St John’s, Elmswell
I heard about the theft of roof lead from Elmswell church from a friend. It happened shortly before Remembrance Sunday, and the rain got in. My friend suggested I contact the church and offer to play the cello there, to help with their fundraising efforts or simply for moral support, and within a couple of days I had fixed with the rector that I would go and play something at a comedy, poetry and music evening which was taking place the following week. It was unrelated to the roof incident, but it sounded fun, and I hadn’t been to Elmswell before.
I knew roughly where the village was, but I hadn’t realised it was quite so near Woolpit – just across the A14. Two large villages so close to each other is unusual in Suffolk. Even more unusual, I discovered, is that not only does Elmswell have its own rector (as opposed to sharing one with several other parishes in a benefice), but it also has its own curate – and, refreshingly for rural Suffolk, he is from Nigeria.
I didn’t make it as far as the village: I could see the church as I approached from Woolpit, perched on a hill on the western edge of Elmswell. Arriving for a rehearsal two nights before the event itself, I entered through the south porch, where I noticed some upside-down graffiti on the outer doorway arch, dated 1632. I was intrigued to know the history of this carved stone, as I couldn’t imagine it would have had prior use elsewhere; but Simon Knott believes it is evidence that the outer door arch must have been rebuilt at some time, probably in the 19th century1. I suppose that is the rational, if mundane, explanation.
Everyone in the church was smiley and welcoming, and it was fun to be involved in a community event. I quickly realised how silly I’d been to spend the morning carrying and cutting wood with a (semi-blunt) chainsaw, making my hands and wrist tendons sore. Irritated with myself, I made a mental note to sharpen the chainsaw properly next time, and reserve any heavy-duty garden work for times when I didn’t have to play the cello. By Saturday, thankfully, my arms had recovered enough to play comfortably.
This wasn’t a church visit for close observation of church features, but for enjoying the atmosphere and sociability. I did manage to take a look at the parclose and its elaborate memorial (photo below right) during a break in the rehearsal; but, returning in daylight a couple of weeks later to look around the church properly and take photos, I was disappointed to find the outer porch door (which I hadn’t even noticed before) locked, making even photographing the graffiti difficult.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing I discovered about the church was thanks to a neighbour who accompanied me to the event. She enquired after the permissions required for constructing the kitchen, meeting room, staircase and gallery at the back of the nave, and we were told that they were built independently of the church fabric: they could be dismantled and removed without anyone knowing they were ever there…
(Photos above left and below, courtesy of Elmswell church).
All Saints’, Barrow
Outdoor temperature: 3.7˚C; indoor temperature 8.9˚C, humidity 53%
The morning of the Elmswell event, I had to go back to Little Saxham, near Bury St Edmunds, to take photographs of its bench ends. I also needed to do some cello practice for the evening’s performance, so I chose Barrow as one of the closest churches to Little Saxham that I hadn’t yet visited. It took me nearly a weary hour to get there, due to a road block, but I soon discovered it was worth the journey…
I don’t think I saw Barrow village on my journey – I was surprised when I read that it had two shops and a pub, as I had passed a little green with a few houses and thought perhaps that was the extent of it. The church was remote and had no neighbours aside from a rather incongruous health and fitness centre. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and, though cold, the sunshine must have prevented the temperature inside the church from plummeting to near zero. It felt cold for playing the cello, but I managed to do enough practice to feel comfortable about performing that evening.
As I was playing, a little blue tit suddenly appeared, flying down from above my head to perch on a chancel pew. After a moment of joy at my unexpected companion and his cheery chirping, I worried that perhaps he had been trapped in the church – although it did strike me as odd that I had been in the church at least fifteen minutes before I saw or heard him. Despite the cold, I went to open the door wide so that he would be able to get out, assuming he could find it. After a moment, he flew straight towards the door and through it, without hesitation and in a manner that made me suspicious that perhaps he wasn’t trapped at all, and was entirely familiar with the interior of the church, coming and going as he pleased through a private entrance in the chancel roof. I knew this happened at Hitcham church: there was a blue tit’s nest in the nave last spring. Still, I was glad he had accepted my offer of escape, as I couldn’t have left the church until he did.
My tour around the church and churchyard afterwards were as sparkly as my encounter with the blue tit: indoors, I found a Norman window in the north wall of the chancel, with the shadows of two figures – originally paintings2 – on either side; some amusing bench end carvings; and intriguing graffiti. Outdoors were a bright and colourful autumn morning; some art installations in the form of a little window in the porch wall and a gravestone covered with lichen; and quite possibly the best shed and churchyard wall in the world…
Header photo: Barrow churchyard
Total churches to the end of November: 129 (+2 chapels)