St Peter’s, Cretingham
It was the day of the Cretingham ‘Peace Bell’ fundraising event (see here, first section). I couldn’t remember exactly what the fundraising was for, only that – obviously – it had something to do with church bells. I was excited to be visiting a church to perform at a community event: this was my first such church visit since the start of my tour.
The churchyard was adorned with pretty hanging bells made of board and decorated by residents of the village. I discovered fewer people than bells in the churchyard, but their welcome was warm. The organisers seemed worried on my behalf that there were so few people, as the previous day had been busy, but I assured them it didn’t matter, especially as I wasn’t expecting a ‘sit down’ audience.
I was due to play at 2pm. I had done a lot of practice in the morning to try to work off a persistent feeling of stiffness in my fingers, but had only been partially successful. It was one of those occasions when I had to hope the acoustic would help me, and if not… well, I knew my performance wouldn’t satisfy my own standards, but I hoped there wouldn’t be anyone in the audience able to tell that I was slightly off my game. I had expected to struggle with sluggishness for a while after the intensity of the recital that I had been preparing for (at Long Melford), so I tried to accept it as inevitable and not get too frustrated.
The subject of good days and bad days is a topic that I have come across time and time again. I recently heard on the radio a discussion between a stand up comedian and snooker player, based on the comedian’s theory that there wasn’t a huge difference between their two professions, bar the element of competitiveness. Their ideas reinforced my own experience: any activity involving skill or creativity, whether comedy, sport, music, writing or art, goes up and down, sometimes for no identifiable reason. You can have inspired hours, days or weeks, terrible ones, or mediocre ones, and you just have to hope that your terrible ones won’t be so bad that even the layman can’t enjoy it. But sports players don’t have the luxury of such a hope: the difference in standard between the best players is often so slight that if they are not on top form, they are likely to lose badly. And you can be sure the layman will notice that.
I suspect this phenomenon is simply an inexplicable condition of being human. A positive aspect of practising and performing more regularly, however, has been getting more used to all varieties of acoustic and states of mental and physical readiness, and more capable of summoning up performance mode when required. The acoustic in Cretingham church was not nearly as resonant as I expected given the church’s shape, size and lack of soft furnishings, but I managed to reconcile myself to it more quickly than usual. Despite almost a whole life time of playing the cello in public, I always found it torturous to have to perform when everything felt wrong. It is still unpleasant, but it is now manageable. I suppose this is a crucial aspect of learning to be a good ‘performer’ – even though this is not a word I would use to identify myself or my relationship with music and the cello.
A number of people turned up for lunch shortly before 2pm, and since they were to form the majority of my audience, my playing was duly delayed to allow them to finish their lunch. It gave me time to look round the pretty, bright church, enquire about the bells and examine the painted board bells in the churchyard. I was informed that the mechanisms of the medieval bells were being restored (church bells are mounted on wooden wheels, to which the bell-ringing rope is attached) and that a new, sixth bell, the Peace Bell, would be installed in time for Remembrance Sunday, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. I also learned that box pews, of which I am not a great fan in small churches where they cramp the interior, were designed to keep in the warmth in winter. I was horrified by my ignorance once again (see Shelland church), but glad to have learned another piece of essential information about churches.
There was a board near the door showing photos of all of the decorated bells displayed around the churchyard and village, encouraging visitors to vote for their favourite bell. Mine was without a doubt the one that had a church and village scene painted on the front and back. I was told that the person who had painted it ‘didn’t paint’. In the face of this slightly baffling description of the artist in question, I decided it was both a pity, and a nonsensical statement.
I had an appreciative audience for my performance, and although more effort than enjoyment was involved on my part, I did manage to relax towards the end, and chatting to them afterwards was a happy way to end my visit.
St Catherine’s, Pettaugh
I didn’t feel like going straight home from Cretingham, and thought that one or two church stops might do the trick, despite – or perhaps because of – the unease that I had just been experiencing while playing the cello. I had always enjoyed driving past Pettaugh church, with a good view of its steep churchyard beside the road, and felt happier visiting now I knew how to pronounce its name, courtesy of a churchwarden I had just met at Cretingham: ‘Petta’.
Stepping into Pettaugh church felt like entering a living room, rather like another church I had recently visited, though I couldn’t remember which. Consulting my photos later reminded me that it was Holton St Mary. The Victorian interior had no division between the chancel and the nave (apart from a high archway), which I rather like for the spacious feel it adds to a church. But it also felt cosy, and – in contrast to Holton St Mary – light.
The acoustic instantly restored my relationship with the cello after the awkwardness I had been feeling at Cretingham. It was amazing to me that it could have quite such an extreme and sudden effect, even though I had many a time experienced a more gradual transformation in my playing and mood thanks to a church acoustic. It wasn’t just the sound coming out of the instrument, or the way the bow felt on the strings, or how my fingers moved; it was everything. Everything felt effortful and uncomfortable at Cretingham; everything felt easy and enjoyable here. Clearly this contrast was nothing to do with the sluggishness of my fingers or of my state of mind: it was acoustic, pure and simple.
I ended up staying longer than I intended, just for the pleasure of playing. Leaving the church to look around the churchyard, however, I discovered a notice in the porch which disturbed me greatly. It was a statement on the management of the churchyard, involving regular mowing of the whole churchyard, apart from around headstones where weedkiller was used. Ragwort was also mentioned as a necessary and deserving victim of annihilation by weedkiller.
I am not sure when was the last time any livestock grazed in this churchyard, or any churchyard for that matter, but I am fairly confident (while writing this sitting on a hill in a meadow full of cows and ragwort happily coexisting side by side) that neither avoiding strimmer damage to headstones, nor the presence of ragwort, justifies the use of weedkiller, when every other churchyard I have visited so far on my tour manages without it. The dormant activist in me was reignited – or perhaps born for the first time – and I was determined that I would find a way to encourage them to reconsider their policy.
All Saints’, Crowfield
I had passed the sign to Crowfield church many times on the A1120 not far from Pettaugh, and this time took a spontaneous left turn to go looking for it, although it was after 5pm and I wasn’t hopeful of finding it open. A mile or so down the lane I was starting to wonder if I’d missed it, when I finally spotted the church noticeboard. The church was out of view down a gated gravel driveway, and, according to the sign stating its opening hours, would now be closed. I decided to go and check anyway, on foot, in case it was a private driveway.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I reached it. How was it possible that I hadn’t heard of this church? It was timber framed; in fact, as I read later, it possesses the only timber framed chancel in Suffolk. I was almost hopping about with excitement, and on this occasion was rather sorry not to have a companion to share it with. I kept my fingers crossed that the church might not have been locked up on time, and was delighted to find the good people of Crowfield weren’t overly punctual in executing their duties.
The interior was heavily restored but elegant. I couldn’t find a chair, and so sat on a pew at the back of the church facing the chancel. The acoustic was disappointing, and a little of my recent re-bonding with the cello fell by the wayside. But the joy of finding this very unusual church more than made up for it.
As I opened the door to leave, the smell of wet soil greeted me: it was almost as good as the smell of sunshine. I walked back to the car in the rain, passing under two giant lime trees on either side of the churchyard path. To my surprise I could hear the trees buzzing. I looked up. They were in flower, and the bees weren’t in the least deterred by the rain.