodation, happy that I had held out for one more church. It was a perfect, calming place to end the evening.