My church trips seem to bring luck. On several occasions I have found, heard or seen new things before leaving home, or on the journey. Today it was newts: I caught sight of one in the front pond as I was opening the driveway gate, the first since I had found two in the flowerbed wall more than eighteen months ago. A Sainsbury’s delivery driver had spotted another one crossing the same driveway after dark last autumn. He thought it was a lizard, but I knew it was a newt.
This excitement of course delayed my departure: I had to make sure I wasn’t mistaken, and watch for a while to see if there was more than one, and whether I could tell which kind of newts they were. After half an hour or so, I had spotted four newts in one little sunny patch near the edge of the pond. At least one of them was a great crested newt. I am hopeful this small sample area indicates a healthy breeding population.
I was due at a friend’s house in Fen Ditton, near Cambridge, around 3pm. Thanks to the newts, I had to reduce my ambitions to two short church visits with as small a detour as possible from the A14. I looked at a map and tried to work out exactly where the Suffolk-Cambridgeshire border was. This is not entirely straightforward, as Newmarket is most awkwardly incorporated into Suffolk, and parts of the border in this area were moved as recently as 1994. Even Simon Knott couldn’t seem to decide whether Landwade church should really be included as a Suffolk church1.
I opted for the south side of the A14 which looked easier, and on this occasion I did look up the churches in advance, in order to avoid any that I might find locked, or at least be prepared for this eventuality and have alternative options nearby so that I wouldn’t arrive unacceptably late in Fen Ditton. I also knew I might get lost and end up in one village instead of another: my sat nav isn’t particularly useful for exploring country lanes or finding churches, and my OS explorer maps don’t extend to this corner of the county – nor much of west Suffolk in general, I realised. I think of Bury St Edmunds and Long Melford as west Suffolk, but there is approximately another quarter of the county, which I hardly know, lying west of these two places, and I probably wouldn’t recognise the majority of village names there. Luckily I knew that my churches tour would remedy this ignorance, in time.
All Saints’, Gazeley
Gazeley was my first stop. Opposite the churchyard stood a small flint barn with a red tile and corrugated iron roof, standing alone on a grassy island between the main street and the village pub. I couldn’t tell what it was used for, if it was still used at all, but its presence endeared the village to me: it gave the place an authentic, rural feel, resisting the ever more prevalent tendency to ‘tidy up’ or take financial advantage of space in the centre of the village.
The Suffolk churches entry on Gazeley church led me to expect the possibility of finding this church locked, so I was glad to find a notice welcoming visitors at the churchyard gate. As I walked up to the church, I passed a man on a ride-on mower with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I was becoming somewhat accustomed, though not entirely reconciled, to noisy church visits, but at least playing the cello usually drowned out the background noise.
What still felt like a novelty, however, was feeling warm, not to say overheated, when playing the cello inside a church. Warming the inside of a church from the outside seems to me a little like the mammoth task of warming a lake or even the sea, and so it surprises me that it doesn’t take a whole summer season for the outdoor temperature to penetrate the fortress of church walls. We had not had many weeks, or even days, of warm weather yet.
The church was large and light. I particularly liked the porch with its ancient-looking flagstones, and the spacious chancel. But I soon realised that it wasn’t just the time that was pulling me on: it was also the weather. On a hot, sunny day like this I get restless if I am indoors for too long. Because of this, I had recently started practising the cello in the garden – something I did very rarely before – and hoped that an added advantage might be that the complete lack of acoustic assistance outdoors would counteract the excessive assistance given by many churches I had practised in recently, and would stop me getting too dependent on it. This was starting to feel important as my June recital approached: Long Melford church, huge as it is, is quite difficult to play in, and feels more similar to playing outdoors than playing in many of the small, boomy village churches I had visited.
St Peter’s, Moulton
I had planned to go to Dalham after Gazeley, having read great things about both the village and its church, but, remembering the village name wrongly as Darham, my satnav didn’t recognise my request. I soon realised my mistake on passing a sign, but as I was now facing the wrong direction, I decided to continue to Moulton instead.
The first thing I came upon was a bridge next to a waterless ford that somehow I did not at first recognise as a historical construction, perhaps because of the dullness of the concrete road it sat next to, and because I had never seen such a bridge. But examining its arches quickly led me to wonder if I was looking at something special.
I didn’t know exactly where the church was, so I chose ‘Church Road’ from the list of streets my sat nav offered me. After travelling a fair distance down this road I started to have doubts, and so stopped to ask a driver approaching from the opposite direction. As soon as he opened his car window, I thought perhaps I had chosen the wrong person to ask. There was something about him – not his car – that made me think he might be a tradesman and not a resident of the village. ‘It’s just down there – and it’s beautiful!’ he said enthusiastically. Thanking him and delighted with this unexpected response, shaking my head at myself internally for my misjudgment, or perhaps even unconscious prejudice, I continued driving and hardly a second later the church came into view past the trees and up a hill to the left, surrounded by meadows. He was right: what an idyllic spot for a church, and what a beautiful approach.
It took me a few moments to locate the entrance, as the tarmac footpath led only to the north door of the church, which was locked. Once on the south side, I noticed how strange it was that the tower looked in proportion with the church when approaching from the road, but from the churchyard it looked stumpy and much too short. This didn’t detract from my appreciation of the view, which was more influenced by the spring-filled churchyard than by the proportions of the church.
The church looked dressed to get married. I guessed from the condition of the flowers that the wedding had taken place on Saturday, two days before. I could hear buzzing. Hearing this sound in churches is one of the few places in which it makes my heart sink: I knew that these unfortunate buzzers would be unlikely to escape, and there was nothing I could do to help them. It reminded me of the colony of honey bees I had found inside Ufford church the previous summer, crowding round a window, many dead or dying. I had found phone numbers for the churchwardens on the porch noticeboard and dialled the first one on the list: the lady who picked up told me they knew about the bees. My first reaction was relief, but after I hung up I wished I’d asked what would be done to release them from their prison. I couldn’t bring myself to phone her back again, so walked away with a heavy heart.
The first thing I did inside the church was look for a church guide, and, in it, for information about the bridge, although I wasn’t sure other village features would be mentioned in a church guide. Thankfully, though, the parishioners of Moulton were proud enough of their 15th century ‘packhorse bridge’ – spanning the River Kennett on the old main route between Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds – to include it, and I was surprised that I had never heard of it before. But this was a point in favour of not reading about churches and their villages prior to visiting: I was glad I had managed to overlook any mention of Moulton possessing this historical treasure, and it was such a wonderful surprise that I wanted to arrive in every village and every church just as unprepared. Of course, this would carry the danger of missing any special features as I wouldn’t be searching for them – as has already happened on several occasions. But, if I only find out about them afterwards, I have a reason to go back. Luckily, however, on this occasion I didn’t miss the special feature, and I celebrate the day that Moulton changed, for me, from an anonymous sign on the A14 into such a memorable place.
Header photo: Packhorse bridge in Moulton