It was the weekend of the Stoke by Nayland Arts and Literary Festival, and I had booked tickets for two talks. To my disappointment, both of them were cancelled. My friend Mark persuaded me to go to a different one, about a book on prehistoric Britain – more his line of interest than mine, but nevertheless I was easily persuaded, having heard and enjoyed the same person speak about oak trees a couple of months earlier in Norwich.
Both Layham and Shelley churches were on the way to Stoke by Nayland, via a slightly less direct route than driving through Polstead, but just as scenic, and, on balance, my preferred one.
St Andrew’s, Layham
It was a warm, windy day, and when I arrived at Layham’s pretty churchyard the swifts overhead were having fun being blown about. It was a nice change to hear swifts instead of rooks at a church. I stood watching them, trying to absorb and somehow store the all-too-brief experience – a visual and auditory equivalent of trying to pick enough blackberries to last the whole year – and wondering how to describe the sounds they make. I thought I had heard of it referred to as a ‘scream’, but this seems a little too violent for a sound that, though not exactly tuneful, is pleasant – if only because I am always glad of the presence of the bird that makes it.
I was starting to suffer badly from hayfever – always worst in the month of June – and although I was reluctant to go indoors on such a wonderful day, the possibility of temporary relief was welcome. Often it makes no difference, but a church is not your average ‘indoors’: there isn’t the free movement of air that you get in most buildings and houses where windows are left open in warmer weather. It is almost a discrete body of air, and I was surprised at how quickly I felt the effect. But I also wondered what proportion of it might be psychological. The inside of a church feels and smells like a different world, so I think it could be possible for the mind to convince the body that the offending particles are absent.
The interior of the church was largely a Victorian restoration, but there was a 13th century Purbeck marble font (oddly, not marble at all but a type of limestone) – unusual in being hexagonal, according to the church guide. I noticed an elaborate stained glass window at the east end, drawing to my attention the fact that I had almost got used to a lack of it in my recent church visits: a great contrast from my earlier assumption that stained glass and churches go hand in hand.
It was a light and pleasant church, and I enjoyed my hayfever-free cello time there. As usual, I had left home later than I intended, and practice being the first goal of my church visits now, until my recital in Long Melford in a few days’ time, I decided not to rush on to Shelley. I would go there on the way home instead.
All Saints’, Shelley
The talk we went to in the small second hand bookshop in Stoke by Nayland appealed to my imagination and felt relevant to my adventures. Prehistoric or medieval – it didn’t make much difference in some ways. The feeling of immersing yourself in a landscape in its history was what mattered. A millenium suddenly seemed like no time at all when described as forty generations…
After lounging around afterwards for a suitable length of time in Stoke by Nayland churchyard, my friend Mark, his friend Mark – Granville’s nephew (see Semer church) – Bob the Dog and I left for Shelley church.
I managed to miss the turning to Shelley church, as there was more than one road signposted to the village, and it was not the village we were looking for. In that area south of Hadleigh there is a wonderful network of single track lanes, all seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and all in my favourite kind of hilly, rural Suffolk around the Brett and Stour valleys. Shelley church itself lies beside the River Brett. I hoped I would not be keeping the two Marks waiting long – although ‘my’ Mark, of Kersey, specialises in dawdling, so I wasn’t too worried. You can’t really live in one of the most picturesque villages in the county without perfecting the art, and if you did, you wouldn’t be giving Kersey due respect. Quite apart from the fact this was most certainly a time for dawdling: the wind had died down and it was one of those warm, blue-skied early evenings that you wish would never end – much like the afternoon we spent at Sudbourne church. The setting of Shelley church was perfection incarnate, and I could quite happily have stayed in the churchyard all evening without playing a note.
But, after all, my companions had come to hear me play, and some more cello practice would not go amiss. My audience sensibly decided to stay in the pretty, open porch to listen. The hayfever hadn’t let up since leaving Layham church and I went inside sniffing, coughing and sneezing, only to be greeted by an overwhelming smell of pollen – a lady was there arranging flowers – which made me cough even more, and I had to come out for air after a few minutes.
I fully expected Shelley church to have one of the best acoustics in the county, but despite appearances, it did not. Perhaps the square shape created by one side aisle, or the asymmetry of the church, was to blame. Along with the flower pollen, it made for a short-lived practice attempt. Nevertheless, I hope to return soon: Terry – a friend who thatched the roof of our house when I was 15 – lives round the corner from Shelley church and has asked me to give a fundraising concert there.
After I stopped playing we moved on to a tour of the church, kindly provided by the flower arranger. We were told the story of the 1598 tomb and memorial (see header photo), and learned that the chancel floor was new, because a team of American archaeologists had asked to dig up the remains of a body under the church in order to compare its DNA with some remains they had discovered and suspected belonged to the Suffolk-born founder of Jamestown, USA. According to her there was no match; but, hoping to find more details of the story on the Suffolk Churches site, I was surprised to discover a different version of events: the DNA did match. I will have to find out which version is correct. Of more interest to me at that moment, however, was the new floor the Americans paid for: the Victorian tiles were replaced with reclaimed Woolpit white bricks (according to the Kersey Mark, the expert on such matters). I thought the lack of pointing enhanced their beauty.
Holy Trinity, Long Melford
The day of the lunchtime recital had finally arrived: the recital responsible for changing my church tour from an idea into reality. It was a hot, sunny day, of which I was glad, for my fingers’ sake. I had more than once played in Long Melford church when I could see my breath, and it doesn’t make for easy cello playing. The other thing I was worried about – apart from the question of whether my many hours’ practice would pay off – was the acoustic. Large churches are difficult to play in, as they give you little assistance, and it is hard to tell how the sound projects. Having played in so many smaller churches recently, I knew the contrast could be challenging, so I planned to arrive very early to spend an hour practising alone before my accompanist arrived.
I was pleased to discover that the acoustic didn’t feel as difficult as I remembered. Perhaps my previous afternoon’s practice in the garden (which provides even less acoustic assistance than a large church) had paid off. It was an unusually entertaining few hours, with Dexter the rabbit by turns sprawled out in front of me and dancing around very well in time to the music, making me laugh so much I was forced to stop several times.
Contrary to received wisdom about preparing for concerts, sports matches or competitions – warm up, but don’t wear yourself out before the ‘real thing’ – I had figured out a few weeks earlier that the longer I played for beforehand, the more likely I would be able to get through the first movement of the Bach viola da gamba sonata (the first item in my programme) without my left hand seizing up. So, three hours’ practice later, the recital began and not only did I get through the first piece comfortably, but by the end of the 45 minutes, I felt as though I could play it all through again.
It was incredibly rewarding to feel that I was finally ‘match fit’, despite my worries right up to the last minute. It was the best I’d felt playing the cello in nearly 15 years, and I wondered if it was conceivable, with the help of my church project, to stay in practice from now on. Perhaps not always quite to this level, as there are not enough hours in the day to fit everything in, but enough to feel similarly comfortable with less technically demanding performances.
I have always enjoyed the approach to Long Melford church, with its wonderful location overlooking the huge village green. But my focus on performing every time I have visited so far has meant that I have not taken the time to appreciate all its architectural and historical treasures, of which, according to Simon Knott, there are many, including the ‘best collection of medieval glass in Suffolk’1. I was entirely shocked to read that its 18th century brick tower was encased by a new one in the 20th century; I had no idea its tower was modern. Bildeston: take note.
I forgot to write in the church’s visitors’ book and so will enjoy a cello-free return visit in which to remedy my omission, and at the same time take a good look around. I was particularly intrigued to read Simon Knott’s statement that the church is ‘more feminine and beautiful’ than its neighbouring wool church, Lavenham. I had never thought of churches in terms of gender before, and almost jumped to the conclusion that this could be regarded as a sexist remark – towards either sex. On consideration, however, I have decided to give him the benefit of the doubt until I am able to compare them, inside and out, in person. And although I can only currently offer exterior photographs for comparison, perhaps you would like to judge for yourselves….
Header photo: memorial on a tomb in Shelley church