Suffolk churches 15: Iken, Sudbourne and Chillesford (May 2017)

Soon after my walk along the Alde estuary from Snape, I fixed a date to visit Iken church with my friend Mark, as I had promised not to go there without him. I very nearly left my cello at home, feeling it was an uncomfortable companion for a hot day out with another person and Bob the dog. But, in the end, it seemed to me the cello was the whole point: the idea of the trip originated with the cello, Mark had asked to come when I was going to play there, and I was reluctant to miss a day’s practice in the run up to my recital. So along it came.

St Botolph’s, Iken
Iken church looks isolated as you approach it along the estuary footpath, or even along the road, but once you reach it, it doesn’t feel very remote. There is a small settlement around it, and even a sophisticated roadside stall selling water, jam and other disparate consumables.


Although I would have loved to arrive on foot from the estuary path – the only proper way, I think, to come upon this church in all its glory – I didn’t feel quite so deprived as I might have, had I not walked nearly all the way there from Snape only ten days earlier. Entering the churchyard was enough of a pleasure to make me forget about my method of arrival: the moment of finally meeting the owner of the tower I had seen in so many photographs, and in person, poking out above the trees beside the estuary. I had heard a lot about it, but I didn’t realise its significance as a site of pilgrimage until I saw signs on the way and outside the church. Nor did I find out its connection to Burgh church (also St Botolph’s) until after my visit. Botolph is generally agreed to have founded his monastery here at ‘Icanho’ in the 7th century, and at some point after his death, his remains were transferred to Burgh church – probably because of the added safety of the fort, whose ramparts are still visible in aerial photographs.1

Iken wallThe interior of the church was a complete surprise to me. It was beautiful and unusual, but not particularly old, apart from its Norman nave walls, which were devoid of plaster and therefore could be appreciated for their remarkable patchwork of rubble. I thought it a shame that more church walls weren’t exposed like this. One area looked, to my eyes, exactly like a map of the mainland UK, with only the tip of Scotland, part of the west country and Kent missing.

Iken floorThe floor was a mixture pamments and quarry tiles and, as they were not pointed up, many of them were loose and clanged tunefully as I walked over them. The roof was the aspect of the church interior that felt most out of place, as it looked new. The reason for this was easy to discover in the church guide: the church was partially gutted by fire in 1968, caused by a spark from a bonfire in the churchyard landing on the thatch. I could only imagine how much trouble the gardener or tree surgeon would have been in for that mistake, and the devastation felt by the whole community.

Iken interiorThe church was empty, so I decided to leave most of the exploring till later and take advantage to start playing. It wasn’t as boomy as I expected, given all the hard surfaces. I wondered if the low roof might be the cause, or perhaps even the uneven surfaces of the render-less walls. As I was playing, a lady came in, but I had barely hesitated before she told me not to stop. A little later, Mark, who had been walking round the outside of the church, came in and warned me of the impending arrival of a couple, without realising I already had an audience.

I felt I ought to offer them the option of enjoying the church in silence, so stopped when they came in and moved my clutter in order that they could take photos if they wanted to. I started to say this to the lady who entered first, but before I could finish my sentence, she said, ‘Music?’ Wanting to check I’d understood her correctly, I replied, ‘You’d like me to start playing again?’ ‘Yes!’ she responded.

After sitting to listen for a while, she and her companion walked up to the chancel to look around. On her way back past me to leave the church, she gave me a hug. I was surprised and touched. That alone was enough to confirm that she wasn’t English, although I had suspected it from the few words she’d spoken. I asked where she was from, and she said Italy, but she had lived in London for many years. We talked briefly – her husband or partner was English, and said little – and then they left.

Iken headstoneAfter a little more practice and looking around – particularly fascinating was part of a Saxon cross shaft leaning against the wall opposite the entrance, made in the late 800s or early 900s and recently discovered the church tower wall – I was drawn outside by the sunshine to explore the churchyard with Mark.

We looked at the gravestones and I noticed several inscriptions of the kind Edward Thomas included in his book, In Pursuit of Spring. I made Mark laugh by referring to them as ‘strange rhymy things’ and he threatened to tell our poet friend Rebecca that this was my opinion of poetry. But it isn’t: these inscriptions could hardly be classified as poems, as Edward Thomas intimated many times in his humorous commentary on them.

‘Go home dear ones and shed no tears
I must rest here till Christ appears
Long was my life longer be my rest
Christ took me home when he thought best.’

I tried to tolerate it for the sake of the person buried there, and the beauty of the old gravestone, but I rebelled against the words and so turned my attention to the far more poetic and beautiful array of lichens growing on many of the headstones, which looked like paint splatters and rendered them partially illegible.

Iken gravestone Iken gravestone

Iken towerI then walked round the back of the church to see the estuary. The churchyard was smaller than I thought and didn’t extend behind the church, but over the wall it was possible to see the water – further away than it looked when approaching the church. As I walked round the tower, the flint sparkled in the sunlight.

On leaving, we saw a ‘no dogs’ sign on the gate leading to the churchyard across what I only later found out was a private road. Mark was indignant, and I was glad we didn’t spot it on the way in, as it might have sorely tested our generally law-abiding natures. And Bob might not have got to enjoy the sanctuary of Iken church, which I am convinced should make animals – especially those who don’t leave a mess – as welcome as it does humans.

All Saints’, Sudbourne
After having lunch at Snape Maltings, we decided to visit Sudbourne church a few miles away. I knew where it was, as I had passed it on the way to a fruit picking farm a year or two earlier, but I didn’t remember anything about it except that it was down a remote lane and therefore must be somewhere I would enjoy visiting.

Sudbourne approachIt didn’t disappoint: it was a lovely spot, and the low brick wall created an open-feeling though wild churchyard. We had a look around the heavily Victorianised but impressive interior of the church, but I was suddenly feeling sleepy in the early afternoon heat and so decided to lie down outside before attempting to play the cello.

No sooner did I say to Mark, ‘I’m going outside to lie down for a bit’, than a petrol strimmer started up in the churchyard, and I groaned. I couldn’t believe my bad luck. It did occur to me, however, that it would be a huge area to tackle with a strimmer, and by the time I had finished looking around the churchyard, admiring the blocked Norman doorway on the south side with some prompting from Mark (the architecture and history expert), and trying to find a spot as far away from the noise as possible, it stopped. Fortunately, it seemed the man had come to strim only one grave.

Sudbourne churchI found a bench facing the lovely view across the lane and lay down. What bliss it was to lie out in the sunshine with the sounds and smells of spring around me, not to mention the view and the cloudless sky when I opened my eyes. This was my idea of paradise. If only this moment could last forever, I thought… If it were possible to capture this moment in three dimensions – sounds, sights and smells – and replay it to myself every day in the depths of winter, would it keep me going until spring, I wondered? Or would it be too painful to remember how many months I would have to wait for the real version? I suspected the latter, after thinking about my feelings when seeing spring in films and on television at the wrong time of year; and in any case it would go against my desire to live in the present and learn to embrace whatever season I am in. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help dreaming for a moment, if only because I knew such a thing was impossible.

Sudbourne interiorEventually I felt ready for some cello playing. I had trouble locating a chair and was about to perch somewhat precariously on two kneelers placed on the step to the chancel, when Mark came to the rescue with a stool that he had found in a cupboard in the tower. The acoustic was better than in Iken church, which was a relief as I was still feeling rather lethargic and in need of some encouragement. Bob the dogAfter a while, I thought my two- and four-legged listeners had somehow snuck out without my noticing, until a head suddenly popped up above the pews and Bob appeared in the aisle. I couldn’t have asked for a more silent and appreciative audience.

Before leaving the church I had a look at the font, and was glad that my church visits were starting to educate me a little, so that by now even I could tell that it was Really Old, although I still had to rely on Mark to inform me it was Norman.

I left that idyllic churchyard reluctantly and with many a backward glance.

St Peter’s, Chillesford
We decided to stop at Chillesford on our way home. I visited the church for the first time last summer, and remembered it was along a sandy track and up a hill, with an unusually large and pleasant grassy car park. I had read about the church in one of Ronald Blythe’s books: it possesses a coralline crag tower, one of only two in England2, and the stone was probably obtained from the pit right beside the church. But I didn’t remember anything about the interior.

ChillesfordTo my surprise there were two caravans in the car park, and I suddenly wondered whether I’d mistaken a campsite for the church car park. But later I saw a small notice near the entrance to the car park explaining that it was both. I thought this a wonderful idea. It had almost no facilities and requested a maximum of five campers at one time: exactly my kind of campsite, so I might try it out one day soon.

Chillesford interiorThe interior of the church was tiny and refreshingly simple after the elaborate Sudbourne church, apart from the stained glass at the east end of the church was bright blue: a 1990s work of art by a Mellis-based artist. It was praised greatly in the church guide, and I felt I ought to like it, but I just couldn’t appreciate it in this setting. It jarred with the rest of the understated and neutrally coloured interior.

It wasn’t until I went into the chancel and looked towards the nave that I noticed that the chancel wasn’t in line with the rest of the church. I thought I was imagining it for a moment, as I hadn’t noticed any wonky churches until now and I couldn’t quite imagine why this would have happened.

In the tower there was clearly a big damp problem: all of the floor bricks were green. Outside, Mark shook his head at the render that was coming away from the wall in sheets: as a builder specialising in traditional repairs, he was itching to get his hands on this church. We both agreed that it would be far better to dispense with the render altogether, as in Iken church, and lamented this crazy obsession with neatness. Church walls look wonderful as patchy stonework, and seeing the materials helps me to imagine the people building it so many centuries ago. Besides, render, particularly (horror of horrors) ignorantly-used cement render, does nothing to help damp problems.

I moved away from the collapsing render to take a close-up look at the tower, seeing for the first time its clumsy and ugly cement pointing repairs which were not noticeable from a distance. In places, thankfully, the old lime mortar was intact, and I tried not to be distracted from the beauty of the stone, brick and lichen artwork.

Chillesford tower 2 Chillesford wall Chillesford tower 1

After today’s visits to Iken and Chillesford churches, I was beginning to realise that my plan to create a photo collage of church floors was not enough: I would also need one of church walls, and another of lichen-covered gravestones.

Chillesford doorWe headed home tired but happy, and I was exceptionally glad I had taken my cello: it provided a purpose and an extra dimension to our day’s adventures, requiring hardly more accommodation to its needs than Bob, who was more than content to forego a hot walk in favour of exploring churchyards.

1. Iken church guide.
2. The other is in neighbouring Wantisden.

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