St Mary’s and St Peter’s, Barham
Barham, near Claydon, was my aborted 4th church visit from a few days earlier. Like Claydon, this church was also up the hill on the east side of the A14, but from this churchyard there were clear views across the Gipping Valley. It was a lovely setting, but the noise of traffic was unrelenting, and I knew that everything between here and the opposite hill was road, rail or housing, mostly new developments. It was not as rural as it appeared at first glance.
A lady was getting out of her car as I pulled into the car park.
‘Is there an event on in the church, do you know?’ I asked her. ‘There seem to be a lot of cars here’.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘They might be in the meeting room at the back. It’s unusual for there to be so many cars. I’ve just come to do the flowers’.
We both went up to the church, and found it empty, so I went back to fetch my cello. When I returned, the lady I had arrived with was talking to another lady.
‘You’re welcome to play your cello,’ she said. ‘We’ve had communion in the other room and we’re having tea now. Please do join us if you’d like’.
It was a kind offer, and if daylight hadn’t been in such limited supply, I might have accepted. But I thought I’d better get on and start practising. As I turned right towards the chancel, I encountered a large rubble bag full of straw.
‘Has a donkey been living in here over Christmas?’ I asked.
‘You’re not far off,’ they replied. ‘We had a stable in the side chapel!’
I laughed and started setting up. As I played, people drifted out of the back doorway and through the church to leave. They all smiled and waved. Eventually, the vicar came into the church and walked up the aisle towards me, picking up two doll babies lying on the front pew. I assumed they had been used for the nativity scene, though I did wonder why there were two instead of one. He saw me smile, and said, ‘they used to be my daughters’’. But I misunderstood, thinking he meant, ‘they used to be my daughters’, ie. that his daughters stood in for the dolls in the nativity scene when they were babies. I therefore credited him with a sense of humour, and laughed. I’m sure he did have a sense of humour; however, in this case his self-respect was apparently under threat, and his association with dolls required justification.
A little while later, the lady who invited me to tea came to chat before leaving. She said I could come to play here any time I wanted, and asked about my church tour.
After I had given her the short version of the story, she responded, ‘that sounds like a very lonely thing to do’.
This was one reaction I had never had before. I was taken aback: the word ‘lonely’ would never have occurred to me in conjunction with my church tour. As far as I am concerned, one might as well consider cello practice lonely, or taking a solitary walk, or having a shower. Or writing, for that matter. There are many words I would use to describe my church visits, but ‘lonely’ is not one of them. In a literal sense, you never know who you might meet and have a chat with. And it has in fact made my life very much more sociable, through new friends I have made, musicians I have started to play with regularly – sometimes they visit churches with me – and the huge numbers of concerts I have given in village churches. I would say I am more outgoing now than I ever was before. Still naturally an introvert, yes, but also now a part-time extrovert. In a broader sense, I am surrounded by the history of a whole community, by the beauty of architecture and countryside, by my daydreams, and by music. To me, this journey encompasses adventure, beauty and creativity. Can these things ever really be lonely, if you are absorbed and inspired by them?
After everyone had left, I managed to play through the last movement of the Haydn cello concerto – now only 10 days away from the concert – without having to stop, which was a great relief. This was my biggest worry about the piece: the stamina required to play this particular movement. By the end I was starting to overheat, making me realise both the physical effort I had expended, and the unusual mildness of January so far.
St Peter’s, Henley
I was pleased to find Henley was close by. But then I was forced to take a detour due to a ‘TEMPORARY OBSTRUCTION. 15 MINUTE DELAY’. I arrived at the obstruction and was advised by a young man that I should turn around as I’d be waiting about 15 minutes. It amazes me that every time I arrive at such a sign, the delay is always 15 minutes. I am starting to suspect that the workers in question stay there for as long as they need to, protected by this apparently innocent sign, because ’60 minute delay’ signs don’t exist and would ignite the wrath of motorists.
I enjoyed Henley church, once I arrived and had successfully tackled the obstacle of a kissing gate: the cellist’s greatest enemy. There is rarely enough space to get through carrying a cello. Sometimes I have had to lift the cello over the top, because there isn’t even enough space for it to get through on its own. Another reason I am very grateful for my light-weight cello case.
Some of the most curious details were in the porch: first, the doorway appeared to be in Norman style, but with a pointed (later) arch instead of a round one. I wondered if the stones had been reused. The second was an oddly carved stone in the middle of nowhere. Again, it seemed as though the stone had been reused and placed in a nonsensical place. The church history page on the village website suggests that my conclusions about reuse were correct in both cases.
Practice was productive, but I was noticing a huge difference from my outing before New Year when I was well rested and felt I could have done a 5th church in a day. Today I had been feeling tired since I left home. Clearly not only my cello-playing stamina needed work, but my general stamina for getting back into normal daily routine after the Christmas break…
St Mary’s, Swilland
To my surprise, I came out on the main road between Coddenham and Otley on my way from Henley to Swilland. I hadn’t realised I was so close to that route I knew so well. Swilland was an unusual church with a timber and brick-topped tower with a tiled roof, and it was tiny. Inexplicably, I didn’t notice until afterwards the huge Norman doorway which took up the whole interior space of the porch. Perhaps this was because it was essentially no longer a doorway but a whole wall decoration, and when entering a church I am often focussing more on the door handle, and the question of whether it will let me in.
There was hardly any light inside, and I couldn’t get to the light switches, which were behind a locked door. I could still more or less see everything of interest, however: the painted font was pretty, I thought, though the decorations were 19th century, so perhaps it was only the fact it was fading and flaky that made it attractive to me. There was also an apparently very significant wooden carved set of arms in the chancel, but I found it disturbing, almost beetle-like, and the lack of light made it impossible to photograph.
I could see my music, however. As I played, I heard a noise, which I first thought was a goose honking, and then decided was a dog barking, and then eventually concluded was definitely a goose. I had never to my knowledge confused these two particular animals before, but maybe the church walls were enough to blur the sound. When I walked around the churchyard afterwards, my conclusion was confirmed: in a field adjacent to the churchyard – but at some distance considering the loud noise – was one white goose. It was impossible to tell if it lived there in the fenced paddock, or if it was just visiting of its own accord. Geese always give the impression of doing what they want, when they want.
I was pleased with my practice. I felt as though I’d had a good workout today, and that my stamina was improving, although there was still a lot of work to be done before the first rehearsal in four days’ time.
Header photo: View from Barham churchyard