All Saints’, Hopton
Outdoor temperature: 12.1˚C, humidity: 92%; indoor temperature: 9.3˚C, humidity 56%
I could see Hopton church was unusual at first glance: its clerestory – the upper part of the nave with a series of windows – was the only part built of brick. Entering the church, its full glory struck me at once. The roof (see header photo) and clerestory were built in the late 15th century, and paint was only added to the roof in the late 19th century1 – though in the absence of a church guide, I only found out these facts afterwards. The painting was done by the five daughters of the rector at the time. They were braver than I would be.
I felt cold today, to the point that I wasn’t sure how much longer I could continue to play in churches. It was odd: the day was mild, and I had played in colder churches without feeling I was at my limit, but perhaps tiredness was the cause. I immediately dismissed my earlier assumption that I couldn’t play the cello in my puffer jacket, and removed only my left glove to play.
Unusually, the glass in the church windows wasn’t coloured, nor stained, but clouded, so I couldn’t see outside. It disturbed me; I had become so used to being able to see trees and the sky, in the absence of stained glass, that I felt hemmed in, and wondered what the reason could be for using clouded glass. Reducing distractions to the congregation was the only logical explanation I could think of: it seems rather extreme, but perhaps not unlikely given the religious zealousness of past centuries.
After playing, I lay on the pews to look at the roof, accidentally discovering the best way to take photographs of the carvings: pointing the camera directly above my head and taking the photo upside down, so that the light from the windows did not interfere with the image.
The other features of the church that I particularly liked were the ancient door to the tower, complete with some bizarre door handle or locking mechanism that I had never seen before, and a message painted in a tall niche to the right of the chancel arch: ‘Men ought to always pray and not to faint’. My first reaction was to laugh; and then I wondered if it was a quotation from the Bible. A quick search has now enlightened me: it is from Luke 18:1. But that hasn’t stopped me laughing again.
St Mary’s, Hinderclay
Indoor temperature: 8.9˚C, humidity 69%
After Hopton, it was time for lunch. I had once again looked up tearooms before deciding on my destination for the day, and on this occasion I found one attached to a nursery, just over the border into Norfolk, at Blo’ Norton. It was cosy, but deserted – perhaps a place to visit again when the nursery opens in spring. I passed the pretty village church on my way back across the county border, suffering a moment’s temptation to stop, even though it wasn’t a Suffolk church. But daylight was in short supply, so I resisted, and continued on through Thelnetham Fen. For the first time in a while I felt keen regret that I couldn’t leave the car and go for a walk in wetland country.
I found Thelnetham church locked, with the key a mile away. I decided it was best to carry on, since there was no shortage of churches in the area. Travelling hardly more than this distance to the next village, I came upon Hinderclay church at the end of an impressive oak avenue – the first I had seen, if my memory serves me correctly. Along with the autumnal beeches, they lent a certain nobility to the churchyard. They weren’t quite sufficient, however, to drown out the enormous and overbearing black grain storage bins just outside the churchyard. There is something to be said for a working landscape, of course, but I am sure they must have been installed before the days of listed building restrictions.
I mistook the porch for a shed, when I first caught sight of it: the sides were made of board. It was perhaps older than I thought, however: on the interior I found a wealth of graffiti. But I could find no mention of its age either in the church guide or online afterwards – apart from the 14th century archway, and possible 16th century brick base. The oak avenue, on the other hand, was very pleasingly and precisely dated to 17332.
The acoustic at Hinderclay was so inspiring that despite having very cold hands and keeping my coat on again, I thoroughly enjoyed playing there. Still, I spent longer looking around the church than I did playing the cello: it possessed so many fascinating features that I didn’t want to leave. For starters, the modern stained glass windows – once again, a variation on the theme of Cubism, and definitely to my liking – had their own story: the sister of a former rector designed them, and he continued to install them in her memory after her death – aided by encouragement from a bishop in the seventies and eighties to ‘brighten the church with pictures’3.
The story of the bell ringers’ beer pitcher, dated 1724 and now in a Bury St Edmunds museum, was equally fascinating, but in its absence I turned to inspecting the medieval benches – one of which was dated 1617 – and the plentiful graffiti on the tower arch (photos below).
Exploring the churchyard afterwards, I discovered what I thought was a blocked Norman doorway, until I realised it wasn’t quite a rounded arch: it had the slightest of points at the top. I was baffled. I had never seen a Norman arch like this. Was it Norman? I checked the church guide, where I found it described as early 12th century, and therefore one of the earliest features of the building. I wondered if I was seeing for the first time a transitional moment in the evolution of doorway arches: just a hint of a point towards the end of the Norman period might have gradually transformed into the pointed arches of the later medieval period. I left the church with a new curiosity to satisfy: when and how Norman architectural features changed into the next architectural style…
Header photo: Hopton church roof detail
2. Hinderclay church website
3. John Timpson, Timpson’s Country churches