St Mary’s, Great Bradley
The following morning I decided to start from the church furthest north along the county boundary and work backwards in a line, allowing for a maximum of four church visits that day. The furthest church was Great Bradley, only minutes’ drive from Withersfield: they were so close together in this area that I didn’t have to travel far.
I had checked in advance Great Bradley was kept open, and this was another reason to start here: I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect in this area, as it seemed to be a mixed bag of open and locked churches. Great Bradley was a simple and lovely rustic village church, beautiful outside and in. Highlights for me were its patchy (external) east wall, Tudor brick porch and Norman doorway. Indoors, I discovered a medieval fireplace – an unusual feature which I didn’t remember seeing in any other church before. Standing in the chancel, I had the odd feeling of being at a significantly lower level than at the back of the nave. It had been a while since I was in a church with such a sloping floor.
I enjoyed practising more than the previous day, which was probably mostly an indication of improved energy levels – although I couldn’t have asked for surroundings more conducive to practice. Shortly after I started to play, a lady called Sue came in with her rescue greyhound called Henry. We chatted for a while, and she seemed pleased with the novelty of cello music in her church. I found out that Great Bradley was the only open church in the area, which came as a disappointment, but immediately she offered to try and find keyholder information for the other churches in the benefice, and said she’d come back if she had any success. I was touched.
As I was packing up, Sue reappeared, this time without her dog. Although I’d taken her offer of help seriously, I didn’t really expect to see her again, and this time I was even more surprised and touched to be handed an annotated list of all the keyholders in the benefice. She’d even phoned some of them for me. She told me she’d spoken to the people at Little Bradley, and although the keyholder – a farmer – was busy with harvest right now, Catherine, who knew said she knew me, was in the farm office and could lend me the key.
‘Catherine?’ I replied, astonished.
‘She said to tell you she was Penny’s friend’.
‘Oh! Yes I know which Catherine that is! What a coincidence!’
I didn’t know her well, but I had met her at Penny’s house a few times and we had been on a couple of communal cinema outings. She was one of those people you like instantly, with a bright, smiley face. I knew Catherine worked part time at a farm as an accountant, and she might have told me the name of the village once, but I would have forgotten the name instantly, since I didn’t know the place. After Sue had given me instructions on how to find the farm office and explained a few other keyholder details, I thanked her profusely for the effort she had gone to. I felt much more positive now about the rest of my day, and was happy to have made such a lovely connection with a kind and generous stranger.
All Saints’, Little Bradley
It took me about 20 minutes to find the office where Catherine was expecting me. I struggled to retain all the details of Sue’s instructions, and when I ended up at some stables, the directions I was given to the farm office confused me further. It turned out they were not quite correct. In the end I admitted defeat and phoned one of the churchwardens on the list Sue had given me, in the hope that she would know where it was. I got lucky: she was very friendly and clarified that it was the house driveway I needed, just a few metres from where I had pulled over. The office was in the house, not in a separate farm building as I had imagined.
I was especially glad to see Catherine after my frustrating search. She normally didn’t work here on Tuesdays, she told me, but the VAT returns were due today and she hadn’t managed to finish them the day before. We were both exceptionally pleased with the coincidence. She asked if she could come and eat her lunch in the church while I played; I was glad the deadline didn’t prevent her taking a lunch break.
The church was tiny, with a round tower: I was surprised to see one in this part of Suffolk. The interior was dark, most of its few windows being covered in stained glass, and the only lights I could find were for the chancel. This was also the most spacious part of the church, so I set up there. I thought the low chancel arch might block a lot of the sound from reaching Catherine at the back of the nave, but she assured me she could hear perfectly.
After I played through a Bach viola da gamba sonata, we chatted for a while, until she had to go back to work. I was surprised to hear that she considered herself tone-deaf, since I knew that her son, who learned the piano with Penny and also sang, was musical. But these things don’t always run in families, I suppose.
I practised for a few more minutes after she left before stopping to look around the church, which despite its darkness and unremarkable Victorian overhaul was in fact full of interesting details: I found an unusually large number of brasses, and several monuments covered in graffiti, presumably because the stone was so soft and lent itself to carving more easily than the building itself. I was sorry to see that all but one of the Lehunt family had been decapitated, as I had more than once seen with roof angels: this always strikes me as a particularly malicious and violent thing to do, no matter when in history or for what reason it was done. Apparently the one remaining head had also been removed, but was discovered in a field by a farmer while ploughing1.
I went back to my accommodation for lunch as it was so close, and there I took the opportunity to phone the two Thurlow churches. The number I’d been given for a man who kept the key in his porch was incorrect, but I managed to contact another keyholder and arrange a visit for the following morning.
All Saints’, Great Thurlow
I don’t know who I spoke to on the phone – I’m fairly sure it wasn’t the keyholder listed – but he was friendly and happy to let me into the church. Great Bradley wasn’t particularly ‘great’ (except in its loveliness), but Great Thurlow was: it was an aisled church and seemed much bigger. But I liked it: it felt old. There were lots of memorials to the Vesteys, a name the Thurlow keyholders shared. Perhaps they were an old farming family, and perhaps the man who let me in was another member of the family, or an employee of the farm.
The friendly man opened the church and then left me to my own devices. I took out the Haydn C major cello concerto. I had been asked by James, my accompanist, to play it in January with his orchestra: the Churchgate Sinfonia in Bury St Edmunds. I was extremely excited by the prospect, not having played a concerto since 2003. There are two Haydn concertos, and I was tempted to learn the one I hadn’t performed before: the D major, which was composed much later in his life. I had looked at both pieces to see whether the technical difficulty of the later work was really that much more extreme than the earlier one in C major. Eventually I decided in favour of the latter, not only because of technical considerations, but because there was something about the overall structure and arc of the piece that was more rounded and satisfying.
I found that the passing of 16 years did little to dim my memory of it: I had worked on it so much at the time that it was lying dormant somewhere at the back of my mind. But there was one problem. Before long, my thumb hurt too much to continue playing: I had lost the callouses which I had acquired to play another piece earlier in the year, and it didn’t take much thumb position to cause me agony. Disappointment departed quickly: the callous would be back before long, I realised, once I began to practise the piece in earnest. Only five minutes a day of thumb position was needed, I had discovered, to build up thumb strength and hardened skin within a couple of weeks.
After looking at some other music which didn’t involve physical pain, I stopped to look around. The church boasted a vast array of graffiti: boats, writing, symbols, initials and even a person’s face. I saw in the visitors’ book that the Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey had paid the church a visit. I wondered how they decided which churches to visit; whether they relied on word of mouth, or whether they were systematic about their visits. It would certainly be a fascinating subject to document and research.
It was 4 o’clock by the time I finished at Great Thurlow, and I decided against a fourth church visit. There were other things I wanted to fit into my day, namely writing and walking, and I didn’t want to arrive home more tired than I left. After all, I was meant to be on holiday.
Header photo: Screen detail, Great Thurlow