I had missed a weekend over Easter, and I was also in desperate need of some serious cello practice for a concert in less than two weeks’ time, so I decided to treat myself to two nights away visiting churches. A friend’s parents who had recently moved from Felixstowe to Metfield – about an hour’s drive from my house, near Harleston on the Norfolk border – had asked me to let them know when I was planning to visit Metfield church as they wanted to come along to listen. I didn’t realise until later that they had moved to, and were going to run, a B&B in the village. What could be better than combining a stay there with church visits, I thought; so after lunch on a Tuesday, I set off, intending to visit Athelington on the way. It was a church which I had planned but failed to visit after Redlingfield the previous week.
Shortly before Athelington, I passed another church. I had to consult the noticeboard to find out which one it was. I thought I may as well stop since I was here, and the first thing I saw as I entered the churchyard was a profusion of cowslips. I remembered seeing a whole churchyard full at Coddenham last year, but this was the first time I’d seen them in a sunny churchyard instead of a rainy one. There were already plenty of other flowers in the churchyard – primroses and the last of the daffodils were the most conspicuous – but I could see that soon, much like Great Waldingfield, it would be filled with colour and deserving of a wildflower award. I was also excited by my first close-up encounter this season with new horse chestnut leaves at their most endearing stage: when they look like delicate, downward-pointing fingers.
Horham was a pretty church, with a whitewashed, rendered nave and Norman doorway through which I entered. Afterwards I discovered another Norman arch on the north side of the church. Inside there were many more interesting features: the medieval pew ends at the back of the church, medieval glass, a consecration cross on the wall, and, my favourite, a whole message engraved in the tower arch. I’d never seen such a thing in any previous church. I didn’t know why bellringers should have to give something to the sexton – I didn’t even know what exactly a sexton was. I looked in the church guide and found that a sexton’s duties included the maintenance of the bells. Simon Knott says the graffiti is from the 18th century, but I don’t know the source of his information: I have not managed to find any other reference to its date.
As I was setting up, a couple came into the church. They told me that they’d been many times to Horham church but always found it locked, which made me particularly glad that both they and I had found it open on this occasion. They were here to inspect the stained glass: the gentleman was due to give a talk on medieval stained glass in Bury St Edmunds in a few days’ time and was looking for evidence of something or someone’s work. I couldn’t follow his explanation, but we chatted for a short time in mutual appreciation of historical churches before getting on with our respective tasks.
My cello practice was rewarding and my visit lasted longer than I expected: it was already 5pm. Athelington would be my last visit of the day, I thought, and then I would make my way to Metfield.
St Mary’s, Wilby
Indoor temperature: 14.2˚C, humidity: 62%
As Athelington church came into view, I couldn’t help exclaiming aloud, ‘oh what a cutie!’, something that usually only happens when I see a particularly lovely (often baby) animal. So I was extremely disappointed to find the church locked and no keyholders answering their phones. Reluctantly, I got back in my car and looked at the map: Wilby seemed to be the closest church in roughly the direction of Metfield.
I was more than usually grateful to find it open, though it was darker than Horham inside and its general character not as appealing. However, what it lacked in friendly atmosphere it more than made up for in fascinating details: a beautiful font, Jacobean pulpit, wall paintings, a 16th century brass plaque on the chancel wall, an incredible wooden chest whose rotting end looked like it was one solid piece of wood, the largest array of mismatched angels on the aisle roof I had ever seen – one looked as though it possessed insect wings rather than angel wings – and a marvellous collection of bench ends. Mostly I couldn’t tell which were medieval and which were 19th century bench ends, but I didn’t care, I was enjoying them so much. They looked like stories rather than simply carvings. I didn’t find out until afterwards that they represented, amongst other things, the seven sacraments, the seven works of mercy and the seven deadly sins. Still, my favourite of them all was an animal that I didn’t recall ever having seen on a bench end before: a large and magnificent toad.
My practice at Wilby was enjoyable, and I left feeling happy with my afternoon’s progress, though at the same time sorry I hadn’t managed to finish earlier in order to take advantage of a relaxed evening at my accommodation with time for writing: one of the joys of spending a night or two away from home with no creatures to look after or kitchen mess to bother me.
As I was leaving the church, I met a churchwarden coming to lock up. We greeted each other, and after asking if I was leaving already, he surprised me by asking, ‘how many churches is that?’ ‘Oh, so you know what I’m doing here?’ I replied, laughing, before telling him that Wilby was church number 166. We chatted briefly before saying goodbye and going our separate ways.
Header photo: Cowslips in Horham churchyard