I thought it would be fitting to play in a church or two on Remembrance Sunday. Knowing that many more churches than usual would have services on this day, I used the Church of England’s ‘church finder’ website to look up church services in the local area. Discovering there was an evensong service at 3pm in Little Finborough church, which I had tried to visit once before and found locked, I emailed the rector to enquire whether the church would be open during the day or if I might come after the service. Before long, to my delight, I received a reply saying that if I arrived at 3.45pm I would be able to get in, and as Combs church was not far away, I decided to go there first.
St Mary’s, Combs
Indoor temperature: 9.5˚C
I didn’t leave as much time as I should have – or intended to. I didn’t really expect to find Combs church locked on this Sunday, but locked it was. I didn’t have time to go to another church, and I barely had time to go looking for a key – but for want of a better plan, I decided on the latter. I found details of a keyholder on the noticeboard, and though the lady was friendly and helpful, by the time I had found her house in the depths of Combs Ford – as I thought, a separate village from Combs, but apparently a suburb of Stowmarket – and returned to the church, I had only ten minutes in which to play. Photographs would have to wait: at least I had found out that the church was regularly open on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and so I could plan my return visit more easily.
My confusion over Combs Ford and Combs was compounded by the fact that the church is located in Combs Ford, but belongs to Combs parish. Perhaps Combs Ford has simply expanded to (almost) engulf the church, which is really no more remote from its village than many other village churches are. But, to my surprise, when I reached the end of a row of bungalows, I came to a lane signposted to the church, and telling me the surrounding area was a local nature reserve. The small meadows were full of grazing sheep, and I couldn’t have imagined a more idyllic setting for the church. I drove along the lane which led round a corner and uphill to reach the churchyard, near the back of which stood the large church.
My visit was short and sweet. It was a beautiful church – much more beautiful than I expected, and with a far better acoustic than I expected for a large church with a high roof. My hands were cold, but I decided to play through the first movement of the Bach C minor suite without warming up, to make sure I could manage it comfortably, in case anyone stayed to listen at Little Finborough. I had played very little since my performances the previous Sunday and I was worried my hands might still be stiff and reluctant. But I got through it with little difficulty, despite the cold, which reassured me that I could risk an impromptu performance without disastrous consequences.
As soon as I finished the movement I had to pack up and leave. But the church’s atmosphere and the glimpses I caught of the carved bench ends and the graffiti on the porch bench – perhaps my favourite yet, particularly the owl (right) – made me look forward to returning soon. Already running late, I dropped the key back and hurried on to Little Finborough.
I was glad, in so many ways, of my second visit one Saturday in early January, when I arrived just in time to catch the church open – and just in time to catch the beautiful nativity scenes still on display in the church (see below and header photo). Inside I met Ann, the lady from whom I had collected the key in November, and I offered to drop her home afterwards so that her companions wouldn’t have to wait for us. I was glad of the time to chat while I looked around and took photos of the bench ends and the medieval stained glass, and she put flowers on her mother’s grave.
Having by now read about the bricked-up south porch on the Suffolk churches site, I walked round the east end of the church to take a look – most unusually, access appeared to be impossible via the west end, where the barbed wire fencing of the adjacent meadow met the corner of the church tower. On my way, I found a wooded eastern corner of the graveyard, which looked like a most peaceful location to be laid to rest. A birdbox had been mounted on one of the trees with an inscription, ‘In loving memory of Tony Barton’.
After a few minutes I managed to pull myself reluctantly away, thinking
St Mary’s, Little Finborough
Indoor temperature: 13.2˚C
My slight worry about being a little late was quickly allayed by the sight of cars in the church car park. I decided to drive up to the church, as I didn’t think any less physically able parishioners would be arriving at the end of the service. As I got out of the car I was met by a smartly dressed gentleman who came to the gate and asked if I was Yalda, the cellist. Rather surprised, I answered in the affirmative, and he explained that he’d seen the rector earlier in the day (who didn’t take the service on this occasion), and he’d mentioned that I would be coming afterwards. ‘An announcement was made at the end of the service and quite a few people are waiting for you inside’, he concluded. I was astonished, and slightly alarmed: I had thought I might end up playing in front of a few late-stayers but I certainly hadn’t expected to be ‘announced’. In effect I would be giving a performance on five minutes’ warm-up in a cold church – what a contrast to my last week’s performances, when I had practised for three hours beforehand, not to mention many more hours in the days preceding!
But sometimes a little spontaneity is fun, even joyful, and keeps you on your toes. I went inside to a welcoming and smiley group of people, and after setting up and making a quick decision to leave out two movements of the suite – I wasn’t sure I could manage the whole thing on so little warm-up – I offered a disclaimer regarding the impromptu nature of my musical offering, and started to play.
The acoustic was a blessing, as was the fact that the church had been heated for the service. 13.2˚C may not sound heated, but it is for a church, and 4 degrees can make a huge difference as far as finger mobility is concerned. To my relief and surprise – perhaps due to it being my third performance of the piece, as well as a slightly shorter version excluding the most difficult movement – it felt comfortable and enjoyable, apart from a minor worry that I might hit my bow on the end of a pew, as space was restricted. As I discovered, spontaneity can help dispense with nerves, as you don’t expect so much from yourself. It was thoroughly enjoyable to chat with my audience afterwards; some even kindly enquired if I was raising money for any charities, and generously contributed to my church fundraising effort. It was a church visit I certainly won’t forget.
I was given a tour by two churchwardens in charge of locking up, who drew my attention to the 1767 coat of arms (I am starting to think I will have to make more effort to understand and appreciate this particular kind of church feature) and medieval wall painting fragments. The most exciting thing they told me about, however, was the imminent installation of an automatic door opener which they expected to be in action before spring. This was the first I’d heard of such a technological development becoming a possibility for village churches. With a little flicker of excitement, I wondered if the dark days of permanently locked churches might finally be numbered…
Header photo: Knitted nativity scene, Combs church