Suffolk churches 63: Thelnetham and Barningham (March 2018)

Today marked a significant change in my church-visiting journeys around Suffolk; a change which had been taking place almost imperceptibly over recent months, and had finally reached a turning point. I found myself able to listen to music again, for the first time in years.

I usually have Radio 4 on in the car, and when there is something on that I don’t want to listen to, I turn it off and try to embrace the ‘silence’, using my eyes instead of my ears, knowing that it is good for me, but still secretly wishing for some aural occupation. I almost never switch over to Radio 3, experiencing no small amount of nervousness about what music might be playing. This is partly because my taste in classical music is fairly limited (entirely my father’s fault, I like to think), but more importantly, because if it is music that means something to me, it strips away my defences. It is too raw, and I can’t listen to it.

This began when my mother died, but became worse after the death of my father, with whom I associate most of my favourite orchestral and chamber music. Playing the cello is different: it is something that I have done nearly all my life, and it doesn’t have the same specific associations with my father or childhood as other types of music do. I was never emotionally attached to solo cello music in the same way that I was to orchestral and chamber music, and creating music is also vastly different to listening to it. I can engage my emotions whilst playing the cello without being undone by the music: it requires too much concentration.

Having noticed a chink of light in my thoughts and feelings on the matter over recent months, and having played some piano trios a few days earlier for the first time in many years, I started to yearn for something else to listen to in the car when the talking radio was not to my liking. My thoughts turned to the rarely-used CD player in my (relatively new) car, and a CD set I owned of the complete Mozart piano concertos – probably the only one I had ever bought for myself. The only music I had listened to recently was music I needed to prepare for a concert, or as an aid to choosing a recital programme. But, it seemed, my church tour had started a healing process in more ways than I expected.

My journeys today were accompanied by Mozart’s music. The piano concertos were a good choice: the emotions in these pieces are predominantly joyful, and even if they short-circuited my emotions, I knew they wouldn’t make me sad. The music had a similar effect on me to watching swallows or hearing a blackbird sing. I always thought music and nature had comparable effects on me, and I was reminded of that today.

So, I approached the Norfolk border in a state of euphoria. Everything seemed more vibrant, even in the rain, and I enjoyed the fenland landscape more than ever. There is something remote and wild about it, and had it not been another soggy day, I would certainly have taken my cello on its first short countryside walk.

St Nicholas’, Thelnetham
Outdoor temperature: 8.4˚C; indoor temperature: 7.8˚C, humidity: 66%
ThelnethamI had been to Thelnetham church once before but found it locked, with the key as far away as the next village church. This time I phoned before leaving home, and was glad to reach the same churchwarden, who remembered me, the cello-playing visitor, and kindly offered to unlock the church in advance of my arrival. It was satisfying to be able to shorten rather than lengthen, for once, my list of ‘pending’ locked churches.

Thelnetham cartWhen I reached Thelnetham church, set well back from the lane, I was surprised by the unusual amount of activity: BT Outreach vans were parked in passing places along the lane, and there was even one on the churchyard drive. I found Rosalind waiting for me in her car. When we got inside she showed me where the light switches were and went on her way, adding, ‘I’d stay to listen but I think I’d freeze to death!’ I laughed, and, noticing the cold more due to my 3-week break in church visiting, I hastily began jumping on the spot and running up and down the nave. I paused briefly at various points to look at features of interest: a large bell dated 1603, a pretty cart parked in the southwest corner (which I only realised afterwards was almost certainly for carrying coffins), and an ornate piscina in the south aisle.

Thelnetham bell Thelnetham piscina Thelnetham graffiti

The church had a friendly atmosphere and good acoustic. I kept my coat on, but managed to practise for a while, accompanied by some lingering concern about my frustrating lack of stamina. Then I suddenly realised with slight horror – increasing my concern threefold – that I had to play in a concert in a week’s time, and I still didn’t know which movements of Bach suites I was going to be playing. I couldn’t believe we were halfway through March already, and barely a sign of spring to be seen. So I went outside to text my friend Penny to ask what she wanted me to play, adding that if she could let me know her choices today, I would practise them…

Thelnetham interior Thelnetham interior 2

Afterwards I walked clockwise round the outside of the church, enjoying the unkempt shrubbery on the north side of the churchyard, then coming across a most delightful little resting spot – for the dead and living alike – on the east side: a bench under an arch of dense foliage, looking out across graves dotted with narcissi. What a comfort it would be to know you had chosen this spot to be laid to rest, or to visit departed loved ones here.

Thelnetham churchyard

St Andrew’s, Barningham
Indoor temperature: 8.1˚C, humidity: 68%
Unable to contact any keyholders at Market Weston, I continued on to Barningham. I was starting to feel weary already and, wanting also to leave enough daylight for a walk when I got home, I decided this would be my last church visit of the day.

BarninghamThe churchyard was rather small for the size of the church which sat in it, but its location gave the impression that it was a central part of village life. I was pleased to discover that for once it wasn’t necessary to check if the church was open before unloading my equipment: I could see a board outside the porch informing me that it was.

Barningham interior Barningham interior 2

This gesture of welcome already disposed me favourably towards the church, and this feeling continued when I entered: I found a collection of endearing and some rather quirky medieval bench ends. The lion – I think – was of an unusual style, and I was intrigued by the presence of a collar on what I thought was a dog. Did dogs really wear collars in medieval times? I’d never thought about it before, but I became conscious of my assumption that collars – unless for the purpose of tying up an animal – are a reflection of our modern attitudes towards pets and the ownership of (mainly) house animals that have some level of freedom outside the home. My pondering was answered when I read Simon Knott’s identification of the animal: it was in fact a bear, not a dog. Any bears to be found in England then, I imagine, would certainly have been on the end of a chain…

Barningham bench end

BaBarningham bench end 4

Barningham bench end 3 Barningham bench end 2 Barningham bench end 1

Barningham screen detailBarningham rood screenAfter a respectable amount of practice, which went some way towards allaying my worry about stamina – at least for the purposes of next week’s concert – I examined the rood screen. It looked medieval to me, and impressive though the woodwork was, my favourite part of it was the decorative painting on its least conspicuous surfaces. Of course, a great motivation for such things must have been religious devotion, but it never ceases to amaze me how much time and effort was so often put into beauty for the sake of beauty.​

I couldn’t resist climbing the rood stairs at the front of the nave, despite what Health and Safety might have to say on the matter. The view from the top was worth it, but I often find that it isn’t until I start to descend such steep and narrow stairs that I start to wonder if it was entirely sensible to go up them in the first place. I have had similar experiences walking up and down cliffs on the Cornwall coast, and suspect many a cat has had the same thought when it arrived in the branches of a tree. Nevertheless, I got down safely, and left Barningham church happy with my afternoon’s explorations, enjoying the most wonderful smell of spring air as I opened the door to leave.

Barningham stairs Barningham view Barningham rood stairs

Header photo: Barningham bell dated 1603
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