Suffolk churches 73: St Margaret Ilketshall and St Peter South Elmham (April 2018)

St Margaret’s, St Margaret Ilketshall
Outdoor temperature: 22.5˚C; indoor temperature: 18.1˚C, humidity: 62%
I was starting to struggle with the Ilketshalls and the South Elmhams. I wasn’t entirely sure which I was in, as my map, road signs and the church sign simply said ‘St Margaret’. I found out eventually though, from the various documents posted on the church noticeboard. It was a round-towered church, my first since my trip to the Beccles area in February. White doves were sunbathing in the gutter.

St Margaret IlketshallAs I arrived at the church gate, I was surprised to see a taxi waiting. I wondered if perhaps something was going on inside the church, but as I entered the churchyard I met a couple looking at gravestones. I wasn’t at all surprised when they spoke with an American accent: not many English people would take a taxi to go and look at a church. They told me they were from Wyoming and were looking for ancestors’ gravestones. ‘From the 16th century’, they added, and I responded – as they had already concluded from their fruitless search – ‘you won’t find any of that age’. They said they’d come on a day trip from London and were going back now. I wondered, but didn’t ask, if they’d come all the way by taxi. After a while I concluded it was unlikely, as the taxi was of a Suffolk, not London, style. I caught myself feeling a little disappointed not to be able to continue amusing myself with American tourist stereotyping. But the gentleman was soon to oblige me for a little longer.

They said goodbye, adding that the church was locked. I was surprised, so I went immediately to check, and found the mesh porch door open, though a little stiff. I ran back to the taxi which was just pulling away, waving and gesturing. It seemed a shame for them to have come so far and not to see inside the church. They saw me, and the lady got out first, thanking me for going after them.

St Margaret Ilketshall interior St Margaret Ilketshall interior 2

While I was setting up, they looked around the church, and the gentleman in a baseball cap questioned me in a strange manner, without a smile, about what I was doing there. I wasn’t sure if he was either listening to, or understood, what I was saying; it didn’t feel like a conversation. But I smiled unwaveringly and pretended it did, while he stared at me blankly. After exchanging a few more words with both of them, the couple left and I sat down to play.

St Margaret’s was another pleasant, simple church with a good acoustic, without any remarkable features as far as I could tell. Some of my practice time was taken up running after a queen bumblebee that I thought at first I had some chance of releasing: she flew at pew level for a little while, but I had nothing to catch her in. I went on a search and eventually found a box full of mugs under the back pew, but it was too late: she’d gone back up to the roof. She only once came down again, for too short a time for me to attempt to catch her. It was quite as bad as leaving a butterfly inside a church, but I suppose I will have to get used to it.

As I walked back to the car, a dove posed for me in the small round window of the tower. For a few seconds I enjoyed the illusion – ignoring for a moment the render on the tower, for which English Heritage is apparently to blame – that someone might have stood in my place many centuries ago looking at almost exactly the same scene.

St Peter’s, St Peter South Elmham
Indoor temperature: 16.4˚C, humidity: 63%

St Peter South ElmhamSt Peter’s was only a short way down the road from St Margaret’s, so I was a little surprised when I eventually discovered I was in South Elmham not Ilketshall. The early evening sunlight that accompanied my visit was a treat, and once again I stepped through a Norman doorway to find a simple, bright interior with an old and uneven brick floor. I felt thoroughly spoilt. As it was, I had encountered very few Suffolk churches on my tour that I didn’t like, but in the last two days I had come upon treasure after treasure, and nearly all of them were my favourite kind of small, homely rural church.

St Peter South Elmham interior St Peter South Elmham interior 2

I quickly started to notice a certain ‘enthusiasm’ for health and safety in St Peter’s – probably they’d had an inspection and had been instructed to take precautions – and I was much amused by a sign near the chancel steps saying something along the lines of, ‘You are required by the health and safety policy to take due care when walking over this old and uneven floor’. ‘Requiring’ rather than requesting or warning someone to take care seemed a very funny way to go about things.

St Peter South Elmham floor St Peter South Elmham roof

The acoustic was good too – another greatly appreciated feature of the last two days. After playing, I enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the churchyard admiring the flowers growing out of the tower wall, feeling tired but happy and reflecting on my fun and unusually sociable church trip. I was pleased with my total of 10 churches in two and a half days, and I couldn’t have asked for better weather. It reminded me how much more pleasant it is visiting –and playing in – churches when it isn’t freezing cold and raining, and how much I love flower-filled spring churchyards.

St Peter South Elmham door St Peter South Elmham tower

I would have liked to explore the countryside more on foot, but it was only a short trip and I felt I should make the most of being in the vicinity of so many new churches, especially as I needed to fit in a lot of cello practice. Still, my first cello hike was a joy and I hoped to repeat the experience, perhaps on a longer walk next time. But first I will have to invent some sort of heat-reflective cover for my cello.

I drove home, experiencing the marvel of an overwhelming smell of pollen and a countryside suddenly turned yellow: the many fields of rape had come into flower all at once after just a couple of days of sunshine and warmth.

Header photo: St Margaret Ilketshall


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