All Saints’, Ixworth Thorpe
Ixworth Thorpe was worth the wait. I had been passed from one person to the next, each one saying they would let me in at 2pm on my way down from Norfolk; each one then getting in touch to say they couldn’t, or another person phoning me to say the previous person couldn’t. But eventually I arranged with Karen, the Rector of Ixworth and the countless other churches in the benefice, to stop off the following Monday on my way to Rushford, a village on the Norfolk border where I would be staying for three nights to visit the churches in northwest Suffolk.
I was running late, as usual when I have to get my animals and myself ready to go away. No matter how much time I leave for the job, it never seems to be enough. And on this occasion one of my Brahma chickens was coming along for the ride, in a dog crate. This would be an amusing novelty for me: Church Visits with Fluffy Chicken. I knew I would worry about her if I left her at home for more than two days without dedicated attention: she needs feeding and watering at least twice a day, and this is a time consuming business, as she is blind and keeps losing her food and water, even if it is right in front of her. So my travelling companion she would be.
I arrived at the church worried about having kept Karen waiting, but she was unconcerned, smiley and welcoming. I was intrigued to know where we had met, as two of the previous people I had spoken to on the phone had mentioned Troston, but I hadn’t met anyone at Troston. When I asked, she said she was at my Great Livermere concert a few weeks earlier.
The door was beautiful: I wondered how old it could be. As old as the Norman doorway, perhaps? I had understood from our communications that Karen was going to stay and listen, but after chatting for a short time whilst I marvelled at the church – a special favourite of hers, she told me – and its spectacular set of medieval bench ends, she said, ‘would you like to be left alone or shall I stay and listen?’ I was anxious not to take up her precious time but at the same time to sound welcoming if she did want to stay. We were both, it seemed, anxious to do as the other wished; but finally she admitted that she would like to stay and listen.
I started to play some of Bach’s E flat major suite, with fingers so cold I could barely feel them. I was surprised, frankly, that I was able to play at all, but perhaps it’s a matter of being accustomed; I had done it often enough now. The acoustic also makes a big difference. I continued with the Haydn C major concerto, choosing the slow movement, which I felt would be pleasant for a listener whilst also achieving some useful practice.
After I stopped playing, Karen came up to talk to me. She said she’d been ill over the weekend and really appreciated the time just to stop, listen and be in the moment, ‘with heaven around her’. She, the religious; I, the unreligious; but we were in agreement. It didn’t really matter in that moment whether the description was literal or metaphorical, or the fact I was the player and she the listener. The experience was shared.
Afterwards I examined more closely the figures and animals on the bench ends: I always find it curious to discover mermaids, unicorns and other mythical creatures in a religious building. I particularly liked the lady with a dog on a lead. ‘It’s comforting to know some things haven’t changed since medieval times’, I said. Karen agreed.
After she left, I went back to walk round the churchyard. The little church was quite as attractive outside as inside. I left with a spring in my step for my next appointment at Euston church.
St Genevieve’s, Euston
I reached the track to Euston church on a bend in the road. It was an estate church, but also Euston parish church, so I discovered. But it wasn’t medieval. I knew this and still chose to visit: I wanted to see any historical church building, and 17th century was certainly old enough for my tastes.
Shortly the track ran out and I had to drive across a field, but not before I spotted the church and could see where I was going. What a huge open space, I thought, not to have any livestock grazing on it. The churchyard was simply a walled-in corner of the grassland. The church looked slightly odd, but I was interested to see inside.
Edward, the keyholder – and, as he later told me, archivist for the Euston Estate – opened the west door as I walked up to the church. He was very welcoming, and told me he’d put the heating on full blast to take the edge off the cold. ‘Oh, you didn’t need to do that!’ I exclaimed, ‘I’m used to the cold now’. But I was grateful nevertheless.
I set up at the front of the nave, thinking the church bright and cheerful with the lights on. It reminded me a little of a Cambridge college chapel, apart from the pews facing eastwards: ‘collegiate style’ pews face towards the central aisle, as at Rushbrooke church. Edward told me he had some things to do in the village but would return in a little while and ask me for some dates next year when I might come back to give a concert. I could play as long as I liked; there was no rush. I was grateful to have some time to practise on my own. Thumb strength and stamina seemed to be improving gradually: oddly, it was my right thumb, not my left, that eventually started to hurt. I took this as a positive sign, knowing this was simply from practising the same section so many times: it wouldn’t hurt when I played the piece through once.
We chatted a while when Edward returned – just as I’d packed up my cello – and he gave me a tour of the church and its features: unusual Victorian stained glass, a 17th century chair, the wood carving at the altar. I gave him possible concert dates as best I could without my diary – luckily commitments next summer were still sparse – and then I went for a stroll in the churchyard. Edward mentioned that the 17th century font (which had been replaced by a Victorian one) was out there, but I didn’t manage to find it. The only promising-looking piece of stone looked more like a birdbath or plant pot than a font.
As I drove back to the road, my query about the big empty space of estate land was answered: a herd of sheep was trotting towards me, apparently unconcerned by the presence of a moving car. That was more like it.
Header photo: Euston estate and churchyard wall