It was the middle of March and I had booked two nights away in Rumburgh to fill in a few gaps on my church map. I suspected this would be my last church outing for a while. In fact, I felt some uncertainty as to whether I should be going at all: the government was being rather slow to impose movement restrictions, I felt, and I wholly expected to be confined to home within a week or so. But church visiting is usually a fairly solitary activity, and I didn’t think it would do any harm if I took sensible precautions. So I set off for Syleham church near the Norfolk border, a church that I had long saved up to visit on an occasion when I could give prior notice to a lady I’d met at Metfield church. She had given me her contact details, and wanted to gather some villagers to come and listen. But I suspected it would be a long while now till that would be possible, and so I decided to visit on my own and let her know that I would come back another time to play for them.
Driving up the A140 towards Diss, I suddenly remembered that Stuston church was just off the main road, and I might as well pay it a visit to see if the building works were now finished.
All Saints’, Stuston
As I drove up the lane, I saw first that the red and white tape cordoning off the porch was gone. Feeling hopeful, I drove past the scene of my number plate mishap two months earlier and to the churchyard entrance, where I found there were still two builders’ vans parked, and two men standing beside them. I got out of the car and asked if they had finished their work yet. ‘We’re just clearing up,’ he replied. ‘But you’re welcome to go in’. I explained that I wanted to play the cello, if that wouldn’t disturb them. One replied, ‘I like a bit of cello!’ So I took my equipment out of the car and walked up the newly gravelled churchyard path.
It was much colder inside than I expected. There had been some warm weather, but, I remembered belatedly, it takes a while for warmer air temperatures to penetrate the thick walls of a church. The chancel arch was painted with stripes and a young man was sweeping the floor of the chancel and adjacent chapel, filling the air with dust. But now I was here I couldn’t leave without playing, so I set up in the large open space while I chatted to him, asking what work they had been carrying out and whether they had painted the stripy brickwork of the chancel arch and windows. He told me they hadn’t, although he thought they had been repainted fairly recently. It was unusual and cheerful; beyond that, I couldn’t judge. Perhaps some architectural snobs would consider it in bad taste. They might be right, but grey brick archways are hardly beautiful so I thought a bit of colour did no harm.
I played the Bach C minor suite and was pleased that I could play it through without too much pain: I hadn’t done a great deal of practice recently and was aware that I needed to start building up my strength again. When I took a short break between movements, the man who had told me he ‘liked a bit of cello’ and was working at the back of the nave called, ‘don’t stop! It sounds lovely’. I laughed and assured him I wasn’t. I did have to stop eventually though, and said goodbye to the builders before walking round the churchyard. It was a relief to step out of the dusty interior and into a warm spring morning.
St Margaret’s, Syleham
On the other side of the A140, east of Diss, was a group of churches I hadn’t yet visited. Syleham was my first stop, and despite the circumstances I still felt a little pang of guilt that I had been so slow to visit – it was nearly 2 years since I had met Mary at Metfield church and she had given me her contact details.
Syleham was another round-towered church, in a lovely setting. Its first impression on me was how strange it looked with its high chancel roof. I wasn’t sure I’d seen another church quite like this; the height difference was huge, and I wondered what the reason behind this (no doubt Victorian) design could have been. The next curiosity was inside the church: the font. It was the opposite of the font I’d seen at Tannington which was perched on a narrow stem like a flower. Apparently the font is 14th century and the base, Norman; so, I wondered, did they make the font to fit the base, or did it come from elsewhere? It seemed to fit rather too snugly to be a coincidence, but on the other hand, who would ever have decided to make a font the size of the base it was to sit on? I did like it though, despite its odd appearance.
Shortly after I set up to play, a lady came in. We chatted for a short while; she told me she was a churchwarden. I asked if she knew Mary and whether she could please apologise to her for me that I hadn’t told her I was coming. The subject of coronavirus naturally followed, and she told me she’d been going into school as usual to assist children with their reading. ‘Since you’re here,’ I said, ‘would you like me to play you something?’ She said yes, and sat in a pew while I played the first movement of the Bach C minor suite. Halfway through I wondered if I had taken it too slowly; but I managed to get through to the end with only a manageable level of discomfort. It was the longest prelude of them all, at five pages, so choosing the right speed was especially important.
Sarah, the churchwarden, thanked me for the music and left, while I carried on playing a little longer; I was in no rush today. I took my time examining the chest, too, which was undoubtedly my favourite aspect of Syleham church, in or out. I thought, initially, the haphazard ironwork must have been a result of repairs, but looking more closely, the overlaps of the metal suggested otherwise. Whether by design or not, I loved the lack of symmetry and straight lines in a medium which is usually so precise.