St Mary’s, Wetherden
Outdoor temperature: 9.5˚C; indoor temperature 9.2˚C, humidity 56%
I was looking forward to returning to Wetherden: it seemed like a friendly village with a pretty church. This time there was no funeral, and the church was open to visitors. My aim for the day was 40 minutes of cello practice in each of 3 churches, for a respectable total of two hours: much more than I ever used to do in a day, but I have noticed that it takes my fingers a good half hour or more to loosen up, and often frustration only starts to subside after an hour or so. Therefore, the longer I practise, the more likely I am to go home feeling positive about my progress and my ability to fulfil the rather ambitious timetable of concerts I arranged in a fit of enthusiasm. Or recklessness.
Wetherden’s interior was as welcoming as I expected. It was a bright church, and mild, perhaps due to all the sunshine streaming through the large windows. Starting practice was as difficult as usual, but the acoustic was good and my hands weren’t too cold. During a break I read about the nave roof and the bench ends: I wouldn’t have noticed that it was in fact a false double hammerbeam roof, as the upper hammerbeams weren’t supporting anything. It looked fairly new to me, but apparently it was medieval, with extensive restoration in the 19th century. The bench ends were a mixture of medieval and Victorian. I particularly liked the owl and the squirrel eating a nut, though his tail was not nearly bushy enough and his face looked more like a dog’s, so I had some doubts at first about his identity. The aisle roof and its angels were also worthy of admiration, and, much like the painted details on the rood screen at Barningham, I found myself marvelling at the effort and time that would have gone into creating so much beauty in such unassuming places.
I wandered round the churchyard before leaving, enjoying the primroses and daffodils. Behind the church, with adjacent meadows and part of the churchyard left for wildflowers, I wouldn’t have guessed I was in the middle of a village. I liked the contrast in character of the two sides of the churchyard: neatness is pretty in a village, but wildness is more subtly beautiful.
St Margaret’s, Westhorpe
Indoor temperature: 7.9˚C, humidity 60%
When I arrived at Westhorpe church, I was glad to discover a new use for my recently acquired smartphone, at least with the benefit of a mobile signal: the church was locked, and no keyholder details were available, so I looked online, and – alongside a statement saying that the church was open during daylight hours, which clearly it wasn’t – I found two churchwardens’ phone numbers. I spoke to a friendly man with a northern accent, Ian, who turned up soon after to let me in. I pointed out the lack of keyholder notice, and he was surprised to find it had been removed from the noticeboard, giving me hope that it might be reinstated in the near future. He seemed a little baffled by the cello and my explanation of its presence, but after a short chat he seemed quite pleased with my musical intentions, and told me he’d come back in a few hours to lock up.
I was delighted by the old and bright interior of the church, though it felt a lot colder than Wetherden, and I could just see my breath. It reminded me of Cotton: the spacious west end of the nave was characterised by a marvellously uneven brick floor with the font taking centre stage, and a liberal scattering of green on the floor, walls and pillars. It looked as though the Victorians hadn’t got their hands too firmly on this church, and I was glad of it.
I found a prayer book in the chancel which was one of the oldest I had yet come across, dated 1827 (photo below). The parclose was perhaps the most outstanding feature, however: its screen was painted and old but had clearly been repaired over the centuries, without any attempt to hide the fact. It reminded me a little of a patchwork quilt. Within the parclose, I read in the guide, were a number of 14th century floor tiles, which excited me greatly: the decorations were still visible on some of them (see header photo).
Before sitting down to play the cello, I noticed a bee on the floor. I took it outside and placed it on a primrose, hoping the sun would shine long enough to warm it up. I wasn’t hopeful it would survive, but decided that at the very least sitting outside on a flower was a better way for a bee to go than on a cold stone memorial indoors. I enjoyed playing here, but the cold and the numerous features to admire meant that I didn’t fulfil my intention of practising for 40 minutes. I wasn’t particularly worried though: I was too captivated by the church to give it much thought.
While I was walking round the churchyard taking photos, a car pulled up and I recognised it as Ian’s. I was surprised: I had thought he wasn’t planning to return until later in the afternoon. He got out of the car and I still couldn’t gauge why he had returned so soon. After a few minutes I concluded that he just fancied a chat: we got talking about my project, and music in general. Perhaps curiosity about my strange undertaking had got the better of him – if he’d hoped to catch me playing the cello I was sorry to disappoint him. I mentioned I was planning to go to Finningham next, and he kindly gave me the phone number of a keyholder, Lily, explaining that the church would certainly be locked. I reached her on the phone and she directed me to her house, so I thanked Ian and left.
I realised en route to Finningham that I had in fact been to Westhorpe before, about six years ago, but I hadn’t passed the church on that occasion. I also realised that in a moment of absentmindedness I had managed to leave the church without taking a photo of the impressive medieval chest near the door, and without taking the copy of the church guide I had paid for. But these minor annoyances were quickly forgotten in the afterglow of my visit.
St Bartholomew’s, Finningham
Indoor temperature: 9˚C, humidity 61%
I found Lily’s house with no trouble, having passed it many times before, and she kindly came with me to the church to show me how to get there by car. I knew roughly where it was and think I would have found it easily, but she seemed keen so I only resisted long enough to make sure that I wasn’t causing her any inconvenience.
The fact that I had driven through Finningham countless times and never seen its church ought perhaps to have prepared me for its hidden-away and rural nature; but, though it is small, there is something about the character of the village that led me to expect that its church would be a more prominent feature, much like at nearby Bacton. The other surprise in store was that the London to Norwich railway passes so close to the churchyard: I had no idea at all until I heard a train while I was playing.
My time in Finningham church was a pleasure. I found a pretty, light and welcoming church with a good acoustic, and by the time I had finished playing I was pleased with my day’s practice – even if it was of slightly shorter duration than planned – and felt happy enough about my concert the following day. My favourite aspects of the church were the font, which I recognised as sitting on a Maltese cross, as at Shadingfield (somewhat precarious in terms of actually using it, but aesthetically very attractive), and the bench ends in the chancel. There were one or two people and animals, but the majority were towers, and these were the ones I liked best.
While I was wandering around the churchyard afterwards, another train passed, and this time I could see the railway’s proximity as well as hear it. The lasting impression on my ears, however, came from the rookery in the tops of the trees along the churchyard path. Their return was comforting: though I had sometimes found their racket overwhelming during my church visits last spring and summer, I had missed them over the autumn and early winter. But, for me, they also bring with them a feeling of melancholy. The sound of rooks is one that I will forever associate with my mother’s grave in Hitcham churchyard, and my feelings of bewilderment after her death.
Header photo: 14th century floor tiles, Westhorpe church
Total churches to the end of March: 157 + 2 chapels