St Andrew’s, Norton
Outdoor temperature: 9˚C; indoor temperature: 8.4˚C, humidity: 66%
My mind was on an imminent return trip to Woolpit and Great Barton for photographs. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long for a sunny and mild afternoon when I had time to make an outing of it: I was keen to resume regular church visiting, and Norton and Thurston lay conveniently between the two; but I was also still slightly wary of the cold.
Norton is a big village, and belatedly I have noticed that the surprising quantity of large villages in this area are mostly congregated around the A14 between Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket – near railway stations in particular. I’d looked for Norton church on the map before, and though I knew it was off the high street, I had somehow come away with the impression that it was still very much in the centre of the village. I was wrong. Reaching countryside past the school and the houses, a lane on the left led up to the churchyard, and beyond an avenue of lime trees was the church. It was a thoroughly lovely, rural setting, quite different to other large village churches in the area.
I wasn’t expecting great things from the church interior. The church looked larger inside than out, and a cursory glance suggested the Victorians had been busy here. But I found all sorts of little details that I enjoyed greatly: medieval stained glass, a rather beautiful bench end of a hoofed creature I couldn’t identify, an elaborately carved font, and a huge amount of graffiti on the tower arch. Most unusually, a full date had been inscribed: February the 14 1736. One name, Robert Fuller, including his initials above it, was carved so large and perfectly I wondered if perhaps he was a stonemason involved in the building of the arch. But it seems highly unlikely that any part of the tower arch dates from 1754, if indeed the date below the name – carved far less carefully – was inscribed by Robert Fuller.
I discovered afterwards that, sadly, I missed the distinctive carvings on the ‘misericord stalls’ – though I’m still not sure I quite understand how these stalls function, and will have to wait for a three-dimensional examination of them when I return.
The afternoon sunlight gave the church a benevolent atmosphere, and I enjoyed playing, despite the cold. It felt good to resume my cello playing adventures, and to spice up a month that can often feel dreary.
St Peter’s, Thurston
Indoor temperature: 8.1˚C, humidity 67%
I had to get moving in order to ensure I would reach Great Barton in daylight. I knew what sort of church to expect at Thurston, as I had looked for it once before. But I hadn’t yet been inside. It wasn’t in the middle of the village, but it certainly felt part of it, with houses on one side and a playing field opposite. As I was walking up the churchyard path, I examined some flowering hazel catkins. The glowing greeny-yellow floppy tree decorations are so attractive in the January brownness, it was impossible to resist touching and stroking them, and I felt a rush of joy on doing so. It made me realise the aptness of their nickname, of which I had only recently learned: ‘lambs’ tails’.
Entering the church was a surprise. I expected a large church, but not one of cathedral-like proportions, high roofed and narrow with impressive arcades. It was a dark interior, with a rather solemn feel, but the setting sun shining through the clerestory windows created a startling and beautiful effect. The bench ends – 15th century, according to the church guide – were some of my favourite so far: they were adorned with acorns, oak foliage and other plants, although birds were to also be found amongst them – and, as I only learned afterwards, Green Men.
Playing there was an entirely different experience to Norton. This was not a building in which I would be comfortable hanging around, or even attending a service or event; but I felt a weight of significance, even responsibility – sacredness, perhaps – in filling it with music for a short time.
Relieved, nevertheless, to be outdoors again afterwards, I explored the churchyard, trying to find an unobstructed view of the church. I found this only on the north and east sides, where, to my surprise, a huge graveyard stretched away from the church. It was quite out of view of the tree-filled approach from the road. But, as it turned out, my favourite though partial view of the church was from the west end, where the orange afternoon sun lit up the tower and clerestory in a spectacular fashion.
I reached Great Barton church just as the last rays of sun were departing. The view of its snowdrop-filled churchyard in the luminous blue dusk formed the perfect image to accompany me home after my afternoon’s adventures, along with the feeling that any lingering aversion I might have had to winter church visiting had now entirely departed.
St Mary’s, Badley
Outdoor temperature: 7.8˚C; indoor temperature: 6.5˚C, humidity: 67%
It was a Saturday morning at the end of January and I was in need of distraction. I thought of visiting Badley church, not far home, between Stowmarket and Needham Market. I remembered reading of its prettiness, but I didn’t remember until I looked it up again that it was a Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) church. This had the advantage of allowing me to find its opening times online – a rare state of affairs indeed. This was particularly advantageous for Badley, because I knew that if I found it locked, attempting to retrieve a key would be a lengthy and potentially fruitless process. Discovering it was open on weekends from 10.30am, I set off with a thrill of excitement.
Approaching from Stowmarket I soon came to a brown Historic Church sign directing me to take a right turn off the main road, along a potholed track across a field. I followed it until I came to a fork in the track. I could see no church in either direction. After a moment’s hesitation I took the right bend, assuming this to be the ‘main’ track. I felt as though I had crossed half a county of open fields – though in reality it was probably little more than a mile – before I finally arrived at the most wonderful of church settings. The church had only a farm for company, but approaching from the bare east, it seemed the remotest of all remote churches.
I parked on the large green littered with molehills. Passing the delightful sheep gate leaning against the porch, I could see there were visitors inside. As I entered, a mother and daughter came out with their dog.
The interior was breathtaking. I was starting to notice a pattern with CCT churches. Admittedly, it is unfortunate that they are redundant churches; but the fact so many of them happened also to be largely left alone by the Victorians means they are very special indeed. Immediately I added Badley to my mental list of favourite churches – up at the top with Thornham Parva and Blythburgh.
Everything about it was spectacular: the floor, the memorials, the pews. The sweet box pews near the chancel – if that is the correct term for them – were curious: they were rectangular, with seating on all sides, like intimate little meeting spaces rather than seats from which to watch and listen to a church service.
In one of them I found the tiniest prayerbook I’d ever seen: it fitted in the palm of my hand. How trusting of the church to leave it there, I thought; and the fact it was still there seemed an indication that – contrary to my occasional bouts of pessimism – perhaps humans aren’t so bad after all.
I was eager to get playing, suspecting the acoustic to be as heavenly as the building; but first I had an experiment to carry out. I was cold, and couldn’t yet contemplate sitting down or taking off my gloves. With my new theory that feeling cold was more dependent on me than on the temperature, I decided to try warming up, but this time in its sporting rather than musical sense. I ran up and down the church several times, jogged on the spot, and jumped up and down. After five minutes or so, when I started to feel a difference, I got my cello out and sat down.
It worked. I felt comfortable enough now, though I wasn’t sure how quickly the effect would wear off. But, after playing for a few minutes, I noticed I felt warmer still, and was able to take off my coat. Pleased with the success of my experiment, I concluded it might well be a reliable solution to all winter church visits when the cold threatened to get the better of me.
The acoustic was thrilling, and I decided then and there that I was determined to give a concert in this church, regardless of the size of audience one could realistically expect at such a remote location. It would be perfect for Bach cello suites. The fact it was a CCT church would make it all the simpler to arrange: I was already in contact with the charity, and I thought they would be keen. No complications involved.
Outside I found a huge and impressive old pine tree in the southwest corner of the churchyard, and wondered how old it might be. In comparison with the church, I reflected, it was probably a spring chicken…
I left the church in a much improved state of mind, and by the next afternoon I had emailed Simon at the CCT asking about giving a concert at Badley. Within the week we had fixed a date: Saturday 29th April at 4pm. Though I might not be able to walk there from a nearby village myself, laden with a cello, I would encourage my potential audience to consider arriving on foot, mobility and weather permitting. I loved the idea of instigating a combined celebration of music, springtime and the best of Suffolk’s rural churches: all the things I have grown to love so well.
Total churches to the end of January: 141 +2 chapels