Suffolk churches 40: Great Wenham and Bradfield Combust (September 2017)

St John’s, Great Wenham (and a return visit to Raydon)
I had been invited back to Raydon church to play at a village fundraising event at the beginning of September, and Will kindly agreed to come along and play duets again. As we would be playing the same pieces we had played at Bungay, we decided a short rehearsal beforehand would be sufficient, and arranged to meet at Great Wenham before going on to Raydon. Great Wenham was only a few minutes down the road, but the rather depressing account of Simon Knott’s last attempt to get inside1 made me doubt that we would find it open. Still, a little glimmer of hope remained: it was two years since he last visited, and the vast majority of churches he’d found locked, I’d so far found open.

We were in luck. To my great relief, since we were both running a little late, the door surrendered as I turned the handle, and we went inside to a rather dark interior. For a change, the only space large enough for two cellos this time was at the back of the nave, rather than in front of the altar. It was only now that it occurred to me how strange, and serendipitous, it was that we had had no trouble with a traditional ‘concert set-up’ at any of the four churches in our tour of the Glem valley benefice, in contrast to nearly all of the other considerable number of churches in which we had practised.

Great Wenham interior Great Wenham interior 2

Great WenhamThe church looked pleasant and well cared-for, but there was no time to look around, and in any case I had forgotten my camera. When I returned to take photographs in November, I found organ pipes of all sizes distributed around the church, each set labelled, and one man passing pipes up to another in the organ loft. I enquired whether they were repairing or servicing the organ, having seen neither operation in progress before; they replied that they were repairing it, and that a service wouldn’t require such drastic dismantling. How an organ is tuned, I have no idea, but they seemed to be replacing the high notes first and tuning as they went. The sound that resulted was ear piercing, so I left them to their work and went outside to explore, noticing on my way a large amount of graffiti on the doorway arch, including some lettering that I couldn’t decipher (photo below right).

Back in September, however, we hurried on to Raydon, where we were met by Simon, the churchwarden with whom I had corresponded, dressed in an entertaining waistcoat covered in multi-coloured buttons. I thought he was just wearing fancy dress for the fun of the occasion, Great Wenham graffitiand didn’t find out until afterwards that this waistcoat was in fact the subject of a game: guess how many buttons are on the waistcoat. And I didn’t recognise Simon when I next saw him at a Suffolk Historic Churches Trust dinner dressed in a suit and tie…

The event was jolly. I had agreed to Simon’s request that we play outdoors, but had come ill-prepared: such a feat requires special equipment in the form of clothes pegs to keep the music on the stand, as it only takes a slight breeze to knock it off. Simon went in search of clips or pegs, but we couldn’t locate a sufficient number (I was mildly surprised that there were no washing lines within reach of the churchyard), and after some unsuccessful fiddling, he employed his two grandsons instead to sit on the ground under the music stands and grab the music if a gust of wind came along. Being at an age, however, not renowned for concentration – nor, for that matter, sitting still – it was a test of our own concentration not to be distracted by their various activities of grass pulling, music stand jiggling and being peered at from underneath the music, before they both suddenly ran off in the middle of a piece. Luckily the rain held off, and the gusts of wind quietened down in time for the little boys’ disappearance, and we enjoyed tea and cake afterwards in good spirits.

All Saints’, Bradfield Combust
I had no idea there was a church in Bradfield Combust – whose strange name is generally agreed to have originated from a fire of some sort – until I scoured the map looking for any churches I might have missed in the area around Bury St Edmunds; specifically, any lying near my route into town. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the discovery that I’d driven past it on countless occasions without noticing it.

The reason, aside from my poor observation, soon became clear: it was a towerless church almost entirely hidden from the main road by a high hedge. Perhaps its location next to the most conspicuous landmark of the village, the pub, also directed my gaze away from the small part of the church roof visible above the hedge.

Bradfield combustBradfield combust interiorI derived more than a reasonable amount of pleasure from finding this little church, of whose existence I had had no suspicion. Even better, it was open, despite the relatively late hour. It was so dark inside that I had to turn on the lights. The shape of the church was unusual – the south aisle was nearly as large as the nave and chancel together – and on the north wall I found something wonderful and unexpected: two huge wall paintings, one of which was obviously of St George and the other, according to the church guide, of St Christopher. I was very glad the church had lights, or I would not have been able to see them at all in the gloom.

Bradfield combust st george Bradfield combust st christopher

The pews were all covered with white sheets, perhaps as a precaution against mouse and bat droppings. I had an unusually large choice of where to play, and nearly set up near the door, but in the end chose the more conventional option at the front of the chancel – partly due to a perhaps unfounded guess that it would sound better in that location. As it was, I didn’t have high hopes of the acoustic, due to the church’s odd shape, the carpeted nave and generous quantity of fabric draped around the building.

Bradfield combust chancelI was entirely wrong. Not only was the acoustic spirit-lifting, but as soon as I started playing, the knot of tension that had been present in my stomach all day instantly melted away. It was a more extreme version of what had happened at Little Saxham a couple of weeks earlier. In the morning I had been forced to deal with two stressful predicaments in a row, one of which had been causing me dread for months. I thought that, having dealt with them, I would feel some relief, but none came. Even seeing friends in the afternoon did little to disperse the anxiety. But, that evening, simply stepping inside the church achieved more positive change in my state of mind than all my other efforts put together.

I breathed in different air, and felt infused by another world: a still, safe space; a retreat from the sometimes overwhelming demands of everyday life. The house I live in, and its garden, used to be such a retreat, but now it is my responsibility and my livelihood as well as my home, I have to work hard to create times when it still feels like one. My visit to Bradfield Combust made me realise to what extent playing the cello in churches – at least when it is free from practice frustrations – can be an activity of rest and renewal, and possess therapeutic properties that I did not entirely anticipate.

Perhaps I should have. After all, the idea of visiting all of Suffolk’s churches with my cello came after finding, to my surprise and relief, that playing at a friend’s funeral was an uplifting and calming experience. At some point in the formulation of the idea, therefore, I did envisage it as a way to find relief from pain without avoiding or denying it, in the same way that I had always found relief in nature.

I left the church feeling calm for the first time all day. Little pink cyclamen sparkled beneath a large cedar in the churchyard, as if proof of the transformation. I hadn’t noticed them on the way in.

Header photo: wall detail, Bradfield Combust church


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