All Saints’, Chedburgh
One Saturday, I planned to visit Depden church, a locked church whose keyholder details I found online. But after she told me she was going out at 1.30 – I wasn’t quite sure I’d make it in time – and that I would have to walk ten minutes along a muddy field edge to get to the church (at this rate in the rain), I thought it might be more sensible to try Chedburgh. This poor church, by contrast, was right beside the A143. Luckily, she had the phone number for the keyholder there, and I had no trouble making alternative arrangements.
I picked up the key nearby and went back to the church, which, at first sight, wasn’t a very beautiful one: I found its grey brick tower bordering on ugly. It passed briefly through my head that perhaps this was in fact a Victorian church, not a medieval one. But once I managed to shift my gaze to the rest of the building, I concluded this wasn’t likely.
Practice was useful, despite the cold and its relative briefness: I needed to be home by three, for a visit from a friend. Walking round the church afterwards, I saw that from the south side, with its timber-framed porch, the tower mostly hidden and the spire less obtrusive – I am not a particular fan of spires – the church was actually quite pretty. It was the tower that was the problem, and the dull weather did nothing to cheer it up.
St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Aldeburgh
The following weekend I had a concert in Snape Maltings – the Verdi Requiem – with a rehearsal the night before, so a friend in Aldeburgh, Cristina, kindly put me up to save me a late-night drive home. I realised that now I was planning to visit all town churches as well as village ones, I could take advantage of being in the area of Aldeburgh, Leiston and Saxmundham. The figure of 500 churches is no longer a daunting one, so there is no reason to leave any out, apart from my aversion to large towns. But many, or most, of Suffolk’s towns are small and worth a visit; so now my list of villages is fast diminishing, I no longer feel so reluctant to visit town churches. Admittedly, however, I will still have to brace myself for Ipswich and Lowestoft.
Aldeburgh church, at the end of my friend’s road, was the obvious first candidate. I expected little of it, due to my usual prejudices against towns, seaside resorts and tourist hotspots. I’d even had to ask Cristina if there were any medieval churches in Aldeburgh. I thought they might all be Victorian. A ridiculous mistake, now I think about it. But I had a pleasant surprise in store.
As I was entering the church, I saw a team of ladies cleaning inside. One was just leaving. ‘Would it be ok if I played my cello here for a bit?’ I asked. I couldn’t have got a more welcoming response. ‘How lovely!’ she said. ‘I wish I hadn’t come early now, because I’m just leaving.’ ‘That’ll make cleaning so much better!’ said another.
I went to get my cello from the car, and met a couple coming the other way. The lady in the doorway said to them, ‘this young lady is coming in to play her cello while you clean.’ It always amuses me when I am described as a young lady; but I am starting to realise age is all relative…
‘Ah, we thought we recognised you!’ the man said. ‘We’re singing in the Snape concert tonight’.
‘I’ll hold off practising Verdi, then!’ I replied, laughing.
Everyone apologised for the cold church; but it didn’t feel cold to me, compared to recent church visits. I didn’t even need to use my fingerless gloves. The church was welcoming and pretty. Perhaps smaller than Orford church, I thought, which surprised me. It had a beautiful old floor and a lovely atmosphere, and not only because of my welcome party who seemed so pleased to have music to accompany their work. The acoustic, too, was a treat. I practised the Haydn C major concerto until well after everyone had left, and then I went to look at the Britten memorial window which the choir members had pointed out to me. I couldn’t resist trying out the Steinway grand piano, so unusual was it to find such a good piano in a church. Then I went out into the churchyard, where Cristina told me Britten’s grave was. I didn’t find it: the churchyard was huge, and I wouldn’t have known where to begin. I decided to wait until someone enlightened me as to its location.
Leiston was my next stop, but there was a Christmas fair taking place in the church. I went in thinking I might ask if they’d like a little cello music – after looking for a toilet, which was a more urgent matter – but in the end impatience caused by hunger, and the realisation that I had no suitable music with me, won over. I wasn’t in the mood for attempting to play from memory, and, even worse, I might be asked to play Christmas carols… So I decided to continue to Saxmundham. If I’d known I wouldn’t get in there either, I would have made an effort at Leiston; but after a stop for some food and being told a rehearsal was about to start in Saxmundham church (despite initial promising impressions of emptiness), it was too late and I didn’t have time to go back to Leiston before the afternoon rehearsal at Snape. I was disappointed; but with hindsight, a Saturday in late November was probably not the best time to expect to get into town churches, and perhaps I was lucky even to get into Aldeburgh. I always forget Christmas fairs, shows and concerts start so early, because I put off thinking about Christmas until at least the middle of December.
Pondering what to do, I eventually opted for going back to Snape and perhaps finding a coffee or having a look round the shops… and failing that, I would arrive the earliest I’d ever arrived in my life for a rehearsal.
St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Bardwell
Before I reached Bardwell church, I could see building works were underway. Most of the church was hidden by scaffolding and boarding. My heart sank: it would probably be closed. But to my amazement, it wasn’t. I was extremely impressed: I hadn’t yet come across a church that was open when internal building works were being carried out. My village church, Hitcham, was a current example. Admittedly, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the church in its full glory, but I was more concerned about getting inside, since I had no other church to visit in the area, besides Ixworth Thorpe, which I had almost no hope of getting into without making arrangements in advance.
It was a large church, cold and dark – darker because of several boarded up windows – before I turned on the lights. They were extremely slow to brighten, but once they did, the church felt more welcoming and I could see a number of consecration crosses and wall paintings. By far the most beautiful aspect of the church, however, was its intricately painted roof (see header photo).
I walked around the churchyard afterwards, taking my chance in the long, wet grass and ending up with thoroughly soggy feet. But it was a cold and beautiful sunny day, and I couldn’t forego my churchyard exploration. Then I headed to my friend Penny’s house in Bury. We drank tea by the fire and after a while I took off my shoes, lay on the floor and held up my feet to the log stove to warm up my feet and dry out my socks. An odd thing to do in someone else’s house, no doubt; but it struck me, not for the first time, what a special thing it was to feel so comfortable with each other that they didn’t bat an eyelid and I didn’t think twice about doing it. Teasing was still in order, however.
‘Do you do that in everybody’s house?’ her son Tim asked me when he got back from his driving lesson.
‘Of course!’ I replied, laughing. ‘It’s perfectly normal!’
Header photo: Roof detail, Bardwell church
Total churches to the end of November: 362 + 3 chapels