St Botolph’s, Culpho
After Grundisburgh, I drove down the road to Culpho. It was a pleasant change to find churches all within five minutes’ drive of each other, after my tour of north-west Suffolk before Christmas, which has the most spaced out parishes of the whole county. I have forgotten the reason for this, and haven’t managed to track down the information I once read about it. I also had to look up again the strange village name: apparently it is derived from Old English and means ‘Culf’s spur of land’ – from ‘hoh’, the same origin as the word ‘Hoo’, as in Sutton Hoo and Dallinghoo.
I didn’t get a good look at the church until I crossed the road afterwards. It seemed a slightly odd shape, however, especially considering how tiny it was. It was Norman, which I could tell from its sloping walls, but it felt quite modern inside with its lack of pews and brick interior chancel wall. It was unique in my experiences of Suffolk churches. I wondered which contributed more to the stunning acoustic: the sloping walls or the brick.
Looking around afterwards, I saw a plaque which I suspected I had seen before in a photograph. Culpho was a ‘thankful village’: a village to which every solder returned home alive from the First World War. The reason I had seen it before was Darren Hayman, a songwriter who had visited every thankful village – estimated at a total of 54 – and written a short film or song about the village. I haven’t watched or listened to any of them, but Culpho seems a good place to start. The only other thankful village in Suffolk is St Michael’s South Elmham, near Bungay.
St Mary’s, Playford
The lane down to Playford was winding and narrow, and I had to look up towards the sky when I arrived: the church was up a steep hill beside the road. It reminded me of Brightwell. But this time I didn’t make the mistake of carrying all my equipment up to the church before checking it was open. Luckily it was, and the view from the churchyard was delightful. There was a bench outside the porch bathed in sunshine, and I couldn’t resist sitting for a moment in this sheltered spot: it was certainly the weather for winter sunbathing. I would have been quite happy to stay there and forget about playing indoors, but I eventually overcame my inclination towards laziness and went back to fetch my cello.
It was worth the effort: Playford was a beautifully simple, bright church, again with a good acoustic. Apparently the interior was almost all Victorian, but this was a Victorian restoration I was more than happy with: spared from over-elaborate architectural design, the darkness of stained glass and the ugliness of the red and black chequered quarry tiles seemingly so beloved of the Victorians. Medieval graffiti and brasses helped it retain a more ancient atmosphere. I completed my designated half hour’s cello practice, but I would quite happily have stayed longer. I was revelling in both my practice and my day out in this beautiful area of countryside blessed with hills, meadows and flood plains.
St Mary’s, Great Bealings
Great Bealings church was in an equally picturesque, though flatter, area of countryside: I found it hard to believe I was so close to Ipswich. I always think of this as the Woodbridge area, but there is little distance between the two. Outside the porch was a small tree in flower: an acacia, I think, but I didn’t look closely enough at the leaves and flowers to be able to identify it when I got home. It was uplifting to see such bright colour at the very end of the year; I don’t think of yellow as a winter tree blossom colour, apart from winter jasmine. Though now I have started looking into the subject for the benefit of my own garden, I am discovering it is in no short supply.
Beyond the beautiful carved door, the interior wasn’t so much to my liking. It was a more typically Victorian ‘make-over’, with heavy stained glass and dark wood. On an afternoon like this, I would rather have been outdoors, and it made me regret that I wouldn’t get home in time for a walk before dark. It also had the effect of making the church seem – or perhaps actually be – colder. My first search for light switches was fruitless, so I sat down to play in the chancel, where the most space and a little more light was to be found. From there, I had a good view of some entertaining 19th century bench ends: a rhinoceros, and a characterful and large human head, amongst others. Once I got stuck into practice, and my hands warmed up, I enjoyed this church as much as the others. Afterwards, I examined all the bench ends: in some instances it wasn’t entirely clear which were medieval and which Victorian, especially in such low light, but it didn’t really matter, I enjoyed them all. Eventually I did find some light switches, but even then was only just able to photograph them.
I went outside to the perfect late afternoon winter sunlight and spent a few minutes taking in the view across the meadows. It was heavenly. I couldn’t get enough of this landscape. Exploring it felt like my kind of adventure, similar to the walk I had been on near Holbrook the day before with my friend Steve: a landscape of wetlands, meadows, hills and little streams and rivers. As I was walking back to the car, I even briefly considered going to Little Bealings church before heading home. I was still feeling energetic, and five churches in a day would be a record. My Christmas rest period must have done a sterling job, but it also made a big difference that all the churches were open, and close together.
But creatures won over: I had to get home to shut in the chickens before it got too dark. Even though they have a timed door on their shed, I still get anxious if I haven’t shut the courtyard gate too, for extra security against foxes. I got in the car and headed home, on a high from all of the day’s beauty, as well as the satisfying hours of cello practice I had achieved.
Header photo: Great Bealings churchyard
Total churches to the end of December: 380 +3 chapels