A friend lent me an article about the medieval graffiti in Troston church, which I had been reading with great interest without actually knowing where Troston was. For weeks I had been meaning to look it up, but remembering this and being in a convenient location to do so didn’t coincide until I put up a photocopied map from Cautley’s Suffolk churches on my fridge door, showing all but a few churches in the corner north of Lowestoft that belong to the Diocese of Norwich. I found Troston in the north of the county, not far from Ixworth. It was one of several areas that I had not been to at all – in fact, I had barely crossed the A143 between Bury and Diss, not realising how much of Suffolk existed there, at the western end at least. So, on my first proper day off in more than two weeks, I was excited to have a pressing reason to do so.
St Mary’s, Ixworth
I had never been to Ixworth, even though there is a chicken breed named after it – which anyone who knows me might think more than sufficient reason to visit. This, along with the discovery that the village has a tearoom, was ample excuse to stop off there before continuing on to Troston. As I pulled up outside its large church, tucked away behind the high street, I thought perhaps there would be visitors coming and going all morning. But it was empty, and stayed empty for the duration of my stay
It was a beautiful church, with flushwork on the tower and porch: flat, decorative areas of stone and knapped flint. Inside, the first thing I noticed was the angels. Their wings looked rather like crows’ wings, which I found slightly disturbing. Although the nave, with its two aisles, looked large from the outside, the church still felt relatively small inside.
Everywhere I saw memorials to the Boldero family: it sounded like a Spanish name, and drew my attention to my unconscious assumption that people ‘didn’t get about in those days’, even though I already knew that theory had been debunked long ago. Thanks to the Ixworth village website, however, and a villager who was clearly as intrigued as I was about the origin of this name, I found out that the name is actually of Danish or German derivation, and may therefore have originated in the Saxon or Danish waves of migration that occurred after 400AD following the withdrawal of the Romans.1 It is amazing to me that such different words and names – Baldur (German), Bealdric (old English), Bolderyroo (earlier version of Boldero) – could somehow end up sounding like a name of Latin origin. The evolution of language sometimes seems quite as curious and miraculous as the evolution of species.
I warmed up quickly by practising the Bach C minor suite, and, to my great relief, felt I was making some progress with stamina. Feeling comfortably warm by the time I finished practising, I was surprised when I stepped out of the church. It was a mild day, certainly, but I hadn’t realised it was so much warmer outside than in. Perhaps it was because the sun had come out since I arrived.
The idea of undertaking some thoroughly silly research suddenly popped into my head: to record indoor and outdoor temperatures on my church visits throughout the rest of autumn and winter to see if there is a direct correlation between the two (my hypothesis based on experience so far is that it might not be entirely predictable); at what temperature I can see my breath; and at what point it is too cold to do more than play a few notes – and then, no doubt, give up until the weather gets warmer. Unless the winter is as mild as it has been the last few years, I expect this will happen at some point – based on my memories of the cold winter of 2012-13 when I played in two church concerts at borderline unplayable temperatures, despite the ‘heating’. I could certainly see my breath then. With wild swimming, however, it is said that if you want to be able to swim through the winter, you have to start in summer and keep going. I wonder if I can apply the same theory to playing the cello in churches…
After looking round the large churchyard – where, I am sorry to say, I knew nothing of, and did not notice, the ruins of the Priory – I headed eagerly for the tea room on the high street. When I refer to the Suffolk Churches website, I often wonder cheekily if Simon Knott’s church touring was really an excuse to visit every Suffolk village pub. Mine, on the other hand, might be considered an excuse to visit every tea room in the county – of which there are far fewer than pubs (or churches, for that matter). I fear it would be too dangerous a pursuit to try the cake at every one –the real test of a tea room, I suppose – but in every other respect I am pleased to report that Ixworth’s was one of the best, and just as a village tea room should be: beamed and wonky, welcoming and cosy, and, of course, serving delicious soup…
St Mary’s, Troston
I found Troston church down a dead-end lane opposite some modern houses. The setting was slightly odd: the church itself – with the ends of its roof timbers rather charmingly visible on the exterior nave wall – and the churchyard, complete with two horse-drawn ploughs (right), felt rural and old, but on its east side, a suburban-looking wooden panel fence was the only barrier between the churchyard and neighbouring houses. There were some lime trees along the perimeter, but they were entirely devoid of branches, having recently been pollarded. One can only hope that they will be allowed to regrow for long enough to soften the view.
My excitement at visiting Troston after reading so much about its graffiti was dampened somewhat by the realisation that my visit would most likely be accompanied by the uninterrupted racket of chainsaws and a wood chipper: more trees were being pollarded on the road outside the churchyard. Perhaps if I’d stopped to think, I wouldn’t be so surprised at how many of my church visits have been less than peaceful; but, I admit, strimmers, lawnmowers and chainsaws never entered the picture I’d conjured up of visiting rural churches.
Nevertheless, my anticipation was sufficiently intact that, before doing anything else, I went to inspect all of the stone archways and pillars I could find. They were all covered in graffiti. I have never seen so much of it. I found coats of arms, initials and dates, boats, houses with flags, ritual protection marks (variations on W W and compass-drawn symbols), crosses, faces, figures and much more besides that I couldn’t identify. I didn’t find the ‘Troston demon’, having failed to note down its location on paper or in my memory, but one carving in particular intrigued me: it looked like a wing (photo below right). But I could find no second wing, nor any body.
I could have stared at the graffiti all day, but there were also wall paintings to enjoy, not to mention a cello to practise. There were boards leaning against the nave pews describing the various wall paintings from different periods; my favourite, perhaps of all wall paintings I have seen, was St George slaying the dragon, painted in the 15th century. I also enjoyed the dragon bench end in the chancel, and the 15th century rood screen. But I was astounded that, yet again, the graffiti was all but passed over in the church leaflet.
When my curiosity had been satisfied, I set up to practise the cello in front of the rood screen and attempted to drown out the background noise. It was a rather dark church, with its old carpet covered in droppings of various sorts. The atmosphere of the church was such that if cello practice hadn’t been so urgent, and there hadn’t been so many fascinating historical details around me, I probably would have moved on quite quickly. I could easily imagine it as the setting for some ghost story or murder mystery – in spite of all the informative literature provided, and in spite of the very modern sound of chainsaws intruding on its ancient interior.
As I was practising, I looked across to my right at the pulpit – three-tiered and early 17th century, as I later read. But I remember nothing of it beyond the detail that caught my eye: my cello appeared to have a twin…
St Ethelbert’s, Hessett
After Troston, I headed for Great Livermere, a village nearby which I had no memory of having been to before, but as soon as I arrived at the village junction, I recognised it – with the help of a free range cockerel scratching around in a farmyard across the road. It was the place where a friend and I, on our way from Ingham to Wyken Vineyards, had tried to herd a mother chicken and her enormous brood of newly hatched chicks off the road. We tried to find out where she lived, but after a lot of knocking at house doors, we were told that they were feral chickens and went where they pleased.
I found the church locked, and decided against a key hunt. I would drive homewards, I thought, and ought to pass a few churches still due a visit. In fact, the only church I passed was Hessett, not too far from home, but one that I had looked for and failed to find in the first week of my tour: I had been driving too close to the churchyard hedge to spot the church tower some distance behind it, and somehow I had come to the conclusion that perhaps Hessett had no church, because it was a joint parish with Beyton. But I drive through the village fairly regularly and really had no excuse for not noticing it sooner.
Although I found it perhaps a week or two after that first attempt, I had been putting off visiting. I don’t exactly know why. But, as usual, once I was inside, my procrastination seemed ridiculous: it was a lovely church. There were Saxon coffin lids laid around the intricately patterned 15th century font2, along with beautiful old bricks, tiles and flagstones.
Decapitated figures on the roof and mutilated bench ends always make me sad (if not angry), but some bench ends were intact, and many of the medieval benches in fact had no carvings or decorations at all, which I rather liked. The unusual wall paintings – one of which was of the seven deadly sins (above right) – the 15th century rood screen, medieval stained glass, wood and iron chest (whose contents live at the British Museum3), and old church clock mechanism on display were all fascinating. Many of the figures’ heads and much besides was missing in the stained glass, and I wondered whether it therefore would have been better to create a random collage, as I had seen in many other churches. Or perhaps this is simply my personal bias: I always like those collages. Having finally spent the necessary time fiddling with my camera to get a respectable photo of the stained glass at Hessett, I feel I should go back to try again at Boxford and Rattlesden, which contained perhaps my favourite stained glass so far.
The acoustic of the church was better than I expected, considering its aisled nave, and by the time I packed up I was pleased with the results of my day’s practice, as well as my day’s explorations. A man and his dog appeared in the porch as I was leaving: they had come to lock up the church. We chatted briefly but, though friendly, the conversation felt awkward and stumbling, so I excused myself to look around the churchyard. I pitied the poor person tasked with cutting the grass: it was one huge range of mole hills. Behind the church I found several clumps of primroses. It had been several months since I had seen any, and I was glad of the reminder that advancing autumn was no obstacle to the most determined flowers.
Header photo: graffiti in the choir stalls, Troston church
2. All historical details and dates are from the Hessett church guide.
3. Medieval items relating to holy communion: a ‘pyx cloth’ and a ‘burse’, both of which are England’s only surviving examples. Apparently, when Cromwell’s men came to the church, they were given the three different keys but not the iron bar required to open the chest, and, when the chest was finally opened in the 19th century, these items were found inside (Hessett church guide).