All Saints’, Stoke Ash
I had been to Stoke Ash once before, when I found it, and the Post Office that supposedly had the key, closed on a weekday afternoon. This time I decided to go in the morning, in the hope that I might be more likely to succeed; and if not I’d have a second chance on my way home in the afternoon.
The church was still locked, but I found a phone number for the post office, which I decided to ring just to make sure I wasn’t wasting my time driving to the village. I always experience a particular thrill when I manage to gain access to a previously problematic church. Not to say that I don’t still prefer to find them open, but there is a strange sense of satisfaction involved in finally being able to see inside and ‘tick off’ a locked church on my map, now that I feel I have to be more strategic in tackling them. They are often isolated churches within a sea of ticks, which at this stage in my project is another reason I find it so pleasing: it is like inserting the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Neighbouring Thwaite would have to wait for another time when I had done more homework: apparently it is now a village hall, and a key is not freely obtainable.
The post office of Stoke Ash is unusual even by rural Suffolk standards: a scruffy hand-painted sign by a house driveway directs you to it. To the left of a grey-brick house is a small lean-to, more like a booth than an extension, which is the post office. There is just enough space to get through the door and close it behind you. Despite there being another customer already inside, the friendly elderly lady behind the counter knew I was the one who had come for the key, so no further explanation was necessary. Assuring her I’d drop it back before the post office closed at 1pm, I went back to the church and decided to risk parking outside the churchyard gate where there was a sign saying ‘crumbling wall, please use car park’. It was a very low wall in any case, and the rest of the area was so sodden and muddy that I was reluctant to walk further than necessary to get to the church.
I remembered the lovely little entrance door, hardly taller than me, and the interior of the church was worth waiting for: I can never get tired of rustic little village churches. The Christmas trees were still up. I particularly liked the watering can full of decorations, and a Christmas tree made of narrow logs placed at right angles to each other and tapering towards the top. My church visits this year were giving me plenty of ideas for Christmas tree substitutes next year; something I intended to do this year but never got round to. Nor did I buy a Christmas tree, which I intend to avoid from now on: much as I love their smell and spirit, they seem wasteful on many levels; and with so many options available in my own garden that don’t involve cutting down a tree and do involve a great deal more creative fun, I no longer feel I have any excuse for not making use of my own – free – resources.
I spent my time at Stoke Ash doing slow practice; something I have found is as good a warm up as any, particularly if the slow practice is a Bach suite. I am not a fan of scales or studies, and Bach is as effective as either of these, as well has having the huge benefit of being actual music. On this occasion, however, I stuck with Haydn, since I intended to run it through later in the day. My concert was only two days away. I had been relatively pleased with the previous weekend’s rehearsal, but I wanted to feel so prepared that the possibility of added nerves wouldn’t put me off my game – or at least, as little as possible.
Afterwards I admired the brick porch and more little Norman doorways, and went to drop the key back at the post office. Then I headed northwards along the A140 to Stuston church.
All I gained from my attempt to visit Stuston was church-inflicted-car-injury-number-1001 and a wasted hour. I went down the wrong drive – more like muddy lane – to find the church, which appearances already indicated was closed for building works. Backing out of the drive, which seemed to be the only way to solve my predicament, I failed to notice that at the entrance to the drive was a large tree, around which the drive divided in two. Thankfully, the damage to my car was minor: one side of my rear number plate was hanging off. Although easily fixed, I couldn’t find the screw anywhere, and emergency screws weren’t something I kept in my car. It needed fixing before I drove anywhere, so my next job was to find something to serve as a substitute until I got home.
First I tried a twig. Finding this was not sturdy enough and that a piece of wire was required, I wandered around the churchyard hoping to find something that would do the job. Nothing was lying around, but I found a sorry-looking wreath near some old graves. I unwound a pine cone which was attached with a piece of thin wire. I felt that my removal of one pine cone would do nothing to disrespect this wreath, which was already in a far worse predicament than my number plate.
The wire, folded several times, did the trick, although I still worried it might not last until I got home. After examining my map in search of another church to visit in the area, and anxious that I might already have wasted too much time to fit in four today, I decided on Denham St John, near Eye, as the replacement, after Brome, and kept my fingers crossed that I would be able to get in. I might have chosen Palgrave instead if I had noticed it: it was certainly closer to Stuston, and there was a higher probability of its being open. The reason I particularly wanted to visit 4 churches today was that I had arranged with friends to visit Lidgate church on Sunday – not instigated by me on this occasion – and wanted it to be my 400th church. I like celebrating milestones with friends. The next day, the day before my Haydn concerto performance, I wanted to allow enough time to practice at home in the warm, so I intended to visit 2 churches near home: Preston St Mary and Wattisham, both of which I had played in before and had only recently been reinstated in my church list. If I didn’t manage to visit 4 churches today, Lidgate would not be my 400th church.
I turned around, and drove carefully down the potholed lane to the main road, trying to avoid dislodging my temporary repair.
St Mary’s, Brome
Brome wasn’t really my kind of church. Apparently only the base of the tower and the south porch were medieval; the rest was a Victorian rebuild, with little light and plenty of stained glass, elaborate stonework and a kind of memorial chapel beside the chancel. Simon Knott gives a glowing report of the church and these features; I am sure he is right, but I lack the faculties to appreciate such things, except to the extent that it is good to see the church in such good repair and clearly well cared for.
At least here I could find the light switches: someone had kindly put up a notice on the south porch door directing visitors to them. It was a relief to sit down and practice, after the last hour or more in which I felt I’d achieved precisely nothing. After I’d finished, I took out my map once more to check the route to Denham, and then wandered round the churchyard, enjoying the little doorway in the corner of the tower and the row of gravestones arranged round the perimeter.
Header photo: Brome churchyard