At the start of my churches tour, I discussed writing about it with Kim, a friend in Butley, who kindly agreed to read the first few instalments before I put them up on my website. She responded positively, and likened the project to travel writing about tours of England on horseback: an unusual way to explore the country, creating novel perspectives and adventures, but bringing its own demands and limitations to the journey.
The image appealed to me. Although the cello wasn’t alive, nor a mode of transport, it came to life in churches once I started to play, in turn making the churches come to life. It made me realise that, in contrast to Kim’s positive associations, the project conjured up for me a book I had once heard serialised on the radio about a man who hitchhiked around Ireland with a fridge. It was telling – and I don’t think the image originated purely with my white cello case. I decided then that I would make more effort to see my cello in terms of what it added to my explorations, rather than as an encumbrance.
The day after my Long Melford recital I felt it was high time for a 24-hour break without my cello. I decided to drive over to the coast to walk and write, and found somewhere to stay the night near Yoxford. On the journey, for the first time I realised that my cello had come to feel like a travel companion, not just a piece of bulky luggage. It was quite a strange feeling to look across to the passenger seat and see it empty. I was glad that my attitude towards travelling with my cello had changed for the better over the two months I had been visiting churches: it gave me confidence that I would have the motivation to continue, even now my recital was over.
St Peter’s, Cockfield
My appointment at Cretingham church to play at their fundraising event was approaching, but after a few days’ rest from the cello I was still feeling lethargic about resuming practice. Churches came to the rescue once again: the prospect of practising in a new church was much easier to contemplate than doing it at home. I had to go to Bury St Edmunds and decided to stop off at Cockfield church on the way.
It was quite a grand village church, with a beautiful house just outside the churchyard. I was amazed to read that a rector of Cockfield in the early 19th century would have lived in this house, and earned approximately £200,000 per year in today’s money.1 What a different story it is today.
The interior was bright and pleasant, but to my eyes, very Victorian and not particularly unique. The only little oddity I noticed and enjoyed was a very narrow little door to the south of the chancel arch, which, in hindsight, I imagine might have hidden behind it the steps up to the now non-existent rood loft. It took many church visits before I understood such terms, but eventually I learnt (for the benefit of anyone who knows as little as I do about church architecture and decorations) that the tiny staircase in the wall or chancel pillar of many churches – that almost all lead nowhere and either emerge higher up the wall or are blocked up – once led to the rood loft, a gallery or walkway on top of the rood screen which was a decorative partition separating the chancel from the nave. Many rood screens have survived, wholly or partially, but there are no surviving medieval rood lofts in Suffolk2. What I have only just now learnt – my ignorance is clearly still in good health – is that the ‘rood’ was a large cross above the chancel arch, supported by a ‘rood beam’ above the rood loft.
It was a hot day, and while it felt cooler inside, the air was sticky, and for the first time practising in a church I found myself starting to sweat. It wasn’t my most productive practice session, but it was a start. As I was leaving, I looked for a church guide, but didn’t find one; instead I found a booklet titled Robert Louis Stevenson in Cockfield. I was surprised: I knew nothing of his connection with the village. I paid the requested amount and took one home with me.
The booklet informed me that Stevenson stayed with his cousin twice at Cockfield Rectory in the early 1870s and met various people there who were to prove a big influence on his life. It was an interesting read, and provided insight into both village working life and the idle summers of the wealthy in the 19th century. It included extracts of letters, of which my favourite was one to his mother: ‘I am ashamed of my bad correspondence but there is something to be said in excuse. We are really too busy doing nothing to do anything’. He also wrote, ‘the people in this parish are horridly debased, I must say; centuries of education would scarcely bring them up to our level’ (apparently his native Scotland was one of the most literate countries in Europe at the time). Then, about the infant classes at the village school, ‘… stupider children it would be hard to imagine’3. It is hard to judge his comments from nearly 150 years’ distance, and perhaps his use of the word ‘debased’ was not intended to equate education with morals, but I’m not sure anyone could use such language with impunity in today’s politically correct society, and I was duly indignant.
St Mary’s, Raydon
On my next day off, I was feeling indecisive about my destination. I thought I should head southeast, as I had an appointment that afternoon at Chattisham church with a photographer who was going to take photos for an article about my church tour, and I didn’t want to make a long detour on my way home. But about five minutes after setting off for Shotley, the meeting point of the rivers Orwell and Stour, I changed my mind. I could hear thunder and the weather was turning. I wasn’t sure I wanted to drive that far if I couldn’t spend at least part of the day outdoors, so I changed my destination to Flatford Mill, where I knew I could sit in the National Trust tea room by the River Stour to write, indoors or out. There were also several churches on the way that I hadn’t yet visited: Raydon, Holton St Mary and East Bergholt.
My first stop was Raydon. I had always been impressed with the extensive roadside second hand book and bric-a-brac stall outside this church. I had never stopped there, but it seemed well visited, and today was no exception: there were two cars next to the churchyard gate and several passengers were out looking at the stall’s offerings.
The towerless little church was more my kind of church than the grander Cockfield: it felt less formal, more intimate, and had a pleasant acoustic. While I was playing, a lady in curlers came in. I was surprised and amused: I hadn’t seen curlers since my mum used them when I was small. She seemed pleased to see me, and enthusiastic about the idea that I might come and give a concert. I said I would leave my details in the visitors’ book and that she was welcome to contact me.
On my way out of the church I met the same lady again, this time without curlers but bearing vegetables, presumably for the stall. She told me she had wanted to stay and listen but thought I might not like her to. I repremanded myself inwardly for not offering: it had been on the tip of my tongue to do so, but for some reason I had held back, perhaps because she hadn’t asked, and seemed busy. I made a mental note to take the initiative in future, whether someone asked or not. It isn’t easy to practise when people are listening, but I knew (if unconsciously) from the outset that my priority should be to share music with anyone who wanted to listen. If that meant putting aside practice for a short while to perform a piece instead, so be it.
After Raydon I continued on to Flatford Mill, a place I had first visited on a five-day field trip in my last year at primary school, and the location of John Constable’s famous painting, The Hay Wain. The weather had improved greatly, so after spending some time by the river, I decided to walk down to the Mill, having left my cello at the National Trust shed by the car park.
I was pleased to discover that, finally, the pretty scene around the mill pond didn’t look half the size I remembered it from my childhood stay there. It had taken several recent visits to overwrite the old memory. This peculiar phenomenon couldn’t be simply due to the fact that I am a little taller now than I was at 11, although I have noticed this effect most often with places I knew as a child. I wonder if it is a memory-related issue: somehow buildings and landscapes seem to change size the longer they are stored in your mind away from the real version. And, although to my knowledge I had looked at very few photos of this scene in the intervening two decades, it would make sense that replacing ‘real scene’ memories with photographs could exacerbate the effect: photos almost always make a landscape look larger than it is in real life – as, in fact, does John Constable’s painting.
The busy-ness of Flatford Mill made me realise that East Bergholt church would probably be much too full for a cello visit. The one way system around Flatford led me directly to the church, where I could see a school group, amongst other visitors, walking around the churchyard. I decided to go straight back to Holton St Mary.
St Mary’s, Holton St Mary
Although I had driven past Holton St Mary church countless times, I managed to make my arrival more complicated than necessary by turning down a gravelled driveway which I thought must lead to the church. I failed to find an entrance to the churchyard there, and, discovering I couldn’t turn round again, was forced to reverse all the way back down the drive. This time I saw the gate right next to what I now recognised as the church car park. Annoyed with myself for wasting valuable minutes – the time until my appointment in Chattisham was rapidly disappearing – I hastened to the church.
I was surprised by the short, squat tower of St Mary’s – it looked grand enough for a castle. It did look a little oversized for the little church (though under-tall – apparently reduced instead of rebuilt by the Victorians4), but I liked the church’s proportions nevertheless.
Stepping inside felt more like entering someone’s living room than entering a church: it was cosy. It was rather dark, with small windows and too much stained glass; but the atmosphere was another level up on the intimacy scale even from Raydon. The acoustic was also like a living room’s: although it might not have had as many soft furnishings, it sounded as though it did.
After a short stay I reluctantly packed up and left for Chattisham, planning to arrive well before the photographer. I had suggested the church for its quietness, photogenic qualities and location more or less on his way home, but I had an ulterior motive: I wanted to play again in that heavenly acoustic, and perhaps record something.
Just as I pulled up outside Chattisham church, half an hour before our arranged meeting time, so did the photographer. I felt flustered. I have never liked being photographed, but he did his best to put me at my ease, and it was worth the discomfort: after he left I got my recording. The church’s acoustic was as wonderful as I remembered, and still my favourite.
Header photo: Cockfield church
3. Robert Louis Stevenson in Cockfield booklet