St Peter’s, Nowton
Outdoor temperature: 16.9˚C; indoor temperature: 14.8˚C, humidity 66%
It is rare that a church visit makes me cross – at least, if I manage to get inside. Nowton did, however. It reminded me of my potential for extreme irritability with both locked churches and stained glass.
I knew the church was kept locked, due to a previous visit attempt. I also knew that the key was, shall we say, not exactly close by, which is why I didn’t go looking for it on that occasion. But I didn’t realise quite how far away it was. I was grateful for the friendliness of the keyholder, but a three-mile round trip to fetch a key and a three-mile round trip to deliver it back is a lot of effort to get into a church, especially when you know the key and the church are in fact only 500 metres away from each other as the crow flies, and cello practice time is of the essence.
When I arrived and opened up, I was dismayed to find the interior in darkness: the small windows that the church possessed were completely covered in dense Victorian stained glass. I have read only now, several weeks after my visit, that Nowton is apparently ‘home to one of the largest and best collections of continental glass in England’1, but I’m afraid this makes not one bit of different to my retrospective view of it: I couldn’t, and suspect never will be able to, appreciate such things – unless, perhaps, they are housed in a large and bright church with sufficient large, clear windows to enable me to view the coloured glass as painting substitutes, rather than as windows that aren’t doing their job of letting in light.
I found one light switch by the door, which lit the aisle, but after several minutes walking round the church and tracing all cables that I could see up walls, down walls and across the roof, the only other light switch I could locate was for the pulpit. Exasperated, I eventually gave up and left the door open. I could see the music at least, even if I’d rather be outside on an afternoon like this. I didn’t need to worry about disturbing any neighbours – there were none, except the sheep in the field opposite, and they were giving as good as they got.
Thankfully my visit had enough redeeming features, before and after I got so worked up, to allow me finally to enjoy myself. The church was in a pretty situation on a hill, and I met some dancing lambs on my way up the drive, who only stopped leaping for long enough to stare at me in curiosity. Opposite the church was the most marvellously shaped tree – an oak, I think, but I wasn’t entirely sure, due to its unusual shape and lack of leaves – which I had great desire, but not enough time, to sit in for a while.
The acoustic of the church was good, and I was amused to find mention of relatives of Beilby Porteus Oakes of Hawkedon, and his father Orbell Plampin Oakes: the walls were covered in memorials to various Orbells and Porteuses. There were no Plampins, but these names could hardly belong to any other Oakes family.
My practice was shorter than I would have liked, but long enough to be worthwhile. Afterwards, walking round the churchyard, I found a towering cedar of Lebanon, an ancient oak, and a copper beech whose leaves were the first beech leaves of the season I had the pleasure of touching. They weren’t as soft as the green beech leaves in my garden hedges, but they were sufficiently furry, and alone they would have been enough to transform my visit.
I left the church in a much better mood. As I reached the end of the lane where I was to turn left to the keyholder’s house, I caught sight of a wonderful scene: a row of oak trees in a field, silhouetted against the early evening sky (see header photo). It reminded me how lucky we are to have these most majestic of native trees, and it completed the job of putting my irritability to rest.
St Peter’s Ousden
Outdoor temperature: 12.7˚C; indoor temperature: 15˚C, humidity: 63%
A few days later, I went to Hargrave to deliver the piano parts of some newly acquired music to my accompanist, James, which we were performing over the coming season. I intended to visit Hargrave church, but my planning failure in the lunch department sent me first to the nearest shop, in Barrow, and then to the nearest church from there, Denham. It was locked, and I didn’t have the patience to try and find a key, so I continued on to Ousden.
I didn’t realise quite how near the border with Cambridgeshire I was, though the hilly landscape should have provided enough of a clue: Suffolk isn’t anywhere near as flat as people always think, but from my touring experience of the county so far, I think it is fair to say that the majority of steep hills are to be found in the Stour Valley and in west Suffolk, south of Newmarket.
The church was a surprise and a delight. I could already tell there was something unusual about it before I went inside: the tower was more or less in the middle of the church, though slightly closer to one end than the other. The position of the tower caused me some confusion about which end was east and which was west, and this only increased once I entered: the tower is usually located at the west end of the church, but this one was directly in front of the chancel. Was the tower at the wrong end, or the chancel? I eventually satisfied myself that the chancel was, as usual, at the east end of the church, and that it was the tower that was ‘out of place’. Still, it was disorientating. My confusion was suspended for a few minutes in favour of awe, however: this church possessed two interior Norman arches, one on each side of the tower. It was beautiful.
Now came the indecision as to where to sit to play the cello. About to set up in the nave, I changed my mind and walked the length of the church first. The chancel it would have to be, I eventually decided. Although I usually prefer to sit in the largest open space, the chancel was the lightest part of the church and there was a permanently open window through which I could hear the birds sing and feel the breeze. I didn’t really want to be indoors on a sunny day, and this was the best compromise.
I wasn’t sure what the acoustic would be like, with two fairly low arches between me and the nave. But perhaps it was only the chancel acoustic that was relevant; in any case it was as special as the rest of the church. I stayed and practised for an hour and a half, and enjoyed every moment.
About halfway through my stay, I smelled rain and looked towards the window, to see, to my surprise, that sunshine had been replaced by a heavy downpour. It reminded me that, entirely by chance, I recently found out there is a word for the smell of rain, invented as recently as 1964: petrichor. This word is actually the name of the substance that is responsible for the smell, a plant-created oil absorbed by the soil and released into the air when it rains. Despite the fact the second part of the word ‘ichor’, derives from a Greek word meaning the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods (in Greek mythology), I think the word sounds more scientific than evocative. But I was happy to discover it all the same.
It led me to wonder whether there might also be a word for the smell of sunshine. I was disappointed. The argument runs thus: while the smell of rain originates from a specific compound, the smell of sunshine is simply the smell of everything, enhanced by heat. I think, however, that anyone who leaves clothes out in the sun to air – or, for that matter, comes out of a church on a sunny day – might disagree with this conclusion.
By the end of my practice I felt almost ready for my concert a few days later, which was an unusual and pleasing state of affairs. I explored the church, finding a carving on one of the tower arches, and a wealth of graffiti on the font, including some writing and what looked like a figure but was too faint to see in a photograph.
I went back inside to retrieve my things, took one last admiring glance at the tower arches, and went on my way.
Header photo: Oak silhouettes at Nowton