It was high time I branched out into west Suffolk, I thought, but I had no idea where to start. Once again, serendipity came to my aid: just a few days earlier, when I was looking up the location of Troston church, a friend asked me if I knew where Denston was. Now that I had a map of Suffolk’s churches stuck to my fridge door, it was much easier to ‘browse’ locations, and to remember to look up places that people happened to mention to me. Although perhaps not the quickest method of finding them – unless you know in roughly which area to look – on this occasion it took me only a few seconds to find Denston conveniently located in the area to the north of Haverhill that I had so far entirely neglected. Even better, the short entry for Denston in Cautley’s book, Suffolk churches, led me to expect wondrous things. It was just the hook I needed to draw me into an area of Suffolk I didn’t know at all.
Hawkedon was my first stop on the way to Denston. The church was set back behind a green (or so I thought), opposite another green. It felt remote, especially on this cold and windy morning. Although it was also chilly inside the church, my relief at taking shelter from the wind added to the sense of cosiness I felt as I stepped inside. The sight to my left and above my head made me feel, for some reason I cannot identify, as though I had just walked into a George Eliot novel. There were low pews to my left and a gallery above my head. Straight ahead was a Norman font with a colourful basket of fruit and vegetables in front of it, whose apples had been heartily tucked into by the mouse population. I am sure they thoroughly approve of the harvest festival.
The church was simply beautiful, and full of treasures. I spent a long time looking at the floor, rood screen and all the pews with their bizarre and wonderful carved bench ends. I went up to the gallery for an unusual perspective and found a wall painting fragment there. Descending again and approaching the altar to see better the collection of medieval glass in the east window, I found a prayer book given to the church in 1894 by the rector, Beilby Porteus Oakes. I had barely begun to wonder how he came into possession of such a curious first name – which I only deciphered thanks to the wall plaque dedicated to him – when I saw his father’s name was Orbell Plampin Oakes, and practically laughed out loud. Perhaps Beilby had got off lightly after all…
It was without doubt one of my favourite churches so far. The acoustic only confirmed that conclusion, despite the distraction of a strimmer – which, thankfully, stopped after a short while. But it also felt like my first properly cold church visit so far. I needed to practise, but I found it difficult to keep going as my fingers got progressively colder, rather than warmer.
After a respectable effort, I packed up and scrutinised the pillars for graffiti. I found plenty on the south doorway arch, although some of it was hard to make out on the eroded surfaces. I then went outside to explore the churchyard – a much more pleasant prospect now that the sun had come out and the wind had died down – and I found that, contrary to my initial impression of the church being set back behind a green, the churchyard was surrounded by grass, and was enclosed by a low brick wall, which made it look like an island in a meadow. I have since read that Hawkedon is, in fact, the only church in Suffolk set in the middle of a village green1.
I couldn’t say what my favourite part of the church was. There were so many wonderful features, but the porch must win a prize for beauty. The little holy water stoup – I assume – on the right, with a rose growing beneath it, was quite the sweetest detail I had seen since the piscina at Redisham.
St Nicholas’, Denston
I found Denston church just off a bright and autumnal village green. Outside, it looked like a grand church on a small scale, with a tower that was slightly too short for its body. Inside, it looked almost like a mini version of Blythburgh: ancient and impressive.
The floor was splendidly uneven and bumpy, especially in the chancel – possibly the most undulating floor I have encountered in a church. Several impressively old memorials were set in it, dating from as early as the 1480s2. The font was a ‘seven sacraments’ font, I read afterwards – one of 13 such fonts in Suffolk, built in the 15th century – but a number of the figures had their faces removed. The east window was made up of an attractive patchwork of medieval glass, and I loved the animal bench ends, most of them medieval and unmutilated. But what I found most enchanting of all were the animals on the wall plate (see header photo). I had never seen anything like them, and I spent a long time lying face up on the pews trying to take photographs.
Beautiful as the church was, it felt a little out of proportion. The roof was high and the nave short. It seemed that the chancel, with no separation from the nave in terms of the construction of the building, was too large for the length of the building, and the rood screen stretched right across the church to incorporate both aisles. It might work in a large church like Long Melford, but in a small one, it made the interior feel cramped. I thought my sense that the chancel took up half of the church was probably an illusion; but, counting the bays and columns in the chancel and nave in my photographs, I can now see it is not: they each have three.
Interestingly, as I read afterwards on the Suffolk churches site, the rood stairs are in fact two bays in from the east end of the church, suggesting that the intention was originally for the nave to be four bays long. In this case, the church would have been better in proportion. The decision to enlarge the chancel – before the rood screen was installed – was most likely due to the church becoming a chantry college in 1475 (until 1548), and therefore more space being required in the chancel3.
It was nearly one o’clock and I was getting hungry, so I wasn’t sure how long I would manage to practise. Incessant barking coming from an adjacent garden wasn’t helping my patience either: I assumed it must be a dog, but at first it wasn’t easily identifiable as a bark. I thought it sounded more like a noise one of the mythical bench-end creatures might make. On arrival I had found the door to the church wide open, on purpose I assumed, and I felt I should leave it, so with a sigh I set about drowning out the noise.
The acoustic was pleasant though not remarkable; but at least this church felt somewhat warmer than Hawkedon, so I managed to practise for half an hour before stopping in favour of finding lunch. I hadn’t planned my day well: I foolishly assumed I would manage to visit three churches in a row without a lunch stop. Clearly that wasn’t going to happen, since hunger does nothing to help concentration. I never did make it to a third church. But before leaving I did find the patience to look for graffiti – finding my first word, or perhaps name, though I couldn’t decipher the letters – and to wander round the churchyard, where I was rewarded by the sight of sunlit bronze leaves against the rusty red lichen that covered the north side of the church.
Cautley described Denston church ‘probably the most interesting and beautiful of Suffolk’s smaller churches’, and I could see why. The sense of experiencing a medieval building with nearly all its original features intact may be matched only by Blythburgh. But I still preferred Hawkedon: I would choose intimate beauty over grandeur any day. Perhaps, on reflection, it was just this quality that brought to mind George Eliot’s writing when I stepped inside the church.
St Mary’s, Gedding
It still astonishes me that I had no inkling Gedding possessed its own church. Perhaps I was misled by the fact it is a joint parish with Felsham. But I had seen it marked on the map at the back of Cautley’s book, and I’m sure that at least one person had mentioned it to me. I must have been blind to suggestion, dismissing it from my mind by the certainty that if it had a church, I would already know about it; after all, Gedding is little more than 10 minutes’ drive from my home.
Eventually, however, it troubled me enough to look it up to make sure. I looked first in Cautley’s book, then on the Suffolk Churches site, and finally on my OS Explorer map. No doubt remained: it existed, and it was located on a stretch of road along which I rarely drive. My curiosity was impatient, and a day or two later I went to look for it. I quickly became confused about which lane I was on, and which junction was which – even with my satnav on and a map on the seat next to me – and had to turn around twice before I eventually found it. As I was driving, I remembered my dad telling me that on one of his meanders around country lanes, he’d been looking for Gedding Hall – owned by a member of the Rolling Stones – but he couldn’t find it, and was baffled as to where it could be. If he’d had a good old OS Explorer map with him, he would have seen it immediately, though perhaps not found it any more easily: it was just down the road from the church. The memory made me feel slightly better about becoming disorientated on these winding lanes, and about not realising there was a church hidden amongst them.
The church was barely visible from the road, giving me a further convenient excuse for my ignorance. I opened the gate and approached the most adorable little rustic church, set at the back of an unusually shaped churchyard full of mounds and ditches, and facing a mullion-windowed and timbered farmhouse. I spotted the Norman window straight away. As I stepped inside the church, I saw its twin on the north side of the nave, where the setting sun was putting on a wonderful display. Several rows of medieval pews at the back completed the picture. A notice informed me that the church was always open, and I was glad: somehow it was comforting to know that such a wonderful and secret little place as this was always accessible.
Although it was the coldest day of autumn so far, it was tolerably mild indoors. Yet again I had forgotten to bring a thermometer to start my temperature ‘research’, but I was already starting to suspect that sun shining through the windows makes more, and faster, difference to indoor air temperature than outdoor air temperature does.
I found a chair in the chancel and removed its cushion, which was covered in dust. A large black spider cowered in the corner. I left it there, checking on it periodically as I practised. The acoustic was blissful; perhaps on a par with Chattisham. I played the whole Bach C minor suite through, to check on the progress of my stamina, and I got through it with relatively little difficulty compared to the day before. I was confused as to why acoustic should make so much difference to stamina, and wondered if it was something perhaps as simple as relaxing into the sound as I played, instead of tensing up when it feels uncomfortable and scratchy. I played until it was so dark I couldn’t see the music. I tried to turn on the lights, but nothing happened. When I met the rector less than a week later at my concert in Bradfield St Clare church – which, I hadn’t realised, was in the same benefice as Gedding – she let me into the secret of the light switches, which I will remember for next time I decide to play there in the half-dark. I am sure there will be a next time…
By the time I finished practising, the spider was gone. I wondered if it had been disturbed by the vibrations, or offended by the music. As I packed up, I saw the moonrise reflected on the north wall of the chancel, rounding off my visit in pleasing symmetry. I opened the door to the dusk, and heard the blackbirds complain loudly in the churchyard.
Header photo: Roof carvings, Denston church
Total churches to the end of October: 114 + 2 chapels
3. http://www.suffolkchurches.co.uk/denston.htm and http://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=4901 A chantry was a trust fund set up (often by wealthy members of a parish) for the purpose of employing priests to sing masses for the souls of the dead – often the souls of those who paid for the chantry before their deaths. As far as I understand it, a ‘college’ refers to a group of priests and/or lay members of the community who collectively run a chantry or church. Any further enlightenment on the subject is gratefully received…