Suffolk churches 72: St Michael South Elmham and Rumburgh (April 2018)

St Michael’s, St Michael South Elmham
Outdoor temperature: 21.7˚C; Indoor temperature: 14.4˚C, humidity: 73%
I was greatly looking forward to the day’s church visits. I was spoilt for choice: within a fifteen minute drive I could have chosen any of about twenty churches, perhaps more. I had arranged to meet my cellist friend, Will, at Rumburgh for a late morning rehearsal, so I settled on St Michael South Elmham nearby. My decision involved some confusion around village and church names, as I found another church named on the map as ‘St Michael’s Priory church’. Having trouble finding out any further information about it, and feeling distrustful of its public access precisely due to the fact it was labelled, I decided to avoid it until later in the day, when I would be passing anyway and could investigate without causing myself any inconvenience.

St Michael South Elmham

St Michael churchyardYet another idyllic church awaited me: I drove around the perimeter of a large common and found St Michael’s on the far side, set back from the road. The setting reminded me of Barsham. I entered through a Norman doorway to a small, bright and simple church with an old brick and pamment floor. I set up in the chancel and opened the door: outside was a cherry tree- and daffodil-lined path. It was a challenge for me to be indoors at all on such a morning and in such a spot, so I left the door open. I didn’t think there was much danger of disturbing anyone with my playing.

St Michael door St Michael graffiti St Michael font
St Michael interior St Michael interior 2

I sat parallel with the door so that I could see outside and hear the birds sing. The acoustic was wonderful and enjoyment of playing soon distracted me from my yearning to be outdoors. Near where I sat, I saw two little footprints in the pamments on the chancel floor. They looked too small for a cat’s, I thought; perhaps they were a kitten’s. I was envious: I had hoped for footprints on my own kitchen floor, and had been assured by the tiler that they occurred frequently in Mexican terracotta tiles, but I didn’t get a single one.

St Michael floor St Michael footprints

St Michael blackthornI soon heard voices outside and two men approached the church, but their business seemed to be in the churchyard and they didn’t come in: they just waved to me through the open door as they passed. Then I saw a walking group and was certain they at least would come to see inside the church. But they too passed by without entering.

Walking round the churchyard afterwards was pure pleasure, and not only because of the daffodils and cherry trees. On the north boundary of the churchyard were two blackthorns in full bloom. It was striking to see independent blackthorn trees of this shape rather than in hedgerows or thick shrubbery. The white blossom against the blue sky imprinted on my mind.

With some reluctance I pulled myself away from St Michael’s to arrive at Rumburgh for my 11.30 appointment, without actually knowing if Will would turn up. I’d not heard from him since I fixed the time and place, and had tried phoning repeatedly without success.

St Michael’s, Rumburgh
Indoor temperature: 15.1˚C, humidity: 71%

RumburghFor some reason, even though I had seen photos of Rumburgh church with its stumpy and wide tower, I was sure that it was the towerless one in the middle of the village marked on the map. It wasn’t until I pulled up outside a Victorian chapel that I realised that St Michael’s Priory church, which I had been fruitlessly trying to identify that morning, was the one I was looking for. I had even failed to notice it on the way into Rumburgh. Thankfully I finally managed to get hold of Will, and he met me shortly afterwards and followed me back to the church.

Mandy, whom I had met at Cratfield the previous afternoon, had told me she found Rumburgh creepy and that I should go with someone else, which was partly why I’d arranged a rehearsal there with Will. The path through the churchyard was beautiful, and we enjoyed the view of the very unusual tower as we approached the church. I could see what Mandy meant: we stepped down into an imposing, rather cavernous and high-roofed church, and although it wasn’t dark on this sunny day, I could imagine it being very gloomy for most of the year. It also seemed colder than other churches, but this must have been an illusion. I didn’t find it creepy, though, just more serious and impressive in character than the cosy, friendly churches I had recently visited. Still, I was glad to be there for a rehearsal – and, finally, I had picked a good church for it, as there was a large space for two cellos in the chancel, in contrast to nearly all the other churches we had rehearsed in previously.

Rumburgh interior Rumburgh interior 2

The visit was unfortunately memorable for the number of insects we found trapped inside. We did our best, releasing two bumblebees – though I think one was beyond help – and a wasp. There were more out of reach, but I had to accept that there was nothing to be done for them. The rehearsal distracted me: I had been on the hunt for new cello duets, and we tried them out. Some were dull, but we did find some performance-worthy ones in the mix. We also rehearsed the Handel trio sonata that we were due to perform again in May, and it felt far more settled now, even though we hadn’t played it since December.

Rumburgh streamRumburgh 2Eventually stopping due to hunger, we had a quick look around the churchyard, finding a stream – or perhaps canal, it was so straight – along the boundary. I was disappointed not to be able to find a full view of the church: two thirds of its length lay beyond a fence in someone else’s property. I think this added to its imposing, slightly mysterious character. But the churchyard was not at all imposing, and I turned around many times to enjoy the view on our walk back to the car.

We went over to Rumburgh pub for a sandwich, where we met, amongst others who enquired about our instruments, a lady who turned out to be a member of the walking party that had passed the South Elmham St Michael’s church while I was there.

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