There is a vet at Copdock, not far from Ipswich, that I like to use when I am not in a rush. As well as being small and friendly, I enjoy the pretty drive from Hintlesham, down a single-track road with woodland, meadows and steep hills. The surgery is in a converted barn on a country lane, difficult to find unless you know where it is.
There is one part of the route that I particularly love, where the road feels very remote and runs through a valley. The summer before last, I found a very large grass snake in the middle of the lane there – the biggest I’d ever seen, and the first in many years. I got out of the car, thinking it was sunbathing, but still it didn’t move. I crouched down to examine it: shiny, soft and in pristine condition, but lifeless. It must only just have died. I could not imagine what had happened – there was not a mark on its body. It bothered me for a long time afterwards: the moment of delight and excitement had turned so quickly to sorrow. Thankfully, the sighting a year or so later of another equally large grass snake, this time slithering off into the bracken at Staverton Park, was all the more joyful for overwriting the earlier memory.
One cold, drizzly day at the beginning of May, I had to take my degu to the vet and I knew I would have to leave him there all day. I was feeling tired and grey like the day, and not looking forward to two return trips, having already taken him a few days earlier. But there was an opportunity to change the flavour of the errand: I would leave home early to pick him up and visit some churches on the way. Cello practice was a daily necessity after all. I had many times been on the point of stopping at the lovely-looking Chattisham church, and searching for Washbrook church, but always thought, ‘I’ll do it next time’. The result? Two or three years later I still hadn’t been. Now there was no excuse.
All Saints and St Margaret’s, Chattisham
I wasn’t expecting any miracles on this dreary afternoon; I had little motivation to play or practise the cello, and I was feeling the cold. But Chattisham church transformed my mood and the afternoon. The church tower was stumpy and the walls were a wonderful patchwork of brick, stone and render. It didn’t look scruffy, but rather interesting and wonderful. I felt the same way about the porch and the interior of the church: they were imperfect, but simple and beautiful, and I felt welcomed. It made me realise that immaculate walls are not a prerequisite for a church to feel well-used and loved. The interior walls were certainly in need of attention, but this didn’t detract from its atmosphere.
More magical than all of this, however, was the acoustic. I had played in quite a few lovely little churches already but this was an entirely different experience. My hands were freezing but I barely noticed: it was such a joy to play there, I didn’t want to stop. My energy levels increased immeasurably, and so did my spirits. I wished I’d brought my sound recorder, to find out whether what I was hearing under my ears bore any comparison to how it sounded at the back of the church. I had also forgotten my camera, so I needed no further excuse for a second cello visit, preferably on a warmer, sunnier day…
Time eventually imposed itself on me and, looking at my watch, I realised I would have to get on quickly if I was to fit in Washbrook church before going to the vet. So, reluctantly, I packed up and went on my way.
St Mary’s, Washbrook
I suspected Washbrook church of being rather lovely and hidden away, as it had its own signpost at the junction of a narrow lane, just before the last turn-off to the vet. It was more hidden away than I was expecting, however: a kilometre or so along a windy road, and then well off the road down a grassy drive. I did not find out until afterwards that this church is less than a mile as the crow flies from the A14, which curves round the soutwestern edge of Ipswich. I would never have guessed it.
The church was in a valley, surrounded by hilly meadows, cows and bleating sheep. The churchyard seemed to be kept as a wildlife sanctuary, as, happily, many churchyards now are in Suffolk. I was glad to find the church open, but it quickly became apparent that it was no longer in use as a church. A smell of must and damp greeted me as I stepped through the door. The table by the entrance was welcoming and informative, and I found out that it was now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust; however, there was a large quantity of dust, wall plaster and various types of droppings covering the church floor and pews, by which I could see there was little local involvement in its upkeep. I was surprised: I thought, perhaps mistakenly, that the amount of care taken over so many parish churches was not only on account of their religious use, but also due to the buildings’ beauty and historic importance, and the village’s pride in possessing such a building. I wondered why a redundant church might not have many other wonderful uses for the community. Perhaps the problem was simply that it was no longer officially their responsibility. Or maybe its remoteness was a deterrent: it is further away from the village than Copdock church, which is now Washbrook’s parish church1.
The church was dark due to the quantity of stained glass and relatively few windows; perhaps its location in a valley contributed to the sense I had of being partially submerged. Nevertheless, it was beautiful. I discovered two small rooms on the north side of the church, one with a font inside, and the other with two lovely old bibles perilously close to a pile of bat droppings.
I had acquired a new spike holder by this stage in my church cello playing, having found few chairs in churches so far that could take my old one designed to go round chair legs. It was also more convenient, as I could store it in the pocket of my cello case and was therefore one less thing to have to remember to take with me. The new one was an anti-slip plastic disc. Unfortunately, it was useless here: despite my attempts to wipe the dust off a patch of floor, and off the bottom of the disc, I could not get it to grip. So I resorted to using a gap between the floor tiles. The church felt a little forlorn and lonely, and I was glad to keep it company for a while and fill it with music. But I was also glad to leave: its sadness could not help but rub off on me.
I decided to contact the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) when I got home, to see if there was any way to help – perhaps by doing a fundraising concert for the church.2 This was the first I had heard of the CCT, and it planted the first seed in my mind that perhaps, through my church visits, I ought to try and fundraise for these churches that need so much money and dedication to keep them going. After all, I was taking full advantage of their hospitality, and it would be sad if such beautiful and historic buildings were not preserved, or did not welcome wanderers, passers by, lost souls and cello players… I could not leave more than a coin or two in each donation box, if I was to visit over 400 churches, but I determined I would do my best to always keep a few coins in my wallet available for this purpose.
Header photo: Washbrook church
2. I had a fruitful conversation with a representative of CCT who confirmed that Washbrook church’s remoteness makes it difficult to recruit volunteers to keep it clean. Plans are now underway for some ‘organised’ cello visits to a few of CCT’s Suffolk churches in order to attract an audience and raise additional funds for the churches’ upkeep.