All Saints’, Ellough
Outdoor temperature: 7.8˚C; indoor temperature: 6.8˚C, humidity: 60%
The forecast of unrelenting rain led to a last minute change of plan: instead of spending two days walking in the Chilterns, I decided to choose a far-flung corner of Suffolk, stay two nights there and visit churches instead. Having characteristically left my decision till the last minute, my choice of destinations was limited. But I found pleasant accommodation beside the River Waveney in Beccles after a short search; so, without allowing myself any further opportunity for procrastination, I booked it and set off the next morning.
This particular trip had an added excitement: I had just bought an ultra-lightweight cello case made of carbon fibre – weighing 2.9kg in comparison to my previous 8.7kg – with rucksack straps enabling far more convenient and less back-breaking cello carrying. The idea was prompted by the prospect of taking my cello to London with me on the train for a chamber music session (I am not keen on long-distance driving); but once it was in my possession, I couldn’t believe I’d done without one for so long, and I was impatient to put it to the test.
After an unsuccessful visit to Worlingham on the outskirts of Beccles, I continued to Ellough. I have found no less than three possible pronunciations of this village name, so until further enlightenment is forthcoming I shall stick with the most frequently occurring suggestion: Ellow.
I reached an area of hard standing beside a field, at the corner of which was the entrance to the churchyard. From this angle, it looked more like a large meadow than a graveyard, and, as I soon discovered, it belonged to the Churches Conservation Trust. The exterior of the church was of a harsh and angular appearance, but on this bleak and soggy February afternoon there was something fitting – romantic, even – about its character and remote-feeling situation on a hill.
The church was also rather severe inside; more so than I expected. But I always enjoy uncluttered and simple churches, and CCT churches are often simpler than most. It was very long and thin. There was a side chapel at the front of the nave, providing a welcome open space, and there I found a low bench to use in place of a chair. It was half broken and creaked loudly when I sat down on it. After checking it was safe, I got out my cello and started to play.
Whatever shortcomings the church may have had in terms of proportions and embellishment, the acoustic compensated for them all. It was heavenly. I had painful hands when I began – due, I assume, to lack of practice – but the pain gradually subsided. I didn’t take off my coat, but I warmed up quickly despite my soggy feet. A less waterproof pair of supposedly waterproof boots I could not imagine…
When I stopped to write in the visitors’ book, a smiley man wearing wellies came in with his dog, and told me he’d been listening in the porch for ten minutes. For a moment I was alarmed, while I tried to remember what I’d been playing, hoping that he hadn’t heard me either trying to practise (very badly) the two-cello Klengel suite or swearing at the pain in my hands along the way. I concluded that, thankfully, that part probably preceded his arrival, and then I was glad he had enjoyed it. We chatted for a few minutes, and he gave me a great compliment about my playing before leaving. Regardless of its truth, the thought that I had unknowingly put a little sparkle in someone else’s drizzly February afternoon gave me a new burst of energy to continue playing.
A little while later a lady entered and said what luck it was that she’d happened to come along to look at the church just then. I felt irrationally happy: I would never have expected one visitor, let alone two, in such a place and on such a day. And I imagined it from their point of view: walking through the countryside in the rain and happening on a church radiating music. I might have thought it was an auditory hallucination. The fact the music had made a momentary impact on the lives of two strangers was so uplifting that despite my wet feet I decided to visit another church before returning to Beccles.
As I opened the door to leave, a full-blooded chorus of bird song greeted me. Perhaps it wasn’t such a miserable afternoon after all.
All Saints’, Ringsfield
Indoor temperature: 6.8˚C, humidity: 72%
I made a half-hearted attempt to find the key at Weston – although according to the notice in the porch it should have been open – before giving up and continuing to Ringsfield. I remembered the name from an event in the Waveney and Blyth Arts brochure, so I hoped it might be an interesting church. But I was still surprised by what I found: I felt as though I had been transported back to the 16th century. After the austere contours of Ellough, the more graceful angles of this charming thatched church were a balm for my eyes, and a distraction from my feet.
I walked round to the far side of the church and entered through the Tudor brick porch. I was transported once more on entering the church, but this time to my own past: the comforting, musty smell that greeted me as I opened the door took me straight back to childhood church visits, and perhaps – though I couldn’t quite place the memory – to the December concert I had played in, aged 13, at Wattisham church. It surprised me for a moment: I realised that I would expect all unheated rural churches to have a similar smell, but I was aware that I hadn’t noticed this particular one for a while. The last place I could definitely remember it was at Thorpe Morieux church in May last year.
The interior was Victorian, with a modern tiled floor, but – unusually – I very much liked the overall effect. It was friendly and cheerful, and, once I’d turned on the lights, created a welcoming atmosphere on this dreary afternoon. The acoustic, though less boomy than Ellough, was a great pleasure, especially as my hands now felt more mobile and far less painful.
As I was playing, I noticed a line on the wall marking the height of a flood in 1912, underneath a chair to my right at the front of the chancel. I was astonished. I didn’t realise Ringsfield was on such low ground, or so near the river. I would have to look at the map, I thought: it bothers me if I can’t read a landscape. I removed the chair to take a photograph, and below it I found another line marking another more recent flood. When I went to write in the visitors’ book, I found a folder containing photographs of this later flood. They were impressively alarming.
Before leaving the church, I noticed a sign on the wall indicating that there was an unusually old gravestone – from the 17th century – on the east side of the church. I went outside to look for it, but I was disorientated: I hadn’t even noticed that I’d entered the churchyard from the north side, and the church porch was on the south side. What I thought was east was in fact west, and I didn’t find it. I only realised once I’d left, and chided myself for my stupidity: after all, with a tower as a compass point, it is not difficult to get one’s bearings. But I don’t think I even looked upwards.
On my way back to Beccles, I passed some small but steep hills near Ringsfield church. This didn’t register as a clue to the flooding problem: clearly my powers of observation and logic were under par today. I was only surprised that I had wrongly assumed that this area around Beccles – so near the Broads – was flat. On getting out the map that evening, of course, everything became instantly clear. I hadn’t noticed it while driving, but Ringsfield church lies in a valley, beside a stream that originates at the River Waveney on the Norfolk border. If the Waveney flooded, it is likely that Ringsfield would too. Still, that must have been a lot of water.
My new cello case was a resounding success: I felt as though I’d taken up a new instrument. It was certainly an investment, but a lifetime’s one for which my back will thank me, and it will make the remainder of my church tour a much greater pleasure. Its functionality will take a bit of getting used to after my first case change in two decades, and I would have preferred it if black weren’t the only colour available; but even after one outing, things that were always incompatible with cello carrying suddenly started to seem possible. I am even beginning to believe in the idea of spontaneous (short) walks-with-cello, should I come across a particularly enticing location that I would like to explore…
Header photo: Floods at Ringsfield church