Suffolk churches 2: Pakenham, Beyton, Felsham, Polstead and Lavenham (April 2017)

St Mary’s, Pakenham; All Saints’ Beyton and St Peter’s, Felsham
My second outing, just under a week later, took me first to Pakenham church. I had hoped to sit and write for a while by the pond at Pakenham Mill, Suffolk’s last working water mill, but it was Easter Monday, and discovering on arrival that an Easter egg hunt was in progress, the plan seemed destined for failure and so I turned round and headed for the church. I thought I knew where it was but had some trouble discovering its location at first and had to ask directions. It was worth the effort: I found a cruciform church with an octagonal tower and spring-filled churchyard. Wanting to enjoy the sunshine before venturing indoors, I sat on a bench next to a row of flowering cherries, all satisfyingly full of buzzing bees. Both tree and bench were dedicated to Anne Browne, 1962-1987. Everywhere there are people trying to learn to live with death, absence, loss – and in the inexplicable and exhilarating presence of buzzing cherry trees and life exuding from every corner. No wonder there has always been a religion-shaped hole in the human heart.

Approaching the entrance of the church I was delighted to see a large vase full of cow parsley, lime twigs with translucent young leaves, and some equally pretty and fresh red foliage, perhaps from a species of plum. What a lovely way to celebrate spring, instead of the usual cut flowers.

Pakenham church

Pakenham was my favourite of that afternoon’s three church visits. I expected to be enamoured by the round-towered Beyton church as well as Felsham church, both of which are very attractive from the outside, but I had never been inside Beyton church and it was a number of years since I had entered Felsham church. But the thing I started to notice today was the difference in church floors. I had thought about this once before: people would rave to me about the angels on Blythburgh church roof, or I would read about them, but what I noticed was the floor: a stunning brick patchwork of great age and beauty. Perhaps I always was more inclined to stare at the earth than at the sky. I am certainly always nearer the floor than the roof.

Beyton church
Beyton church

However, I had never particularly thought about the differences in church floors in general, what they were covered with, or how this could affect the whole feel of a church. Part of this is a division between those churches that ‘suffered from the attentions of the Victorians’ (I have come across this phrase, or one very like it, several times in church descriptions), and those that ‘escaped’. Pakenham church floor was chequered with old red and natural coloured pamments (traditional clay tiles); Beyton had ‘new’, by church standards, black and red tiles, of which most were covered with blue carpet. Felsham also had new tiles, the central isle covered with aging beige carpet going green at the edges. Clearly damp was a big problem here, as even some of the uncovered tiles were going green.

Felsham church
Felsham church

Beyton felt modern inside, well used and well kept, but I didn’t feel the atmosphere I was expecting to before I entered, and therefore my stay was brief. Felsham seemed also to be well used and loved, and seen from the outside is an impressive and neat building. However, once indoors I became acutely aware – even though I live in a medieval and Tudor farmhouse with many of the same problems – of the huge work and expense that must be involved in keeping up old churches, especially when there is no heating or easy way of keeping the damp out of the floor and walls.

St Mary’s, Polstead
Polstead churchDuring the week I tried to go to Bildeston and Kersey churches which are near my home, but I had failed to realise that the time was already nearly 6pm by the time I left the house and that the churches would most likely be locked by then. The following weekend I had an orchestral rehearsal in Polstead village hall – in south Suffolk, just within the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – for a concert in Lavenham church the next day, and again I thought I could stop in a couple of churches on the way. These attempts were also unsuccessful: there was an event in Bildeston church, and Semer church was locked – I knew this but thought there was a chance it might be open on weekends. By the time I reached Polstead church I had only 10 minutes until I had to get to the rehearsal. I was learning a frustrating lesson: if several churches in a row are locked or unavailable, the stop-offs or detours still use up a lot of the time I might otherwise have had to practise. Weekdays before 5pm might be the only times worth trying, unless I was happy to take a risk. I would have to be more organised, or stay at home if time was short.

Polstead interiorPolstead archesThe little time I did have in Polstead church, however, was enough to make me feel that I needed to go back for a proper ‘communing’ session. It was beautifully positioned on a hill with what must be the best church view in Suffolk. Unusually, I will have the opportunity to verify or disprove this grand claim… Inside there were old brick arches and fragments of wall paintings. I was inspired to read up about the arches, and found they are believed to be the oldest English bricks in the country, dating to around 11601. It felt wonderful to play in and I wanted to stay longer.

St Peter and St Paul’s, Lavenham

Lavenham church

The day after my first visit to Polstead church was the orchestral concert in the magnificent Lavenham church, its huge size a display of the medieval town’s wool cloth manufacturing wealth. I have played there many times before, but this occasion had special resonances for me: we, the orchestra, were playing Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which I first played with my father when I was 14. I remembered it being difficult, almost unplayable in places, and the intervening years of cello playing had not changed that fact.

The concert also made me aware that for some reason Elgar reminds me of Edward Thomas. Perhaps it is their association with the west of England countryside – Worcestershire and Gloucestershire respectively – and the sense of rural England in their work. Perhaps it is also because they were contemporaries; but ultimately I think it is because of their struggles, with their art and with their confidence and career progression as artists.

The previous autumn I had bought Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring, but had quickly laid it aside, feeling that autumn was not the right time to read it. Unfortunately I had forgotten about it when the right moment did arrive. At the end of March I was reminded of the book by a friend, and thought perhaps I had missed my chance: Thomas had started his spring journey earlier in the month, and spring already felt very much under way now, during an extended spell of warm, sunny weather.

By the time Easter week arrived, however, the temperature had dropped again; there was wind, hail and frost, and I was beginning my journey around Suffolk churches. Suddenly it felt like exactly the right time to be reading about Thomas’s spring – Easter, in fact – journey towards the west of England.

I felt that, in a less direct way, mine was also a journey to ‘meet the spring’. Reading in the book’s introduction that Thomas referred to many a church and gravestone on his journey, it occurred to me that it might additionally get me thinking about how to approach what I hoped would be the enjoyable task of putting down my adventures in writing…

Header photo: Polstead churchyard


1. Church guide to St Mary’s, Polstead.

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