St Andrew’s, Walberswick
For some time, I thought there were only ruins at Walberswick church. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I’d never walked, only driven, past, and when driving one’s eyes are drawn to the most obvious feature: ruins are hard to overlook. That was the only reason I hadn’t yet visited Walberswick church: I was waiting for a convenient sunny summer day. But after giving a concert at Covehithe, I read its history, in which a comparison was made to Walberswick: they were both small churches built within the shell of a larger church. The ruins of the large churches are in fact on the scale of Blythburgh. The newer, small churches are completely out of proportion with the enormous towers they join onto, but each is unique and beautiful.
I was astonished when I went inside: Walberswick seemed to be almost as much window as wall. And they were all clear: no stained glass in sight, apart from one lovely window with a central panel made up of fragments of glass found in the ruins (photo below). It was almost as light as being outdoors. Everything about it was beautiful, I thought: porch, font, floor, roof… A few people at the back of the church were interested to know why I had appeared with my cello and music stand; I explained and we chatted briefly, but they left before I started playing. I hoped it wasn’t on my account: I did check they didn’t mind, and made it clear they were welcome to stay.
Before long, a man came in and sat at the back while I played Four pieces for cello and piano by Frank Bridge. When I had finished, he stood up and walked towards me.
‘You made me cry’, he said.
I was alarmed, and ready to apologise.
‘I’m sorry… Do you mean the music made you cry?’
‘The cello always makes me cry,’ he replied.
I was relieved; I had feared that perhaps I had been the particular cause of reviving some horror or bereavement that had overwhelmed him. Perhaps there was something… everyone has something. But it was the cello, and he had come in on purpose to listen. I was touched. Another man came in later while I was playing a Bach suite, saying, ‘I could hear it from the road, it’s my favourite music’. I was amazed the sound carried that far, especially in the rain.
I went back the following day to explore the ruins, when the weather was better. Something struck me almost before I even entered the vast space which was once the nave: the ruins were repaired, much as a whole, roofed building might be. Stone had been replaced, flints had been repointed. Inside the ruins was a sign asking visitors help preserve the ruins by not sitting or standing on them.
I was in a dilemma. Were they really ruins if they were being repaired? Did it make complete sense to preserve them, or no sense at all? Aren’t ruins by nature supposed to be – to use a favourite expression of my friend Mark’s – ‘fall-y down-y’? Does preservation for future generations take precedence, or even simply health and safety? Yes, most of us love ruins, but doesn’t part of their value and attraction lie in watching the process of their reclamation by nature?
I had far more questions than I had answers or strong opinions. They weren’t all rhetorical questions: I genuinely couldn’t decide – logically – whether there was a ‘right’ approach to the problem. There were pros and cons to both. But I suppose my instinct did lean towards ‘ruined’ ruins, and I did feel that repair funds, which are always in short supply, ought really to go first to churches that are not intended to turn into ruins.
St Mary’s, Sweffling
After Walberswick it was time to go further afield. I knew, when I chose to stay in Walberswick, that it would mean more driving than usual, as I had visited all the churches in the immediate vicinity. But still, there were plenty of churches within 20-30 minutes’ drive, which was much closer than trying to visit churches from home these days. There were pockets of a few churches here and there that I had either not got round to yet or had found locked on previous attempts. Besides, I had realised, it is more convenient to be staying on the doorstep of the walks I want to go on than the churches I want to visit. If it is the other way round, it often means carrying my cello on walks with me, which – despite my new lightweight cello case – is obviously not my preferred option.
I chose to head south this afternoon, to Sweffling. I had been there before – twice in fact – but had managed to forget a crucial piece of irritating information: the church was locked and there was no keyholder notice. I have found few such churches in my travels. If a locked church is almost unforgiveable, the lack of a keyholder notice is wholly so.
This time I wasn’t going to walk away, however. I phoned the vicar, whose number was on the noticeboard. Normally I avoid phoning vicars, mainly out of respect for their busy schedules, and thinking they are unlikely to be a) nearby and b) free to open the church – that is, if they even answer the phone, which they rarely do, in my small experience. But I was on a no-mercy mission. Any rector who allowed their church to be kept locked with no keyholder notice was asking for trouble, as far as I was concerned.
Still, I didn’t hold out much hope of an answer, and I didn’t get one. I even tried the mobile number. Then I had an inspired idea. I went to one of the houses nearest the church gate and rang the doorbell. A man answered.
‘Did you just drive past?’ he enquired. ‘I thought you might have been looking for me’.
‘Oh, was it you just on the road?’ I responded. ‘No, I didn’t realise this was your house – I wanted to see inside the church and I wondered if you might know where I could find a key, as there’s no keyholder notice’.
To my relief, he responded immediately, ‘Come with me. It’s easier if I show you where it is, and then you’ll know where to return it to’.
I was more than relieved, in fact: I was chuffed. Perhaps I was finally getting the hang of this key-hunting business. Maybe in the middle of a small village, a keyholder notice was deemed superfluous. Everyone in the village knew where the key was, after all, and if you were a stranger… well, then, if you didn’t have the initiative to knock on a few doors, perhaps you didn’t deserve the privilege of seeing inside their church. Chances are, you’d have as much luck finding a key by knocking on doors as if you tried phoning listed keyholders.
The friendly man took me along the road to the porch of an unnamed neighbour, went inside and fished about in a ceramic pot. On his second or third attempt, out came the church key. I thanked him for his help, made sure I could remember which house it was, and headed triumphantly up the hill to the church. I was pretty pleased with myself, and with the outcome of my key hunt. Perhaps this was how it was always done in the past, and it had only just occurred to me. I now felt much more friendly towards Sweffling church, and its village, even though it was my actions as much as theirs that had determined the outcome.
Perhaps my eagerness to gain entry caused me somewhat to overlook the beauty of the exterior, including the 15th century porch. The interior of the church was average Victorian fare, with a few interesting details, but my key-hunting adventure made me extra grateful to be inside. Besides, its acoustic was certainly not average, and I took my time, settling down to my cello practice in the pleasant knowledge that I could stay as long as I liked.
St Peter’s, Cransford
Due to my leisurely visit to Sweffling church, it was after 5pm by the time I reached Cransford. When I saw on the noticeboard that it was only open until 5, I approached nervously, willing it still to be open.
It was. I’d had good luck today. I felt gratitude towards the people of Cransford who didn’t carry out their duties too punctually, especially as – I afterwards discovered – this church used to be one of few in the area kept locked. I was also grateful for something else: a reminder of the huge advantage of visiting each church with my cello. Although opinion is varied on the interest of Cransford church, the general consensus seems to be that there isn’t a lot to see here1. The one line of notes I wrote about my visit – by far the most sparing of my whole stay in Walberswick – is also evidence that it was among the more ordinary of my church visits. But an ordinary village church is rarely a dull church, and even more rarely so if you can play music in it. A good acoustic can transform an apparently dull church into a dream. I enjoyed my visit to Cransford, I liked its atmosphere, and by playing music in it I was able to form a bond with it far better than if I had simply walked in, looked around and walked out again.
Architectural historians also rarely take into account incidental beautiful details. Many of them come and go, or develop over time with the effects of weather, nature and repairs to the building. Here, on the south side of the church I found a blocked doorway along a stretch of wall decorated by live and dead ivy. The effect was worthy of a painting.