On my second return visit to the Debenham area to take photos of Winston and Debenham, I rectified my previous mistake and executed my photographic duties before going to any new churches. Afterwards I decided to pass by Aspall church, although I had little hope of finding it open, having read the rather discouraging Suffolk Churches site entry. But more often than not, churches that in the past were kept locked, I find open, or at least with a keyholder notice.
Sadly, this church was not one of them. I would go so far as to say it was my only wholly depressing attempted church visit so far. I ended up parking on the edge of a field outside one of the churchyard gates next to a ‘private property’ sign, finding nowhere else to stop, and the only hint that the church might not be derelict was a rug I could see inside the locked porch. There were no notices anywhere to indicate to the visitor that the church was still in use, and the only aspect of my visit that gave me cause to smile was the presence of a colourful flock of chickens making full and joyful use of the churchyard.
Later in the day I managed to find a contact email for the rector of the benefice, and wrote to enquire if the church was still in use. I received a friendly and apologetic reply, and was assured that if I wrote again prior to my next visit, it would be unlocked for me. I was relieved and grateful, but after a few moments’ hesitation, decided I would be neglecting my moral duty if I did not at least suggest that a keyholder notice might be put up on the porch door…
St Andrew’s, Mickfield
Outdoor temperature: 10.9˚C; indoor temperature: 9.5˚C, humidity: 60%.
After Aspall, I decided to go on to Mickfield – a church that, again, I wasn’t sure I would be able to access, as I had memories of having read somewhere that, after many years of neglect, it had been converted into a house.
My memory wasn’t entirely incorrect, but I couldn’t have hoped for a greater contrast to Aspall. If that was my most dispiriting experience so far, Mickfield was perhaps my most intriguing and delightful: entering the church grounds through what looked like a vegetable garden interspersed with gravestones, I found a sign outside the porch door saying ‘church open 9-6’. I entered, to find the porch had been converted into a kitchen. On the cupboards were various signs directing visitors to help themselves to refreshments and apologising for the lack of personal welcome. Beyond the kitchen I passed into a corridor. On my left was a flight of stairs (leading to a gallery, apparently with a display about the church, but currently closed for refurbishment), and to my right, a pair of double doors leading to the nave – now more like a room – separated from the chancel by a heavy curtain. The chairs were arranged around the edge of the room in a friendly fashion, and there was an informative display about the history of the church along one wall, probably brought down from the gallery.
When I went outside to get my cello from the car, I met a gentleman whom I had passed on the road as I arrived. He told me the church was privately owned and had been converted into a house, but was in use as a church again and managed by the Anglia Church Trust. He expressed some concern about its future, as, he informed me, it was now on sale again. Perhaps I visited just in time…
I decided to play the cello in the chancel, which was the most traditional-looking part of the church. I enjoyed the floor memorials there, including a brass dated 1617, and two 14th century pews – which, I read afterwards, were once sold off but later returned to the church1.
It was the first time I had played the cello since my marathon two-performance Sunday afternoon four days earlier. It was also the first time I had tuned my cello back to its normal string tuning in more than two weeks. The top string (which had been tuned down a tone) sounded a little twangy, and my hands felt in need of rehabilitation. My left hand was stiff, and the little finger joint in my hand was painful. The latter was not a problem I had ever experienced before, but I had noticed it towards the end of my four hours of playing – foolhardy, some musicians might think, to practise so long beforehand, but for me it is the surest way of knowing that my stamina will last the course.
The cold temperature – my coldest church visit yet – did not help the stiffness in my hand, and the acoustic was that of a small room, not a church, probably because of the large and heavy curtains. I played only for ten or fifteen minutes – enough for my first try, under the circumstances, and long enough that my experience of this highly unusual, homely and loved church was something I would never forget.
On my way out I noticed a huge amount of graffiti on the stonework in the kitchen –the most I had seen since Troston. There was something rather touching, and rather fitting, about a kitchen being made around these old carvings. A room in everyday use, amongst carvings by everyday people. Past and present blended into one: perhaps the very essence of a church.
On arrival home, I read the Suffolk Churches entry for Mickfield, to fill in the half-forgotten sketch of its recent history. I had not known this church when it was derelict and in danger of collapse, but reading Simon Knott’s account of it moved me greatly, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about Mickfield’s history: suffolkchurches.co.uk/mickfield.htm. His description of the church as a ‘touchstone’ struck a chord. There is something about this word, beyond its literal or even metaphorical meaning, that sums up for me the constancy that these buildings represent, and how incredibly lucky we are to have such irreplaceable embodiments of community history present in so many of our villages.
St Mary’s, Stonham Parva (or Little Stonham)
Outdoor temperature: 11.5˚C; indoor temperature: 9.8˚C, humidity: 70%.
Scouring my map for a church nearby, I discovered a road parallel to the A140 that I hadn’t noticed before, on which lay the village of Little Stonham. It took me two tries to find the lane leading to the church – hardly more than a drive, really – which was more or less in the middle of the village. But the church’s setting couldn’t have felt more rural: there were a few neighbouring farm buildings, but otherwise it was surrounded by fields.
I had forgotten Stonham Parva was a redundant church in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, which explained the churchyard being pleasingly ‘rough around the edges’. Neither the churchyard nor the church felt neglected, however: they had a lovely atmosphere. It was a beautiful interior, with an old floor and memorials, 18th century gallery, double hammerbeam roof and, unusually, a double row of angels lining the chancel roof (dating from the 19th century – see header photo)2. I particularly liked the gallery, and the little room below it, which looked like it belonged at an old railway station rather than in a church.
For the first time in many churches, I couldn’t find a chair, nor anything that might serve as one, and so I sat on a low pew in the chancel. It felt very different playing towards the south wall, with such a short distance for the sound to travel before bouncing back, but the acoustic was good nevertheless. My cello had settled back a little better into its usual tuning, but my fingers were just as stiff and uncomfortable as at Mickfield. Again I played only for ten or fifteen minutes, but it certainly felt worthwhile: I knew I would have a slow start after the intensity of the previous week’s practice, but starting at all was the biggest hurdle, and the day’s church visits were a great help in achieving that aim. By the time I had finished, playing was a just little easier, and I felt the first flicker of returning faith that my sluggishness would soon be overcome.
I went outside to the churchyard to find the sky had cleared and it had turned into a beautiful and mild autumn day.
Header photo: Chancel roof, Stonham Parva