All Saints’, Hitcham
It was the Sunday a week before Christmas, and for the fourth year in a row, I was due to play the cello at the village carol service. I was also in the choir, but singing the right notes at the right time is about all I can claim for my singing talents. Will and John were joining me for another performance of the Handel trio sonata, and I was mighty glad that the unusually early cold weather had passed, as I didn’t fancy another numb finger episode.
My personal connection to the church – apart from the fact I live in the village, and have rather amusingly (for someone allergic to meetings) been roped in to the Friends Committee – is that both of my parents are buried in the churchyard, and my grandparent-substitutes and old next-door neighbours, Jack and Doris, have a memorial stone and bench there (they were cremated rather than buried). After my experience at Combs church, I plan to ask the rector how I might go about obtaining permission to put up a bird box in their memory.
I had been to the church a month earlier for a talk about the history of the building and a 19th century rector, John Stevens Henslow, who was a botany (and geology) professor at Cambridge University, and tutor, mentor and friend of Charles Darwin. In contrast to many ‘absentee’ rectors, he achieved astounding things in the village. To mention just a few, he founded a parish school and an adult education institution, was instrumental in the foundation of the Ipswich Museum, and would take large groups of villagers on educational day trips, such as to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, after the opening of the railway at Stowmarket. If anything makes me proud to live in the unremarkable village of Hitcham, it is he.
That November visit was my first since the start of my church tour. It is a huge church, for – now – a relatively small village, and perhaps with fewer noteworthy features than one might hope for. Nevertheless, I saw it with new eyes: the hammerbeam roof, roof carvings (see header photo) including a rather scary-looking Green Man (photo right), the remains of the rood screen, bench ends and graffiti on the south doorway. Of course, my favourite fact about the church is wildlife related: swallows nest in the porch, and there was a blue tits’ nest in the nave last spring. They have their own secret entrance, and from what I understand, they nest there regularly.
The performance was a great improvement on Woolpit, and was thoroughly enjoyable. My two musician partners also joined in with the choir, to the delight of Marie, the animated and youthful 80-year-old ‘choir mistress’ and organist. The highlight of the service, however, was provided by a mentally disabled music lover called Simon who is brought over every year from his care home in Combs to the Hitcham carol service: after ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ (which, incidentally, is my favourite carol), a loud and joyful exclamation of ‘What harmony!’ rang round the church.
Other writing about Hitcham churchyard: Swallows
St George’s, Shimpling
The following day, I had an appointment in Chevington to visit a pottery studio, and I decided to take my cello along for the ride. I had thought to visit Chevington church itself, since I was driving all that way, but the potter had told me there was scaffolding up in the chancel, for repairs. So I decided to leave it for another time, and stop somewhere on the way instead.
Shimpling took my fancy: it is a wonderfully rural church, approached along an avenue. It was a lovely morning, bright and cold; but, stepping inside the church, the crisp air turned to uncomfortable chill. Inhaling the air was almost painful. I had forgotten to take along my thermometer, so I don’t know if humidity was the primary cause of my discomfort, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to stay inside long enough to play the cello, let alone take off any clothing to do so. I managed to remove my left glove, however, and played for perhaps five minutes before my fingers went numb. It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience, and made me resolve not to attempt any further cello playing in churches until some milder days came along.
Still, the cello playing failure didn’t detract from my appreciation of the church itself: its beauty was simple, and in keeping with its idyllic setting. I enjoyed the medieval stained glass, and the font. When the cold became more than I could bear, I went outside to explore the churchyard, with its somewhat bizarre-looking mausoleum on the south side of the chancel. To my surprise, I met a man there, who told me he lived nearby but had never visited the church before. There was something rather comforting in knowing there are a few fellow souls out there who won’t let the cold put them off their little adventures. Even if my cello does have to feature less frequently in mine for a while…
Header photo: Hitcham church roof detail