All Saints’, All Saints South Elmham
It was time for a return visit to the South Elmhams and Ilketshalls. I had visited many, but by no means all, the ‘Saints’: they boast a total of 13 churches between them. And, so far, I’d found all of them open.
All Saints’ was my first stop. I drove down a track signposted to the church, until it stopped at the entrance to a house. Another signpost pointed along a field edge, and behind a high hedge I could see the church tower. Reassured that it was close by, I took out my cello, bag and music stand and walked along the footpath.
The churchyard was lovely. I felt as though I was in the middle of nowhere – which, by church standards, I was. Incredibly, this is the only one of the many Saints churches that has been declared redundant. It is a Churches Conservation Trust church: not as interesting as some, perhaps, but still with a lovely atmosphere, a beautiful Norman font, interesting bench ends and some medieval stained glass. It was a little worse for wear, with cracking plaster and ‘do not cross’ tape in a few places.
There wasn’t much space to play by the altar, except directly in front of it, and the only available chair was chained to the floor. So I went to the back of the church and sat on a pew facing east. It was too high and quickly became uncomfortable, so I moved to the chest in the south aisle. It wasn’t my most inspired cello practice session, but it was functional, and my enjoyment of this remote church and its surroundings made the practice incidental.
I tried St Margaret’s South Elmham next. I was so confident it would be open that I took all my equipment up to the church without checking first. It was partly because all churches seem to be open in this area, but also that I’d read on the Suffolk Churches site that all the churches in the benefice were open, and it is rare that Simon Knott is wrong about such things – unless a church that used to be locked is now kept open. But it was locked, and the keyholder’s phone was engaged. I could have waited, but, deciding that there was no shortage of other Saints churches in the area, I moved on to St Cross South Elmham down the road.
St George’s, St Cross South Elmham
St Cross South Elmham was a sweet little place. The road was fairly busy, but it lay in a valley, and I enjoyed my drive through it. When I finally located the driveway to the church, I was surprised by what I saw: it was an unusually tall church that appeared to have two storeys, due to the absence of a south aisle and the presence of a clerestory. As the clerestory indicated, it was also large, larger than all the other Saints I had so far visited.
I was confused to see on the noticeboard that the church was dedicated St George: it was the first Saints church that didn’t carry the same name as its village. I wondered whether, perhaps, Cross wasn’t someone’s name, and that dedications had to be to people – with the exception of All Saints. But I am ignorant in such matters, and some brief research suggested the names derive from ‘St George Sandcroft/Sancroft’; some 19th century sources say the church was also known as ‘Sandcroft’1.
I entered through a Norman doorway to a tall, narrow church; just as I expected from its external appearance. I didn’t feel like doing much more cello practice, but usefully spent the time putting bowings and other markings into my Beethoven trio part, which I was looking forward to performing at Brundish the following weekend. It would be the first ‘real’ chamber music I would be performing in a church concert in Suffolk.
I surprised myself then by becoming absorbed in the Bach E flat major suite. It began, as usual, with pain in my left hand, but after treating it like a study and playing slowly for a while, it began to hurt less, giving me hope that one day I might be able to tolerate the level of pain required to play it all the way through, as a piece of music rather than a study.
Still, I was ready to call it a day by the time I stopped playing. I had originally intended to visit 3 churches this afternoon, but I keep having to remind myself that it is a waste of a church visit if I simply make myself go when I don’t have the energy or motivation, because I love the project so much that I will be sad when it is over. I already feel that the end is in sight. 150 churches don’t seem so many when you have visited nearly 350… What a change from the start of my project when anything above 100 seemed almost unachievable!
I left a hair on the chancel floor that had come off my bow while I was practising. I don’t make a habit of leaving litter in churches, but this seemed harmless enough, and there was something appealing about creating a little mystery by leaving a strand of horse hair in a church… I am not sure that anyone who wasn’t a musician would guess what it was. I liked to imagine what would pass through the person’s head who found it; like when I accidentally left my digital thermometer on a gravestone in Spexhall churchyard. But maybe I was being silly. It might not even be noticed. Perhaps it would be swept up without a second thought, along with the dead flies and mouse droppings.
Header photo: All Saints South Elmham churchyard