St Andrew’s, Mutford
Outdoor temperature: 6.6˚C; indoor temperature: 7.1˚C, humidity: 51%
First thing next morning I left Beccles for Mutford, switching my ‘waterproof’ boots for my walking boots, hoping for slightly drier feet today. I arrived at a pretty round-towered church, which I was disappointed to find locked. But help was close at hand: I rang the first number on the noticeboard for the key, and Ivan – the churchwarden whose wife I had just spoken to on the phone – appeared a few minutes later to let me in. I offered to return the key afterwards, but he said he’d prefer to wait; so, feeling a little awkward, and guilty for interrupting his morning, I hastily took out my cello and played a couple of movements of a Bach suite. It was only the second time someone had waited for me in order to lock up afterwards, and the previous time was by prior appointment. By the time I left the church, however, I would have reason to feel thoroughly glad that our paths had crossed.
When I had packed up, Ivan immediately asked for my contact details in order to invite me to play at a Christmas service, and then offered to put something about my project in their April newsletter. His enthusiastic response was invigorating, and we chatted while I took photos.
It was a handsome building, with many interesting features. Ivan enlightened me on a few of them, including the rather black wall painting with odd mosque-like structures at the edges, which was apparently originally of St Christopher and then turned into a Decalogue; and the fact Mutford has the tallest round tower in Suffolk. It is also the only round-towered church with a Galilee porch. The ornate piscina and the font – donated by Dame Elizabeth of Hengrave in 13801 – also attracted my admiration, but my favourite feature of all was the uneven brick floor.
Strangely, there was something about the exterior of the church that I didn’t notice until I looked at my photographs that evening: a large arch in the south chancel wall filled in with brick, and the brick east wall of the south aisle. Clearly, part of the aisle had been dismantled. Reading about it afterwards, I discovered that it was a chancel chapel, taken down in the 19th century2.
I left the church feeling that although my visit was shorter than it might have been if I was alone, it was the person and the meeting as much as the building that made my visit to Mutford memorable. It was an aspect of church touring that I never really thought about before I started, except to anticipate locked churches as a potential hindrance. But now I was starting to see things differently. I no longer felt guilty for wasting Ivan’s morning; rather, I was glad that, as well as sharing a few minutes of music with him, I had had a thoroughly positive encounter with a stranger whom I might otherwise never have met.
St Michael’s, Rushmere
Indoor temperature: 6.3˚C, humidity: 60%
I didn’t have far to travel to reach my next church: Rushmere was barely half a kilometre down the road. I was surprised to find another round tower so soon, unfamiliar as I was with churches in this area of Suffolk. I knew, however, that Norfolk was in possession of the largest number of England’s round towers, so I began to wonder if perhaps most of Suffolk’s were to be found in this area near the county border.
Rushmere was also locked, but I had no trouble acquiring the key, so I wasn’t kept in suspense for long. The floor was simple brick, and the thatched roof was exposed inside, adding to the church’s rustic character. As I suspected, however, the effect this had was to deaden the acoustic so completely that it also deadened my desire to play. I knew my motivation was always boosted by a good acoustic, but I was just a little shocked by the extreme laziness-inducing effect of the sound on this occasion, especially as it was otherwise a lovely church to play in. Perhaps the approach of lunchtime also contributed to my lack of perseverance.
I soon packed up in favour of examining a decorative wall painting fragment near the door: the vibrance of its colours was striking. I wondered whether they could be original, or if they were more likely the result of an enthusiastic restoration.
That evening, I read that in the last century both Mutford and Rushmere were on the point of being declared redundant; and, far worse, that Rushmere was going to be allowed to fall down. Its roof was even removed. By some miracle of community love and endeavour, both were saved, and are now well cared for. Such stories never fail to fill me with awe.
Holy Trinity, Gisleham
Indoor temperature: 7.3 ˚C, humidity: 70%
After Rushmere, I headed east towards Gisleham. I was surprised how close the village was to Lowestoft, and worried momentarily that if I took a wrong turn I could easily end up there. But I’d never have guessed I wasn’t in the remotest part of the Suffolk countryside: the lanes were narrow and windy, and there was hardly a car to be seen.
Just before I reached Gisleham, I passed a large pair of boots standing on the edge of a field. It seemed a very odd place to either leave or dispose of a pair of boots, and I looked twice to check I wasn’t hallucinating. Then I laughed. When I pulled up outside Gisleham church moments later, I texted my friend Mark and asked if he hadn’t accidentally left a pair of his honky donks (Suffolk term for heavy boots) on a road verge at Gisleham, knowing that he most likely wouldn’t even know where Gisleham was. His infamous boots were a subject of constant amusement between us, so he played along and said he’d check – concluding that his were still present and correct in their usual place: on his feet.
Before venturing into the rain, I ate my lunch in the car and enjoyed the view of Gisleham church. It was yet another round-towered church, characteristically good-looking, and dignified in its spacious churchyard setting.
Beside the door handle were some carved initials: an unusual place to find graffiti, I thought. The door itself was also unusual: it was hinged in the middle, so only the right hand side opened, making it a little awkward to get inside with a cello on my back. It felt like the perfect place to take musical shelter from the rain: well-kept and bright, with an acoustic that I appreciated all the more after Rushmere.
As I took photos from the west end of the nave, I noticed several wall paintings in very good condition beside the north windows, facing west. I have struggled to find an accurate word or architectural term for this particular wall surface, though I’m sure one must exist. The closest I have got is ‘intrado’ (the inside surface of an arch); or perhaps ‘splay’ (a slanting surface), which is the word Simon Knott uses.
In the churchyard, I was delighted to find a huge hazel in flower, seemingly growing out of a rhododendron. Its long, luminous catkins lent some brightness to the persistently gloomy weather. As I packed my equipment into the car, something on the churchyard wall caught my attention. It looked like a letter engraved into the brick, but I couldn’t quite make it out. I examined it closely. It was unmistakably the letter H, with moss having taken up residence in the carved lines. There was something rather charming about it.
It wasn’t yet 2pm and I thought I might have time to visit a fourth church and still get back in time to try out a tea room in Beccles, so I set off for Henstead church, which appeared to be roughly on the way back to Beccles.
St John’s, Shadingfield
Indoor temperature: 7.1˚C, humidity: 72%
Henstead was perhaps the church I have been most disappointed to find locked, especially as it was one of the few churches Simon Knott specifies is ‘open every day’. It was a thatched church with one of the most impressive Norman doorways I had seen. But the keyholder notice in the porch suggested it was necessary to make an appointment, and in any case I was nervous about having left my car parked on a steep verge at a bend in a busy road. It was directly outside the churchyard gate, but nevertheless it seemed unsafe, and I was surprised that no practical parking options seemed to be available. So, reluctantly, I went on my way, and decided to try my luck at Weston once more; if that failed, I would continue to Willingham.
There was no answer at the keyholder’s house in Weston, so Willingham it would have to be. At least I thought it was Willingham. After my experience at Henstead, I was relieved to arrive at a driveway that led off the main road to a car park beside the churchyard.
Inside the church I was greeted by a sign on the font saying, ‘Welcome to St John’s, Shadingfield’. I was surprised, and confused: I hadn’t seen Shadingfield on the map, and was fairly sure I was in the village of Willingham. Google maps only succeeded in confusing me further, so I took out my trusty OS map. Even that didn’t quite clarify the situation: I could see that Shadingfield was in fact right next to Willingham, but I couldn’t see if Willingham had its own church. The sign on the font only said that St John’s served ‘part of the parish of Willingham’. A more extensive online search in the evening revealed that Willingham once had its own church, at a distance of two miles from the village, but it is now gone.
Shadingfield church was simple and pretty, with an attractive brick porch, a plethora of wall painting fragments, old brass memorials and coffin lids in the floor, some perhaps Saxon. The font was set high on a rather precarious looking stepped platform, which is apparently a Maltese cross3.
I felt lucky with my acoustics today: three out of the four churches, including Shadingfield, were blissful to play in. The fourth, Rushmere, was a healthy reminder that cello playing isn’t always so easy and I shouldn’t get too used to it. I had also enjoyed the various round towers, thatched roofs and brick porches, but not so much the far greater quantity of locked churches in this area than I had come across in my tour so far. I was a little disappointed that due to the delays and detours, it was now 3.30pm and most likely I wouldn’t have the time or energy to go out in the rain again to find a tea room that afternoon. Still, I left feeling happy that I had managed to visit four churches in one day – something I’d only managed once before, on an organised tour in the summer.
When I got back to my room, I decided that getting cosy was by far the most appealing option, so I removed my damp socks and boots, had a hot bath and spent the rest of the day drinking tea and writing in my room.
Header: Decorative wall painting, Shadingfield church