I ended up at Hoo church in a rather roundabout way: via Kettleburgh, Brandeston and Cretingham. I went in search of lunch, and very nearly didn’t get any. At Cretingham, the only one of the three pubs to be open and serving food, I found the kitchen had officially closed two minutes before my arrival. But the lady at the bar took pity on me – she went to ask if they could make me a sandwich and came back with a much better answer: they hadn’t cleared up yet, and had kindly agreed to take my order.
After a somewhat chilly lunch (I was determined to stay outside although the wind had got up and drizzle was threatening), I continued down the road to Cretingham church. My excitement at approaching the light and friendly-looking church was short lived, as there were large pieces of wood lying on the grass outside the porch, by which I deduced that building work was in progress. Inside, the builders were having lunch, and I could see the tower was the subject of their attentions. Someone from the village – a churchwarden perhaps – was with the builders, and in answer to my query he informed me the work was bell-related. He started to direct me animatedly towards features of interest in the church, so I went in for a guided tour.
Slightly unsure of the correct answer to his question, ‘are you visiting?’, I told him I was out for the afternoon with my cello and was hoping to play here, but that I’d come back another day as I was sure the builders didn’t need a concert. He agreed with me rather more enthusiastically than I was expecting. At the end of our conversation he introduced himself as Eric and told me about a village fundraising event for the bells that was taking place on the last weekend of June: would I like to come and play then? We exchanged contact details and I went on my way, glad to have acquired the opportunity for a new sort of church visit.
It was back to the map to decide where to go next, and I was pleased to discover I was near Hoo. I had been wanting to go there for several years, simply because I thought it had such an amusing name. I only knew it existed because I had seen it signposted from the A1120, the ‘tourist route’ from central Suffolk towards the coast. I knew of Sutton Hoo, of course, and I knew the meaning of the word was ‘hill’, but it still sounded funny to me – difficult to say seriously and without imitating an owl. Hooooooo…..
St Andrew’s and St Eustachius’, Hoo
After a small detour caused by my troublesome satnav, I found Hoo church in a remote and peaceful spot next to Hoo Hall. I didn’t realise it was this church, not Charsfield, that was used for filming Akenfield, until I saw several recent comments in the visitors’ book saying they’d come to visit the church after seeing the film. The church guide confirmed this fact. Apparently the churchyard at Charsfield was too small for filming1.
I was horrified that I had been so sure the church interior in the film was Charsfield, despite seeing the film only the evening before I went there. It taught me a lesson about the unreliability of observation and memory. But comparing the two churches in the photos I had taken calmed me a little; they were after all of very similar character.
It was a lovely, simple and light church. There was an impressively ancient-looking wooden chest at the back of the church, which the church guide informed me was from the 14th century. Shortly after I started playing, some rooks landed on the roof and started making a racket. I was beginning to think rooks took offence at the sound of the cello, judging by the number of times this had happened recently.
As I was leaving the church I heard a blackbird singing. Through the north door, I thought, and yet the sound was clear – as though the blackbird was in the church. I could only conclude it was coming through the keyhole, which wasn’t huge, but maybe it was big enough. The song took me to the verge of tears, as it often does. Perhaps its beauty is sufficient reason for it to have this effect on a hopelessly emotional person like me, but I suspect there is more to it. Blackbirds usually stop singing in July, so perhaps its song is a symbol of the spring that will soon be gone. But now it also carries a reminder of that most agonising of contradictory experiences: sitting at my dying mother’s bedside at exactly this time of year, listening to a blackbird’s joyful, life-affirming song in the bright sunshine outside her window.
I lingered a while to enjoy and photograph a new addition to my future church wall collage; the patchy brick and flintwork was a joy to behold. As I drove away from Hoo church, I passed a field of napping sheep barely visible in the long grass, and a pair of courting wood pigeons on the brick wall of a little bridge over the River Deben. It was good to feel we were all sharing the same spring.
All Saints’, Brandeston
I passed through Kettleburgh again, completing a loop, but the village church was off the beaten track and it was getting late, so I decided to stop at Brandeston instead on my way home: I had passed the large church earlier in the day, set in a spacious churchyard on a wide, open lane next to Framlingham College.
The path up to the church looked odd. I thought it must recently have had new gravel put down, as it had an orange tinge. Perhaps the rain hadn’t yet had a chance to wash it clean. The gravel wasn’t the only strange thing about the path, though: the avenue of yews which lined it had been cut off unceremoniously at shoulder height. They looked awful. I felt it would have been better to remove them altogether than disfigure them in this way. I wonder if they were cut like this when Simon Knott described them as the ‘most outstanding feature to a visitor’ – I find this hard to believe, although he does say they are ‘hedges’ not ‘an avenue’. But a hedge, in my view, is a continuous length of green. And so, I conclude, these yews are suffering an identity crisis: they don’t know if they’re an avenue or a hedge.
Both of today’s churches had fully mown churchyards – no wild areas – and I felt deprived. It made me realise how much I looked forward to this aspect of my church visits. It looked as though it was about to rain, so after admiring an interesting patch of wall near the porch, I went inside.
I sat in the chancel to practise, as it was brighter and more spacious than the nave. I noticed some initials carved into the chancel arch. I couldn’t imagine that the graffiti was recent, but how old might it be? I intended to take photographs and consult my friend Mark, who would surely know where to look for more information, if he didn’t know more about such graffiti himself. But by the time I finished practising I had forgotten about the graffiti, as I had been distracted by a delicate stained glass window I found I actually liked – the first, perhaps. It looked as though the design had been hand painted onto the glass panes, and most importantly, it didn’t block out the light. I’m sure the plant-inspired design also influenced my opinion in its favour, as well as the fact it looked old.
There was no church guide available to enlighten me on the age of either the stained glass or the graffiti, but Simon Knott mentions a ‘fine scattering of medieval glass’, and that a small stained glass portrait of Catherine of Aragon dates from the 16th century2. Therefore I think it is reasonable to assume, until I am able to find out more, that the stained glass I liked is of similar age.
My overall impression of Brandeston church has been altered in hindsight by reading that John Lowes, vicar of Brandeston from 1596 to 1645, was hanged for witchcraft at the age of 80. I didn’t spot the plaque while I was in the church, and I found the story sickening. I am belatedly and reluctantly realising that such occurrences were by no means limited to the parish of Brandeston. The reminder of our sinister past is sobering, and rightly destroys the illusion of the churches’ peacefulness: they were also causes, if not locations, of violence and fanaticism. It temporarily subdues my wonder at these buildings that have demanded some of the best qualities of the human race to remain standing to this day: vision and dedication, creativity and skill.
I found some reassurance at the bottom of the plaque:‘May no such blind and bloody superstition and madness ever get head again within this land’. R Hawes, Steward of Brandeston, 1712. At least the cruel insanity was short-lived. But as soon as I take momentary comfort in the thought that the human race is a little more enlightened now than it was in the 17th century, I remember that wars are still waged, and atrocities perpetrated, around the world every day in the name of religion, or under the delusion of some God-given superiority.
Ultimately, however, these historical places of beauty do provide a small spark of hope that even if the worst of human nature endures, the best also endures.
Total churches visited to the end of May: 47
Header photo: Hoo church wall detail