St Mary’s, Kentford
I had planned a day out to visit Kentford, Denham (St Mary, near Bury, rather than St John, near Eye) and Depden. But when I phoned the keyholder at Depden, she advised me to wait for better weather: the path was so muddy, she said, I might not be able to stay upright carrying my cello. If I hadn’t been dependent on her for the key, I probably would have gone anyway; but I couldn’t really insist, beyond saying I was planning to wear wellies, which didn’t convince her. So my outing was reduced to two churches. Kentford was first, after some errands in Bury.
Afterwards I wished I’d read more carefully the instructions Sue, the keyholder, had sent to me by email: I forgot she had told me where to park, which was by no means a straightforward task on the bendy, busy road through the village. The church was perched on a hill beside the road, and neither driveway I tried seemed to lead to any church parking. By the time I found a relatively safe spot a little way up the road, I had wasted a good deal of time, and realised that if I wasn’t careful, my estimated time of arrival at the keyholder’s house in Denham St Mary would be completely wrong. I wished I hadn’t given her one, and instead said I’d phone when I was on my way. But optimism never seems to learn its lesson.
Kentford was a stubby-towered church. I very nearly concluded the church was locked despite my arrangements with Sue, until I realised I should try the north door – another reason I wished I’d read the instructions more carefully. Or, more accurately, remembered that I’d been sent some. This door, thankfully, was open, and I stepped inside to a simple, beautiful church with a brick floor and a wall painting.
But it was freezing. I thought I could stick it out without my usual star jumps and running up and down the aisle: it was a lot of effort to warm up, and since time was limited I thought I’d rather just play for a short time instead. But soon, along with the difficulty of finding somewhere to park, the pain in my right wrist – I didn’t know where that came from – my earrings constantly snagging on my scarf, my jacket poppers rattling when I played, and the persistent sound of A14 traffic outside, the cold became too much to bear. It takes very little time, I discovered, for physical and mental irritability to develop into emotional irritability.
Exasperation forced me to stop playing after about fifteen minutes. It was a shame, because the church was lovely. I resolved to go back in warm weather, with more time and in a better frame of mind to do it justice.
St Mary’s, Denham
It was my third visit to Denham. The first visit was legitimate – I didn’t know it was kept locked – but the second was simply because I’d forgotten that I’d already been once. This time I didn’t make the same mistake. I looked it up online and found the email address for a churchwarden. I emailed him, but immediately received an autoreply saying he was away for the next few weeks, so I thought I would have to make alternative arrangements. But an hour or two later, I heard back: he directed me to another keyholder called Jo, and told me what her house looked like and roughly where it was. This, of course, didn’t prevent my getting in a muddle whilst looking for it and having to phone her.
Eventually, the key and I reached the church together. First things first, however: I needed to eat something. I tried a banana I’d bought in Bury. I could see it was green, but thought it would still be edible. It wasn’t. I only succeeded in reviving my lingering irritability with bitterness and an unpleasant covering on my teeth which even water wasn’t really able to shift. I drank and swished it round my mouth with the same urgency a hot chilli brings. My outing really wasn’t going well.
Without the time limit that hindered me at Kentford, however, the church and the cello were enough to save the day. I entered through the brick extension, which gave the church a slightly odd shape and hid the tower from view of the car park, which was at the northeast corner of the church and a good few feet lower. The brick extension turned out to be a chapel with several large memorials inside. I noticed on this occasion how different it feels having one’s first view of a church from the chancel rather than from the back of the nave. I couldn’t say exactly how it changes my perspective, only that it does.
I managed, after a while, to get into playing the Prelude from the Bach C minor suite. My hands warmed up and I forgot about the multiple irritations of the past couple of hours. By the time I stopped playing, I felt better. I was calm from becoming absorbed in an activity, and satisfied from having done something productive. Not for the first time, I felt as though playing the cello was a good substitute for meditation. Especially in a church.
Wandering round the churchyard afterwards, my attention was caught by a miniature ecosystem on the top of a tomb. My friend, Joost – who is staying with me during the coronavirus confinement – remarked when I showed him the photo, ‘if I had a tomb, I would want it to look like that’.
‘Including the rabbit poo?’ I asked.
Header photo: Tomb top in Denham St Mary’s churchyard