A change in my church-visiting mentality had taken place over the previous few weeks. In the spring, James – my accompanist – suggested that a concert to celebrate my very last church visit would be a great way to end the tour. He thought it should be a church that I hadn’t yet played in, and since I had already played in over 300 churches, it required some mulling over. We finally settled on Orford, for its size, location and musical associations.
In the autumn, I finally got round to investigating the feasibility of our plan. ‘Yes’, came back the reply from the churchwarden responsible for bookings, ‘but it would be sensible to find a date sooner rather than later as we get quite a lot of bookings’. Yikes, was my internal response. How could I anticipate when I would finish my tour? I didn’t want to risk running out of time, but the winter months wouldn’t be suitable for a concert, so it would either have to be autumn 2020 or spring 2021, neither of which was strictly ideal: I expected to finish well in advance of spring, but the previous autumn might be a push. In the interests of caution, however, I finally settled on a date in May 2021, and James agreed.
But then came the blow. A few days later, James phoned to tell me he had been diagnosed with stage 4 oesophageal cancer. He would have chemotherapy, but they couldn’t operate. The part that was most astounding to me was that he had found out the morning of our recital in Halesworth. He and his wife, Bron, turned up at the church as cheerful as ever; I would never have guessed anything was wrong. They must have been devastated. I was devastated. Our friendship is a musical one, but no less important for its context. We get on so well, and enjoy playing together so much. He has been such an important part of my church tour, and my still-developing involvement in Suffolk’s music. And it was he who had asked me to play a concerto with the Churchgate Sinfonia.
After the news had sunk in, I started to think that perhaps the autumn concert date would be better after all. I asked James if he’d like me to bring it forward to September 2020. He said yes. I was nervous about finishing in time, but it would be worth it if it meant there was more chance of his being there, and perhaps even taking part.
In the context of these developments, I thought the best way to allay my worries about fitting in all the remaining churches by September was to try and be a bit more strategic in my church visiting. First of all I would try and identify the areas where I could potentially visit three or four churches in a day, instead of concentrating (as I had been) on individual churches scattered around the county that I hadn’t yet managed to access. Then I would try to find out if they were open, and if they were locked or information wasn’t forthcoming, I would try to make arrangements in advance. If I allowed myself half an hour’s practice in each church, I should have no trouble fitting in four churches before I ran out of daylight, even in mid-winter. The largest area of unvisited churches, I found, was to the north of Ipswich and across to Woodbridge – not inconveniently far away – so this would be my first target area.
The Christmas period was a good time to try and get ahead, I felt: I had kept it quiet for the purposes of writing, walks and cello practice. Moreover, the weather was mild, and there was no telling what would happen to the temperature later in winter. It was the penultimate day of 2019, and feeling that I had had enough rest over Christmas recovering from a nasty cough, and the realisation that it was only three weeks until I had to perform Haydn’s C major cello concerto, I deemed that a day out visiting churches would be both enjoyable and useful. It was a glorious day and I left home with a spring in my step.
St Mary’s, Grundisburgh
Pronounced, I found out not long ago, ‘Gruns-bruh’, I still can’t help calling the village ‘Grun-dis-burg’ as a joke when I am talking to friends. Village name pronunciation is quite the most ridiculous thing about Suffolk. I’m sure it’s a conspiracy instigated by locals so that they can tell at once who is not a ‘native’.
I thought I had passed through the village centre a year or two ago, and remembered the church’s setting. But either I hadn’t, or my memory was unreliable. I suspect the latter, having experienced this a few times lately: mental images of things I’ve seen sometime in the past don’t always match the rediscovered reality. I wasn’t expecting to find quite such a picturesque little village green, with the church set back behind it. This felt like a proper, rural village. I wouldn’t mind living here, I thought.
There were a lot of people out and about enjoying the sunshine. There were several people inside the church, too, but by the time I had retrieved my cello from the car, most of them had left or were outside in the churchyard. ‘No busking allowed here!’ one man said to me, laughing, as I entered the churchyard with my cello and music stand.
I didn’t expect a modern brick tower. But it was attractive in its own way, especially in the bright sunshine. I was amazed to discover afterwards that it was built in 1732. I had never seen anything so old that was so modern-looking. I could have sworn it didn’t date to earlier than the late 19th century; but then, what do I know about architecture?
When I entered, I could see immediately that the church deserved its visitors: it was a bright, pretty interior with a beautiful hammerbeam roof, rood screen and wall paintings. I rather liked the quilt Nativity story too. I warmed up quickly when I started practising, and people came in and out, looking at the church, pottering about or carrying watering cans. It was lovely to feel the church was alive with activity, not semi-abandoned, as some seem to be.
I was reluctant to leave, and decided to do my errands in this appealing village which was blessed with a post office and shop: I needed cash, a few vegetables and fruit, and some throat sweets. First I thought the shop opposite the church might have what I was looking for, but as soon as I walked through the door I could see it was one of those delightfully old-fashioned village shops, of which few remain these days: it sold a range of items from kindling to mops to birthday cards, all displayed in a slightly haphazard manner. I did manage to buy some cough sweets, but nothing else. The lady behind the counter told me the post office and village shop were on the other side of the green, next to the pub. So I went for a little wander, enjoying the warmth of the sun, and chatting to all the cheerful people I passed who greeted me with ‘what a lovely day!’
I couldn’t disagree.