St Peter’s, Baylham
It was another sunny day, and my destination was the road running between Needham Market and Ipswich: a prime location for churches I hadn’t yet visited. I didn’t know what to expect of Baylham; the only thing I knew of it was the Rare Breeds Farm, which was north of the village and on the other side of the railway, so not really in Baylham at all. The main road was as anonymous as I expected, but soon I came to a right turn signposted to the village. The church was up a hill, with stunning countryside views. There is little better than the quality of light on a sunny winter’s day, whether in the morning or the afternoon, and I stood gazing across the meadowed valley for a contented few moments before entering the church.
Three ladies were inside, cleaning. It took several tries for me to attract the attention of the one standing nearest to me with her back turned. They would be delighted for me to play the cello while they cleaned, they said, so I set up near the chancel, in the sunlight. It was a thoroughly Victorian church – I have since read it was largely rebuilt by the same person responsible for the railway stations at Stowmarket and Needham Market1 – and looked well-used and loved. I’m sure the presence of smiley, welcoming people added to this impression.
I soon warmed up in the sunshine and had to take off my coat and scarf. In the last couple of months I had perfected my clothing layers so that I didn’t need to take off my coat to play the cello. The scarf was more in the way, usually, pushing the cello scroll slightly too far from my neck; but it was not inconvenient enough for me to remove it unless I was warm. At one point, feeling my lack of stamina, I stopped for a short breather. ‘You can’t stop!’ one of the ladies called from halfway down the nave. I laughed.
Despite the need for breaks, I was happy with the progress of my practice, which isn’t often achievable when there are people listening. But the fact they were going about their tasks made me feel freer to do what I needed. When it was time to leave, we chatted for a few minutes as I packed up. They seemed keen for me to go back to give a concert, and I couldn’t have been happier to offer it. I said goodbye and took one last look at the view from the churchyard.
I drove down the hill to the junction and paused for a minute, waiting happily for a pair of goldfinches to finish drinking from a puddle in front of me.
St Mary’s, Great Blakenham
Great Blakenham church was a huge surprise. It was only a short distance from Baylham, but both the setting and the church were a complete contrast; oddly the wrong way round, I thought. The church was located on the main road, opposite modern houses and building sites for new developments – a thoroughly unattractive setting – but the church itself belonged in a remote village. It was small, old and delightful. I had a vivid visual image of the last century or two of roads, roundabouts and houses building up around this poor little church, which not long ago was almost certainly surrounded by fields. They tell us all this house building is necessary, and perhaps it is; but it is nevertheless a depressing sight to see field after field being turned into housing developments.
The porch and door were perhaps my favourite parts of this lovely little church; not to say that the interior wasn’t also charming. The Christmas tree display and knitted nativity scene in the chancel were sweet, and I discovered quite by chance that the stable lit up.
I sat in the chancel to practice, surrounded by colours and little lights and feeling perfectly content. Afterwards I discovered an even prettier display of decorations, up the rood stairs. The little bare tree with baubles was my favourite, but the position of the display was what made it so special.
As I walked round the churchyard in the afternoon sunshine, I thought perhaps I didn’t absolutely have to visit 4 churches today. I was feeling tired. If I just went to Claydon, I would have done enough practice, and I could also get home in time for a walk, which I hadn’t on my last day out. This idea felt like a relief, so I knew it was the right decision. My ‘four in a day’ plan was due to being worried about fitting in all the remaining churches before September, but I was already seeing that it only took a little extra effort – much of which was in fact administrative – to make quicker progress, and really there was no need to panic just yet. Enjoyment was more important.
St Peter’s, Claydon
Claydon church was one of few Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) churches I had left to visit. I was expecting an urban setting, but found the church up the hill leading out of the village, looking west across the A14 to the hills on the other side.
Many church visitors seem to circumnavigate a church before going inside; I usually do the opposite. Mainly because I prefer to do my playing first and look around afterwards; sometimes also because it is darker inside than out, so it is more practical on a winter afternoon to play and look inside first and take photographs. On this occasion, however, it might have been helpful to look at the exterior of the church first, as it would have enlightened me as to its odd construction. On the inside, it looked like a cruciform church, but it was the first such church I had seen with a tower at the west end, instead of at the centre. On the outside, it looked even stranger: the transepts and chancel appeared to be placed over the top of the nave, with a higher roofline. All became clear afterwards: I read that the Victorians had built the transepts. Almost as odd was the tower: it looked as though it was wearing a crown.
I went inside to a dark interior: already it would be difficult to take photos, I thought, and in common with most CCT churches, there was no electricity. But there was enough light to play, and the acoustic was wonderful. As I played, I reflected on the church interior. I had come to expect good things of CCT churches, and this one was pleasant, but a little dull in comparison to most – by which I suppose I mean largely restored, and with few historical details. The doorway by which I entered was Norman, and in the organ chamber – I was enlightened as to its identity by a sign on the windowsill – were some old-looking floor tiles and wall paintings. But the neglect of this church prior to its adoption by the CCT would, I suppose, be enough to make Victorian tiles and paintings look medieval, if one isn’t in possession of sufficient technical knowledge to know the difference. I can find no mention of them anywhere, and since the organ chamber is a Victorian addition, it is unlikely these details are any older.
After doing my best with indoor photographs, I went outside to explore, admiring the majestic beech and puzzling over the walls and little tower beyond the churchyard wall. They looked medieval, but in fact, I read afterwards, were the work of the 19th century Rector, George Drury. What a character he seems to have been.
Header photo: view from Claydon churchyard