Butterfly rescues: 3 As it turns out, there is an unexpected hazard involved in visiting churches in early spring – in fact, three. Who would have thought butterflies coming out of hibernation could singlehandedly create so many? The first is that instead of practising the cello, I spend my time trying to rescue butterflies fluttering helplessly in church windows. The second is that I risk ending up in A&E with some injury caused by less-than-sensible attempts to reach butterflies at high altitude: it’s all very well getting up there, but you also have to get down again with both hands in use as a butterfly trap. The third hazard is that, inevitably, there will always be butterflies out of reach, causing me no small amount of heartache. Perhaps I will have to invent the world’s longest extendable butterfly net specifically for rescuing butterflies trapped in churches…
St George’s, Stowlangtoft
Outdoor temperature: 11.6˚C; indoor temperature: 10˚C, humidity 53%
My first butterfly rescue of the afternoon was an easy one: it was on the floor of Stowlangtoft church. It looked sleepy but I thought a little sunshine and nectar might revive it, and I put it on a primrose outside the chancel door through which I had entered. I could do nothing to help the other butterfly which was fluttering at the top of a window.
It felt strange entering a church through the chancel rather than nave door: one’s first view of the interior is completely different. I had retrieved the key from a lady across the road, who was at home on this occasion, and she warned me of the alarm system in front of the altar. I assumed from this piece of information that some or all of the contents of the sanctuary must be precious, but beyond recognising that the large and detailed carvings in wood and marble were impressive, this was all I knew until after my visit.
The church was not amongst my favourites, and the red carpet didn’t endear me to it, though I can’t say that I like blue carpets any better. These are the main colours I have come across lately. They are too dominating, and unless the church has a particularly strong character of its own, and a friendly atmosphere, they can make it feel harsh and unwelcoming. I was surprised, therefore, to read on the Suffolk Churches site that Simon Knott describes Stowlangtoft as ‘one of Suffolk’s great churches’. What follows this statement is one of his longest discussions of a church that I have yet read. I could barely follow the ins and outs of what was or wasn’t medieval and where it came from, but I did at least find out the story of the alarmed altar, which was that the Flemish carvings on the east wall, dating from around 1500, were once stolen and discovered five years later near Amsterdam. They were only eventually returned to the church eight years after that through the generosity of a Dutch businessman.
The acoustic was unmemorable, and I’m sure tiredness and stiff hands contributed to my relative disinterest in both cello practice and the church. Still, there were aspects of the church that I enjoyed, especially the rood screen and abundance of compass-drawn graffiti on the tower arch. The roof was high and had an interesting decorated section at the front of the nave (see header photo), and there was a large wall painting on the north nave wall, of which I somehow forgot to take a photo. I was glad finally to recognise misericord seats (photo bottom right) when I saw them, after having missed some at Norton, and I could tell that they and the bench ends in the chancel must be old and relatively unusual. Of the bench ends in the nave, the camel was undoubtedly my favourite.
As I looked around the church I heard a loud squeaking above my head. I tried, without success, to locate its origin, and had to hope for a second chance to do so, which I received in due course. I also looked around for clues as to where the bats might be roosting, and found some droppings; but despite the proximity and volume of the squeaking, I didn’t manage to spot them. Still, I left the church happy in the knowledge that I’d had company – and at least bats were one animal I didn’t have to worry about leaving inside the church.
All Saints’, Stanton
Indoor temperature: 12˚C, humidity 56%
Stanton is a pretty village. Living as I do in a village that doesn’t really feel like one (apart from the fact we are extremely lucky to have a village shop and post office), I particularly notice ones that do, especially when they retain their old charm. Stanton All Saints – as opposed to St John, which is a partially ruined church owned by the Churches Conservation Trust – sits on a three-way junction. Not a village square exactly, but the centre of the village nevertheless.
As I walked through the primrose and celandine-filled churchyard in the sunshine, it occurred to me that maybe I should have gone to play the cello outside at the ruin after all. Although sunny, the day had started off rather cold, and I had dismissed the idea, thinking it would be better to leave outdoor playing for more clement weather. The chill in the air was gone now, the sun was warm, and a desire to be outside left me regretting not having thought of revising my decision sooner. But I was here now, and the church was open. After my recent spate of locked churches, I couldn’t turn down an unlocked one.
St John’s reminded me a little of Haughley church. The tower stump through which I entered the church was in the same unusual location: in the southwest corner of the south aisle. The interior was smaller, less severely victorianised, and the chancel was lower, but the shape and atmosphere were similar, and the amount of light entering the large windows just as great. It was noticeably warmer inside than at Stowlangtoft: it seems 12˚C is about the temperature at which I start to feel comfortable. At approximately 10˚C, a cold nose becomes my climate indicator, and much lower than that, breath condensation takes over.
I enjoyed practising in the relative warmth. Before long, however, I noticed a butterfly in the west window. At first I assumed it was too high up to rescue, but with a quick scan of the surroundings I saw there was a possible way to reach it. At that moment, my determination to release the butterfly took over from common sense, and, though I knew it wasn’t entirely safe, and that being startled by someone entering the church might be hazard enough for the operation to end in disaster, I made my way up. I didn’t consider beforehand that having to use both hands to capture the butterfly might make getting down again near impossible, but somehow I succeeded with nothing worse than a pulled leg muscle, and I deposited the butterfly on a flower in the sunshine. On the way down I had noticed another butterfly in a much more accessible location, so I went back to retrieve it, making a mental note to replace the vase of flowers in the middle of the windowsill so as not to betray my activities.
I resumed my practice, and a few minutes later two ladies came in, the first of whom was clearly excited. I stopped playing to say hello, extremely relieved that they hadn’t come in ten minutes earlier. ‘Are you the lady who is going round the churches playing the cello?’ the first one asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied, and she clapped her hands in delight. ‘I’m so glad to have bumped into you!’ she said, ‘I’ve been following your journey’, and she came and sat down on the front pew not more than a metre away from me to listen, adding, ‘my friend here thought someone was playing the organ but I said, no, that’s a cello!’ Slightly intimidated by such a close audience at a moment when I was feeling less than competent in my playing, and unable to change easily to a simpler piece due to having tuned my cello specifically for this particular Bach suite, I chose an easier movement and hoped for the best.
We chatted afterwards, during which another lady entered, and I was informed that she was the flower arranger. My eyes quickly darted to the windowsill, realising I’d forgotten to replace the vase of flowers. She didn’t include that vase in her watering rounds, however, so my secret was safe for the time being: I am sure if she had remarked on it, I would have had to admit immediately what I’d been up to.
I went home enjoying the novelty of sunshine and warmth, and feeling glad after all that I had visited Stanton All Saints rather than St John’s that afternoon.
Header photo: Roof detail, Stowlangtoft church