St Michael’s, Occold
Outdoor temperature: 12.7˚C; indoor temperature: 11.1˚C, humidity: 63%
In hope of inspiration for an afternoon’s destination, I scanned the photocopied map of Suffolk churches stuck on my fridge door. It took me only a few seconds to choose Occold, simply because I thought it had an odd name. It was in an area near Eye that I didn’t know, and there were plenty of other churches to visit nearby. I have now just looked up the name and discover that it simply means ‘oak wood’. Not so strange after all.
The choice was good, nevertheless. Occold was my favourite kind of rural church: just stepping inside was a pleasure. It was bright, simple and had a wonderful acoustic. I made a satisfying start on cello practice, and afterwards dawdled in the church admiring its many beautiful details.
The symmetry of the image niche and rood stairs in the two south nave windows was pretty (photo below), and I found a lovely little Norman window and a large amount of graffiti. I was now able to recognise the pulpit as Jacobean: the one at Troston with a decoration matching my cello scroll will always stay in my memory.
The chancel arch was bizarre: it wasn’t at all symmetrical. I’d like to know the story behind this construction. I’m not sure whether it started off life this way through an error in craftsmanship, or whether by some other flaw in building construction – or near collapse of the church – it suddenly or gradually ended up crooked, and its new shape was retained when repairs were undertaken. I consulted the church guide after pondering the curiosity, but apparently no definitive explanation is available, and the writers of the guide were also undecided between these same two possibilities, seeming to favour the latter – which, on reflection, does seem more likely.
In the chancel I found some modern stained glass which I thought very attractive. Although I have seen – or perhaps just noticed – more stained glass recently that I like than dislike, I am still taken pleasantly by surprise.
There were no fewer beautiful details in the churchyard: I spotted straight away my first bursting horse chestnut buds of the season. They weren’t quite at my favourite stage yet, when they look like delicate drooping fingers, but it was good to know spring was finally making a move. I’d been sneezing all morning, since distributing hay to my various creatures before leaving home, and going outdoors again didn’t help matters. As I was taking photos of the leaf buds, I sneezed again. From beyond the churchyard fence came a ‘Bless you!’ ‘Thank you!’ I called back, laughing.
Around the outside of the church was a scattering of ivy growing up its walls and doors. I am not usually a fan of ivy, but have to admit to its beauty in such contexts. I’m sure those responsible for the welfare of the building would not agree, but while it grew undisturbed, I felt no guilt in enjoying it. The little Norman window looked even lovelier from the outside of the church, and as I turned away to continue my circuit, I saw that beyond a carpet of primroses, in the northwest corner of the churchyard, stood a sweet thatched cottage of the kind I always think must have come straight out of a fairytale.
By the time I left I was in an excellent mood, and, eager to discover what delights the next church might hold, I set off for Redlingfield.
St Andrew’s, Redlingfield
Outdoor temperature: 13.5˚C; indoor temperature: 10.5˚C, humidity: 73%
By the time I pulled up at the church sign, I was sure that my second church visit would be as rewarding as the first. This unusual and charming little church was set well back from the road. I made my way through a gap in the hedge, across a stream and along a footpath. Its neighbour was a farm, but the closest farm building to the churchyard was no ordinary one: it was large and ancient-looking, with two intriguing low arches on its church-facing end. I couldn’t tell if it was abandoned as the entrance faced away from the churchyard, but with its upper windows blocked I thought its only possible use could be as a barn. Afterwards I was able to find out that there was once a large priory here, of which the large building and the church were part.1
The tower stub was strange: it didn’t quite look wide enough to have once been a tower, but I liked its tiled roof, matching the chancel and nave. The interior was perhaps more Victorian than the church’s exterior and setting might have led me to expect, but my stay here was pure joy. The acoustic was exceptional, and, not for the first time, I decided to stay for the rest of the afternoon instead of trying to fit in a third church. What, after all, was the point of rushing when I was enjoying myself so much? Such visits are good and necessary reminders that I should try to apply this principle to my whole church tour, not just the odd afternoon out.
I practised for over an hour, and felt much happier with the Bach C major suite by the end of it. I had spent considerable time over the last day or two listening to all the different recordings I could find online in order to understand how to turn the Prelude (in particular) into a piece of music instead of a pain-inducing semiquaver study. By which I mean physical pain, though it might also inadvertently cause pain to the listener. I didn’t find a single recording that made sense to me, and eventually, feeling both amazed and frustrated, I gave up. This was my first practice session since then, and by the end of the afternoon I concluded that a process of elimination was as helpful as any in assisting me to arrive at a logical and engaging musical story. What a difference from my younger days when I was riddled with doubt of all kinds, and felt I could only tell if a performance was very good or very bad, but nothing in between. As long as it isn’t at the expense of an open mind, or accompanied by complacency, I am glad and relieved to have finally reached a stage of confidence in my own musical instinct.
After such a practice session, my tour round the church and churchyard afterwards were particularly enjoyable. Most of my attention was stolen by the contents of the porch and aspects of the church exterior: on the entrance doorway arch there were numerous graffiti shields and crosses, and in the porch was a set of stocks – the first I had seen since Saxtead, and this time I knew what they were. On the bricks of the east wall of the chancel there a wealth of graffiti dating from the early nineteenth century, which I assume is when the chancel was rebuilt. Lichen had grown in and around the engravings, forming a colourful, semi-abstract work of art.
Just before I entered the porch again on my anti-clockwise tour of the church, I found a blocked up west porch window even more beautiful than the east one I had already passed: it had been filled in with bricks of different colours. I’d never seen any window or door filled in like this and, if blocking windows is really necessary, I can’t think of a more wonderful way to do it.
This afternoon I had discovered two delightful churches in an area I’d never been to before, and I felt I had fitted a holiday into three hours – even though half of it was cello practice. Anything or anywhere that can achieve such a remarkable feat must be incredibly special.