Suffolk churches 43: Wyverstone, Risby and Heveningham (October 2017)

St George’s, Wyverstone
It was only by glorious chance that I ended up at Wyverstone. I had a lot of practice to fit in before the beginning of November, so, while it was warm enough, I knew church visits would be the order of the day in any free time I had. After a few weeks’ break from my church touring, I was keen to find a special, out-of-the-way-but-not-too-far-away church to make my outing memorable – and particularly in case the plodding cello practice became a little too plodding. But I couldn’t think how to find just the right church without spending a long time looking on the internet, which I had no inclination to do. Remembering vaguely that someone had mentioned medieval wall paintings at Bacton church, a twenty-minute drive from home, I thought it would do, for want of a better idea. Bacton village itself does not inspire me – it is a large sprawl of mostly modern houses – but the little green and fish pond outside the village shop provided enough of a sparkle in the image for me to settle on its church as my destination. Better still, there was a tea room not far off where I could do some writing afterwards.

I arrived at Bacton church to find a sign in the porch saying it was closed for painting restoration. It didn’t say for how long, but the door was open and two people were inside, so I went in to enquire. They told me it might not be open again until spring, and gave no indication that I might come in and play now; but I couldn’t tell if this was because it was ‘closed’, or because they’d mistakenly got the impression that I only played at church concerts and events. In any case, they expressed some interest in my coming to play at a service, so I left my contact details. The gentleman suggested other churches in the benefice that I might like to visit that afternoon instead. I had been to most of them already, but there was one – Wyverstone – that I hadn’t heard of, and apparently it was only a mile down the road. So I followed his instructions, turning right up the lane by the shop, and before long I came to the church.

WyverstoneIt was exactly the kind of church I was looking for that afternoon; more so than Bacton. Its setting was rural, though not remote, and as soon as I pulled up outside the churchyard I immediately liked it. I couldn’t say why exactly. I walked up to the porch, which was oddly set to one side of the doorway. The floor looked relatively new, but it was beautiful. I felt the same way about the floor inside, and I had never seen a brick floor patterned this way in a church. I think I often lament the loss of beauty in modern times; but for once I felt that, as far as repairing and restoring old buildings goes, we are now more enlightened than we were a few decades ago. And thank goodness we don’t tile church floors as the Victorians did.

Wyverstone porch Wyverstone floor

On my first leisurely church visit in a month, I became excited not only about the floor but also about the old chest at the back of the church, the bench dated 1616 and initialled TH – WM, and the rood screen: I have since read that this is the only ‘in situ’ rood screen in Suffolk with figures carved in relief1. There was a pleasant smell of linseed oil inside the church, but I couldn’t tell what had recently been oiled. I felt high on beauty. As though for the first time, I was conscious of being truly glad that I had acted on my crazy idea to visit all these churches with my cello, and thought what good fortune it was that I had ended up at Wyverstone today. The hesitation I had felt for weeks before starting the project was a strange and distant memory now; in fact, I was starting to think that perhaps I should take my church tour more slowly in order to make the pleasure last longer.

Wyverstone bench custom Wyverstone rood screen Wyverstone chest

Wyverstone interiorIt was to be my first serious training session on the piece I had to perform in less than 3 weeks: the Bach C minor cello suite. It was frustrating to realise a few days earlier that taking a two-week holiday – more like 3 or 4 weeks’ break from proper cello practice – meant that I would effectively have to start from scratch again as far as stamina was concerned. I suppose it is like any physical activity, or speaking a foreign language: it feels great to be fit or fluent, but disturbing to realise how quickly you lose it if you don’t keep at it every day. Nevertheless, I suppose it had been so long since I had been properly ‘in shape’ on the cello that I had forgotten how extreme the difference could feel.

I was surprised to find after a few minutes of playing that it was my right hand, not left, that was the more painful. The acoustic was pleasant but not overly resonant, which suited my purpose: it sounded nice enough to help me persevere with practice, but not so nice as to give me a false sense of security. I had to take breaks every few minutes in order to keep practising through the pain, but I must have eventually become absorbed in the task, as I barely noticed dusk setting in, and would have stayed longer if I hadn’t needed to get home before dark to shut in the chickens.

As I was leaving, I was disappointed to realise there was no visitors’ book to write in. It had been months since I had visited a church without one. So instead I wrote a note on a piece of paper I found and put it in the donation box along with my donation. A couple of weeks later, I received a friendly email from a new churchwarden at Wyverstone assuring me that one would soon be available. He also told me of a community café that takes place in the village hall twice a month and invited me along if I was ever passing. It will be more than sufficient incentive to visit other churches in the area on an appropriate Saturday, and hopefully it will be the perfect place to find out definitively whether the village name is pronounced Wye-verstone or Wiverstone…

St Giles’, Risby
My acquaintance with Risby didn’t extend further than its antiques centre, Risby Barn, which I went to many times during the period when I was looking for second hand furniture. The church was further east, along an unfamiliar road running parallel with the A14. It was long and thin, with a small round tower. These two parts of the building were somewhat out of proportion with each other, but it was beautiful nevertheless.Risby interior

It was a mild but dull afternoon, and it was even darker inside, so I turned on the lights and found a stunning interior. Largely untouched by the Victorians as far as I could tell, I felt as though I was stepping back in time: the church dates back to Saxon times, according to the guide. Yet again I found myself astounded that such an unsuspected treasure could exist in a village with which I was semi-familiar; and also surprised that my friend Penny hadn’t mentioned how beautiful it was when she explained to me how to get there. The roar of traffic from the A14 was audible even inside the church, but somehow the contrast of new and old made the church’s beauty more striking.

The Norman tower arch looked almost as tall as Little Saxham’s, and its walls were adorned with 13th century paintings and decorations. It also boasted a Norman window, old pamment floor and 15th century rood screen2. I didn’t notice the medieval stained glass, but some of the benches, not mentioned in the short guide, looked to me as though they were medieval, as it was clear – with my newly trained eye – that the carved bench ends had been sawn off.

Risby wall painting Risby window Risby rood screen Risby tower arch
Risby floor Risby benches

More than ever, playing the Bach C minor suite with different string tuning (see Campsea Ashe church) felt in keeping with this ancient place. The acoustic, as at Wyverstone, was just right. Before long I found myself getting hot, and taking off layers until I was practising in a T-shirt. I don’t know how much of this was due to the mildness of the day, and how much due to the strenuousness of the piece I was practising, but it was a surprise to me in mid-October. It seemed, so far, that it was only the reduction in daylight, not temperature, I was having problems with: I was still being caught out by the fact that – to my astonishment – the sun sets almost half an hour earlier in Suffolk than it does in Cornwall, where I had been less than two weeks earlier. Dusk caught me unawares for the second day in a row, and I hurried to get home for the creatures, promising myself to set off earlier next time.

St Margaret’s, Heveningham
My good intentions didn’t materialise by the time I next left home to visit a church. I intended to go to Badingham on my way to friends at Sibton Green, where I had been invited for supper, but as I was approaching my destination I realised that nearing 5pm, and dusk, on a Sunday afternoon might not be the best time to find a church open and not in use. I drove up the lane signposted to the church, and could tell from the quantity of cars that there was no point stopping, well before I reached the sign that said ‘church car park in use’. I consulted my map, and decided to continue on to Ubbeston. The font used on the map, and the fact the church was named, did arouse my suspicions, but I didn’t remember until I pulled up outside that it featured in my short list of ‘residential churches’. So I continued on to Heveningham and tried to convince myself that three failed church visits in a row would be unlikely…

HeveninghamThe church was locked. There was a keyholder notice, however, saying that I could find a key at 1, Church Road, opposite the church. The only problem was that the churchyard faced three roads, and there was no sign anywhere in sight. Thankfully a dog walker was approaching, and so I asked where it was and he directed me to the correct house, just across the road from where I’d parked.

The light was on; that was a promising start. But the house had no doorbell, and I was knocking on the outer of two front doors. I knocked, and knocked again. And again. But there was no answer. Eventually I came to the decision that I simply could not go away without the key, which gave me sufficient courage to knock on the kitchen window to the right of the front door: though unpleasantly intrusive, I thought it might have a better chance of attracting someone’s attention. After a short wait, a cat came round the corner of the house, followed by its owner, an elderly lady. She was very friendly and insisted on coming to turn the lights on for me, even though (once she’d explained where they were) I said I could find them myself. So we walked over to the church together, and she let me in. It was a pretty interior, decorated for harvest festival. I was glad, in the end, that I had come at dusk, as the church and its decorations looked even lovelier and more welcoming in the warm lighting.

Heveningham interior Heveningham interior 2
Heveningham interior 3 Heveningham interior 4

After she had shown me where all the light switches were, I knew the moment had come to invite her to stay and listen. I was putting it off, simply because of my usual feelings of awkwardness, but at the last possible moment I forced myself to say it. She replied that she would stay for a few minutes, and that it was a pity I couldn’t play for a service. I offered to come back any time, and said I’d leave my details in the visitors’ book.

She left a few minutes later, saying that she was expecting a phone call from her son who was arriving from America, and I went outside to take a photo of the church before the light went completely. It was so windy and cold that I was surprised by how warm it felt when I went back into the church. My practice was short, due to the delay in finding a church and a key, but long enough to be worthwhile, and I was glad I persevered: I had passed Heveningham church several times before and had been looking forward to seeing inside.

I crossed the road to return the key, and was about to knock on the front door when I remembered how long I might have to wait for an answer, so I put it through the letterbox instead. The indecision persisted, however: I nearly turned back, worrying that perhaps I should have knocked after all, in case the lady thought I had forgotten to return it. But finally I told myself to stop being silly. After all, it would hardly be possible to miss such an enormous key lying on your door mat.


2. Risby church guide

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