Suffolk churches 33: Cotton and Wickham Skeith (August 2017)

St Andrew’s, Cotton
I’d never taken a detour off the road from Bacton to Finningham before, though I had often passed a village sign telling me I was in Cotton. It felt like a little adventure. I was due at Wickham Skeith for a cello duet rehearsal with Will later in the afternoon, so decided to practise at another church beforehand. I came to Cotton church on a junction between three lanes. I was a little disappointed at first to find a tarmac path through the churchyard – it never seems right for a rural church – but there was a bench under an old cherry tree just to the left of the path that looked like an inviting place to sit and enjoy the peace. I walked up to the church to see if it was open, and on my way greeted a lady who was busy with plants outside the porch.

Cotton

Cotton interior 2I couldn’t resist going in, once I had caught a glimpse of what was inside. I was amazed by what I saw. There was an avenue of tall, slender birch trees in pots lining the central aisle. The back of the church had the feel of a Mediterranean courtyard, due to the unusually large space, exposed stone walls and ancient-looking sloping brick floor around the font. The plant decorations added to the effect, and somehow gave purpose to the small areas of green caused by damp. The high double hammerbeam roof and chancel were serene in their beauty.

Cotton interior Cotton chancel

Cotton roofEventually I dragged myself away from the feast to fetch my cello. I remarked on the birch avenue to the lady outside, who told me they were hired for a wedding and were due to be collected that afternoon. I hoped they wouldn’t be taken away during my visit, but I was glad to have seen them. I thought they would make a fine permanent addition to the church.

It was a special place. I didn’t notice all the details, perhaps, that I should have done, but I felt the overall effect. This church was an exception to any correlation I’d wondered about between aisles and the rural or urban feel of a church: this certainly didn’t feel like a town church, despite its large size and square nave – even despite its tarmac path. It was also an exception to my unofficial, aural research into the effect of church shape on acoustic: it was as resonant as any small, long and thin church. I soaked in the atmosphere and the sound, and wondered that such outstanding buildings could exist in such unassuming locations, probably unknown to the vast majority of the county’s inhabitants.

Cotton floor 2 Cotton floor

While I was playing the lady came in and asked me if I gave concerts. I answered in the affirmative and asked if there was a visitors’ book in which to leave my details, as I hadn’t seen one on my way in. She went to fetch it from the vestry and then left. I had failed to make good on my resolution to invite anyone I met in a church to stay and listen, in case they felt awkward asking. The problem was, I always felt awkward making the assumption that anyone would want to listen, or have time to. But that was not a good enough excuse, and I determined that I would overcome my cowardice next time.

The sun greeted me with warmth, light and fragrance as I stepped out of the church. It felt like an age since the sun had shone, and I inhaled deeply.

St Andrew’s, Wickham Skeith
I found out recently that my neighbour across the road, George, grew up in Wickham Skeith; in fact his family lived in the Hall next to the church. When I told him I’d been to visit the church, he recounted how, as teenagers, he and his friends used the church car park to practise their handbrake turns. I only knew what a handbrake turn was (yes, exactly what it says on the tin) because my older brothers had once thought it their duty to educate me in such important terminology. Amused at the thought of quietly-spoken George getting up to no good in his youthful days, I enquired if the car park was gravelled then, and he proceeded to explain why gravel makes handbrake turns more effective.

Wickham SkeithI found the church locked, but Will had told me he was running late, so I thought I may as well try to get hold of the key: plenty of encouraging information was provided in the porch. I phoned Peter, the keyholder, who was friendly and helpful. Midway through explaining how to find his house, he stopped and said, ‘Tell you what, I’ll hop on my bike and bring it over to the church’. I protested that I didn’t want to inconvenience him, but he insisted. He appeared a few minutes later by that pleasingly old-fashioned mode of transport: with my car behind me, I watched him approach, and enjoyed a few seconds’ fantasy that this rural scene could pass for one Edward Thomas might have encountered on his bicycle journey in 19131.

I explained to Peter about my cello project, and said that Will and I were hoping to rehearse in the church. He told me he’d read about my church visits in the papers, and asked if I would mind if he went back to get his camera to take a few photos? Wielding an enormous key, he let me in through a door at the west end of the tower.

Wickham Skeith interiorIt was a pretty church with an impressive hammerbeam roof and a musicians’ gallery. It wasn’t the first time I had unwittingly suggested a church for a duet rehearsal that had very limited space for two cellists to sit side by side, but I found just enough space in front of the altar and started to set up. Peter went away to fetch his camera, and Will arrived soon after. I explained the goings on so far, and checked that he wouldn’t mind being photographed. When Peter returned, he told us he had to go out shortly, but his wife might come along to listen. Perhaps a quarter of an hour later she came in, and, to my astonishment, stayed for the whole two-hour rehearsal.

While we were playing, the smell of wet soil reached me. There must have been windows open somewhere in the church, but I was surprised nevertheless: the church had long turned dark, but I hadn’t heard any violent battering on the roof, which I thought almost a prerequisite for the smell to be strong enough to notice indoors.

The rehearsal alarmed me slightly, as I realised how much more we needed to rehearse the two-cello suite by Klengel even before our ‘dress rehearsal’ (in the form of an organised tour of four churches in west Suffolk) three days later. And it was only five days until our concert in Bungay. When we finished, I apologised to Peter’s wife for the less-than-perfect version of the piece she had just heard, but she told us how much she had enjoyed listening, and we chatted for a while about the church and the repairs it needed, totalling £80,000.Wickham Skeith gravestone

Opening the door to leave, I was hit by the full-colour version of the smell that had wafted in through the windows: it was a huge contrast to the sunshine at Cotton church a few hours earlier, but just as wonderful. After Will left, I stayed on to look around the churchyard. I found a vicar’s gravestone whose inscription caught my attention: ‘For all that has been thanks. For all that is to come yes!’. Although I hadn’t come across it before, I suspected it was a quotation, and an online search later confirmed this2. Like any quotation, I suppose it could quickly become hackneyed – perhaps it already is – but it was new to me, and it immediately made me think of my friend Jo. I could hear her saying it: it seemed to encompass her personality and religious philosophy. But my own interpretation of it wasn’t religious. To me, it was the ultimate ‘up yours’ to Death; a magic spell of hope.


1. A journey recounted in his book In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914.

2.. Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish diplomat and Secretary-General of the United Nations.

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