I knew that St Stephen’s Chapel wouldn’t officially count towards my church total – perhaps because it was built as a private chapel – but I was determined to include it nevertheless, for its ancient atmosphere and unique setting. Located near the Essex border at Bures, it was consecrated in 1218 by the Archbishop of Canterbury and lies nearly half a kilometre from the nearest road, on the western edge of the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is also believed to be the site where the coronation of King Edmund took place in 8551, which makes me wonder why it was dedicated to St Stephen and not St Edmund2.
I felt that playing the cello in such a place would be made more special by sharing it with friends, and thankfully they were keen, so we arranged to meet there one afternoon in early September. As it was a Saturday, I thought I would stop at Assington church on the way: I had seen on a previous attempted visit that it was only open at weekends. But, as I was passing Hitcham church and saw various bikes outside, I remembered it was the day of the annual Suffolk Historic Churches Trust (SHCT) bike ride. At the beginning of my tour, perhaps I would have turned around and gone straight back home; but, by now having gained enough confidence to deal with most responses and situations I might encounter in a church – almost entirely, I should add, due to the unfailingly friendly and welcoming people I have met – I decided that I would be brave enough to ask if they wouldn’t mind a little cello music for the occasion.
My confidence seemed not to extend to phone calls, however: I had phoned the owner of St Stephen’s in advance to make sure we would be able to get in, but he didn’t seem in the mood to chat, and made no enquiry of my intentions towards his chapel, so I hadn’t the courage either to tell him that I planned to play the cello there, or to ask his permission to park outside. It meant I would have a long walk down a farm track from the road with my cello. I couldn’t remember whether there were any chairs in the chapel, and as I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry anything more than my usual equipment, I dropped in at my friend Mark’s house on the way to leave a fold-up chair for him to bring with him to St Stephen’s.
St Edmund’s, Assington
The setting of Assington church was idyllic: it was remote from its village, along a track amongst rolling hills, with goats and sheep in meadows surrounding the churchyard. It was a pretty church, with its tower staircase reaching higher than the tower, as at Dennington.
I was amazed to find no bikes at all outside the church, nor anyone to welcome cyclists. For a moment I thought maybe the church was locked after all: I struggled to open the door, but with a little jiggling it gave way. The interior was smart and well-cared for, and rather Victorian, but with a pleasant feel.
As I was setting up, one cyclist popped his head round the door but disappeared again immediately. Less than a minute later, I heard a phone ringing in the porch: I assumed the same cyclist was making a phone call, but I couldn’t hear what was said. Then, after I started playing, two men in high-visibility jackets appeared. When I stopped to say hello, they told me they’d just had a call from a cyclist saying he couldn’t get in because the church was locked; but he was gone by the time they arrived. I was half amused, half disappointed that I’d been inside the whole time and hadn’t realised someone was trying to get in. It seemed a pity: ten seconds later and he would have heard music coming through the door.
I hadn’t expected a good acoustic, as the nave, with its two aisles, was almost square; but it surprised me and I enjoyed playing there, despite the lack of visitors. By the time I packed up to leave, I was glad to feel in a good state of mind and finger-readiness for performing at St Stephen’s.
St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures
As soon as I arrived at St Stephen’s, I saw my worry about chair availability was laughable: the whole chapel was filled with them. My amusement was quickly followed by a moment’s worry about my memory: I couldn’t remember if the chairs had always been there, and I had visited at least four times in the last eighteen months. Still, it looked as though there might recently have been an event, as a keyboard was set up by the door – which, I was fairly sure, was a new addition. I couldn’t imagine it being left there permanently, for security reasons and because connecting it to an electricity supply must be quite an operation.
Impatient to ‘hear’ St Stephen’s – an entirely new dimension to my experience of the building – I set up immediately in front of the altar and started to play. I hoped and half expected the sound would match the setting, but nevertheless I breathed a sigh of relief and delight as I heard the music carry magically through the air to the back of the chapel. Now that the last element of uncertainty was resolved, I was looking forward more than ever to our gathering.
Amongst the first to arrive was Bertie, a three-month-old puppy on his first outing from home. I was honoured to be part of the occasion. He and Molly, his seven-year-old human sister with approximately the same amount of excess energy, ran around in the large open space at the back of the chapel, while we waited for the remaining members of our party to arrive. From there we had an open view across the Stour valley, and of the Bures Dragon in the opposite hillside, who looked like he’d recently undergone a renovation. He was created in 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations by Geoffrey Probert (and helpers), the owner of St Stephen’s chapel to whom I’d spoken on the phone. By this time, however, it was raining and had turned cold. The day had turned instantly from summer to autumn, and I now felt entirely inappropriately dressed: it was barely warmer than our last chilly visit at Easter, and I quickly took shelter indoors.
When the proceedings finally got underway, and after a few worried minutes for Bertie – whose ears were presumably suffering significantly from the shock of his first exposure to a cello howl – he and Molly were amazingly quiet and still for the duration of the piece. It was an unforgettable experience, certainly for me, and hopefully, from what I heard afterwards, for everyone else too.
We sat for a few minutes, reluctant to break the spell. Eventually we stirred ourselves to look around the chapel and especially at its walls, which were adorned with graffiti and wall paintings – consecration crosses, I think, although I forgot to take photographs. Perhaps it was a fortunate omission: I have an excuse to go back soon, and may (with permission) take some recording equipment with me…
Just as I was packing up my cello, a large group of people arrived, and they asked if I was about to give a concert. When I told them we had just finished, they introduced themselves as members of the Colchester Chamber Choir, on their 32nd church of the day. It was the last of their ‘choral steeplechase’ visits which they undertook annually on the day of the SHCT bike ride. They seemed as little bothered as I was that the chapel wasn’t officially on their church trail.
We stayed to listen. They sang one piece indoors, and one piece outdoors in front of the dragon. Ours was the better deal: their arrival turned our short but already memorable chapel visit into a joyful impromptu concert. The sky cleared on cue, and we were treated to a view of the dragon lit up by the evening sun (see header photo).
We ambled slowly back up the hill, and invited ourselves to Mark’s house for a cup of tea, while Molly and Bertie’s gang went to Sudbury, in search, I was reliably informed, of the best fish and chips…
All Saints’, Little Wenham
The following weekend I had a visit from two friends, Peter and Hala. Hala had expressed an interest in going to a church with me, but I thought there wouldn’t be time, their stay having been shortened to little more than 24 hours by train cancellations. Hala had no pressing engagements at home the following day, however, and decided to extend her stay; so, after dropping Peter off at Manningtree station, we took a small detour to Little Wenham on the way home, a redundant church in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. I’d heard it was a special church and hoped it would make for an enjoyable visit.
We arrived at an incongruous automatic barrier at the beginning of a pot-holed track. I felt as though we were trespassing, or being watched, or both; but we kept our nerve and continued until we reached a group of farm buildings, which included an almost equally incongruous brick and timber barn. It was old, large and beautiful, and looked out of place only because it was bright and shiny, as if it had recently been renovated and perhaps converted into a house, despite the otherwise entirely convincing appearance of our having arrived at a forgotten corner of farmland: there were no people, no cars, no driveways and no gardens in sight.
Opposite the farm buildings was a flight of steps up to the churchyard, and from the top we could see Wenham castle above a brick wall and more farm buildings. I didn’t realise at the time that this building is also known as Little Wenham Hall, a ‘fortified manor house’ built in the 13th century and now a private museum.
The church was beautiful. Bizarrely, the sense of spaciousness I felt there meant I remembered it as having no pews. It wasn’t until I looked at the photographs I took that I saw it did: not as many as churches usually do, but several rows nonetheless. There was barely a feature in the church that did not hold interest: the timbered porch, 14th century font, 19th century wooden coffin bearer (this time I did find it listed in the church guide, unlike at Little Saxham), parts of a 17th century box pew, and a brass floor memorial of Thomas Brewse (1514) and his wife3 (photos below). There were medieval paintings on the north and east walls, and, to my surprise, the faces and hands of the people on the east wall were completely black. In the church guide I found a slightly less exciting explanation than I had hoped for: it was due to the pigment having oxidised. We took turns to go up the rood stairs, the first that I had been able to access, and enjoyed the view from the top. I wondered if it had been intended for little people, so narrow and steep was the staircase.
The church’s atmosphere and acoustic were just as special as St Stephen’s. I thought I would only play for a few minutes as I didn’t want to bore Hala, but she asked if she could take some photos and videos, and we soon got carried away. Before we knew it, two hours had passed.
After playing I had a final look around the church. A tomb in the south chancel wall interested me mainly for its graffiti, which looked old, but there were no dates amongst the carved initials. For once, interestingly, the graffiti on the entrance doorway was mentioned in the church guide, including the ‘later and less welcome graffiti’. This was also my reaction on seeing the additions from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But afterwards I questioned it: why should we regard old graffiti as historical curiosities at worst, works of art at best, and yet reject more recent versions of essentially the same thing? In five hundred years’ time, won’t visitors to Little Wenham church look at our ‘modern’ graffiti with a similar fascination to that with which we view medieval graffiti, even if there are fewer mysterious symbols to interpret? Nevertheless I could not help feeling the old graffiti was far more beautiful: even simple initials were carved with care and craftsmanship, in contrast to the messy scratches of recent times.
We left the church in high spirits. Our spontaneous project had been fun, and – incredibly for me, for the second time in little over a week – it was an afternoon that neither of us would forget.
Header photo: Bures dragon near St Stephen’s chapel
Total church count to the end of September: 103 (+2 chapels)
2. It has been suggested to me that the chapel was dedicated to St Stephen after Stephen Langton, the Archbishop who consecrated the chapel in 1218. This seems logical, but, in my mind, less compelling than dedicating it to St Edmund, if it is true that the site of the chapel was chosen for being the location of King Edmund’s coronation.
3. Little Wenham church guide