Suffolk churches 3: Thornham Magna, Burgate and Wortham (April 2017)

I went back up to north Suffolk the day after the Lavenham concert. I was eager to visit other churches in the area, and I had intended to go to Thornham Magna on my first trip, but this was preceded spontaneously by Thornham Parva and I didn’t get round to a fourth. Three churches – fewer than I anticipated – seemed to be a comfortable number to manage in one trip without getting too tired of all the lugging, setting up and packing away, as well as fitting in some meaningful practice between church-gawping and photo-taking.

St Mary’s, Thornham Magna
Thornham Magna churchThornham Magna was my first stop. The church was just down the road from Clay Street, where one autumn I had gone looking for pollard oaks mentioned by Roger Deakin in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, and had found not a single one. The walk was not in vain, however: on following his described walk down the lane (not a street by any stretch of the imagination) and turning off onto a footpath, I did eventually find some huge, extremely impressive and ancient pollard oaks in a patch of tangled woodland which was probably once a medieval deer park.

Thornham Magna interiorThe morning was cold, grey and breezy and I did not have high hopes that the church would be of a temperature hospitable to cello playing. It did feel rather cold, but the long, thin church possessed an atmosphere that encouraged me to stay a while, and by the time half an hour had elapsed I had warmed up pretty well. It was with surprise therefore that on leaving the church I found that what had seemed a chilly day when I arrived now felt mild. I don’t think it had actually got warmer while I was indoors, just that on entering I was taking shelter from the wind and didn’t notice the change in temperature.

This reminded me of something a friend had said to me about a language – if only I could remember which – that has different words for inside cold and outside cold. It makes our lack of distinction between the two seem to me thoroughly remiss. Although English is thought by many to have one of the most extensive vocabularies in the world, it does seem curiously imprecise about certain, often environmental, phenomena. I wonder if it is an indication of our priorities, and of our relative lack of attention to our environment.

St Mary’s, Burgate
Burgate porchIt was drizzling by the time I reached Burgate church, just down the road from Burgate Great Green which I so happily discovered last summer. I made a dash for it, as well as I could carrying a cello. The smell of pollen on leaving the car was overwhelming. I thought it was the rape field nearby, but when I entered the churchyard just next to me, bounded by a high hedge, it was full of bluebells and there was a large cherry in full bloom outside the porch. Somehow the cold and rain made these smells and sights of spring all the stronger. I discovered an unexpected new appreciation for inclement April weather: it might not be much warmer than a winter’s day, but everything was green, in flower, overflowing with life and smelling wonderful.

Reaching the porch and sheltering from the rain was nevertheless welcome. It was a lovely porch, and my obsession with church floors was increasing with every church visit. Both the porch and church had what was becoming my favourite type of floor: old bricks in soft shades of grey, yellow and red. The pattern in which they are laid does not much affect their beauty. Bricks are perhaps only slightly ahead of pamments in my floor preference, which look very similar in texture and colour but are square instead of rectangular, and of more varied sizes. If there are pamments and bricks together – often a result of repairs at different times in the floor’s history – the result is even better.

Burgate interiorThe interior of the church was a surprise. Directly ahead of the entrance was the font; to the right the pews were gated off, giving the feel of being in a large, dark hallway. Going through the gates – more like doors – the church was wide, light and open, with no woodwork dividing the nave and chancel (words that to my knowledge I have never used before, never remembering which refers to which part of the church. Perhaps I still don’t… but they serve my purpose nonetheless).

It was hard to tear myself away from this church, for its atmosphere and its acoustic. And additionally because, as I started to pack up, I heard something outside that I hadn’t heard in weeks, or even months. I wasn’t sure I trusted my ears at first – perhaps it was just the wind… but, no. It was rain, heavy rain, falling on the roof. After a few minutes I ventured into the porch to assess the situation. In the gusts of wind there was a spectacular cherry blossom snowstorm. I tried to capture it on camera but could not, without getting the camera, and myself, very wet.

By the time I reached the car I had discovered that the boots I had recently bought which claimed to be waterproof were most decidedly not, and I would have to spend the rest of the day with soggy feet.

St Mary’s, Wortham

Wortham churchAfter a stop-off at Wortham Tea Shop I went in search of the church, which was some distance from the village, next to a farm. I was starting to wonder about the locations of village churches – the way some are the focal point of the village, right in the centre, and others are hidden away, perhaps a mile down a track, with no buildings in sight. Or somewhere in between. A friend of mine, Mark, told me that there was a myth that they were ‘plague churches’: after the Black Death, the original village surrounding the church was abandoned and a new one built further away from the church.

Wortham towerWhen I spoke to Sam, Jeremy’s son, about my project, he was entirely sure that the ‘myth’ was fact. I went back to Mark and asked him what evidence he had that it wasn’t true. His reply was, ‘it is one of those facts that everybody knows but isn’t true’. (Perhaps Donald Trump would appreciate this definition of ‘fact’.) His reasoning: lack of evidence. I will have to start researching it myself to work out whom to believe.

Wortham church apparently possesses the largest (in diameter) round tower in England. Approximately 180 round-towered churches remain in East Anglia, and this is another thing that I have heard and read varying theories about. Was it just fashion, or were round towers less expensive to build? Either way, this was an impressive tower. The roof had long ago fallen in and a pleasing array of greenery was now growing inside.

This afternoon the temperature was certainly not warmer outside than in, and I was feeling the cold greatly by the time I left Wortham church. This did not, however, prevent me lingering to admire the exceedingly pretty churchyard and path.

Wortham churchyardOn my way home I began to think with some amusement about church names. When discussing with Mark whether playing in all the medieval churches in Suffolk was feasible or just too crazy to contemplate, he started suggesting possible ways to reduce the quantity. One was to visit all the round-towered churches in East Anglia; the other was to visit Suffolk churches called St Mary’s. After this trip I joked to him that it was lucky I hadn’t followed his St Mary’s suggestion as it would only have reduced the number to 499…

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