It was my first church outing since my Badley concert the previous Sunday, and I was feeling achy – probably more from my week’s gardening efforts than any residual concert tiredness – but I went out for the day with the aim of ‘tinkering’: it felt like a pleasant change to be able simply to have a quick play through a few pieces that I would be preparing over the coming months, in order to establish what needed most work, rather than having to sit down with the intention of practising seriously in each church. It also meant I could enjoy more church visits with rather less effort than in recent weeks.
St Mary’s, Earl Stonham
Outdoor temperature: 22˚C; indoor temperature 13.8˚C, humidity 61%
I had arranged to visit Walpole Old Chapel in the afternoon with Mandy and Nick, who live just five minutes away, so I thought today would be a good opportunity visit some of the churches on the way that I’d missed in the past. I had recently been told that I had a treat in store at Earl Stonham, so I made that my first stop. I’d put it off mainly because of its location on a fast stretch of road approaching the junction with the A140, and with its grey rendered south side and neatly clipped churchyard, I didn’t find it particularly enticing. But, as I soon discovered, this church was definitely a case of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.
I walked up the hill to the entrance, and stepped inside to find a cruciform church with a stunning roof (see header photo) and a plethora of wall paintings. I couldn’t make out the decorations on alternate hammerbeams at first, until finally, with a surge of annoyance, I realised they were decapitated figures. The remaining hammerbeam decorations were floral, apart from one, on which I found a face. I only realised afterwards he was a Green Man.
I played through a few short pieces delightfully pressure-free, and spent most of the rest of my visit inspecting the paintings, painting replicas and graffiti, including some on the interior of the font, which must have been no mean feat to engrave.
St Mary’s, Earl Soham
Indoor temperature: 12.7˚C, humidity: 61%
The next church I planned to stop at was Stonham Aspal, but instead of the ‘Church open’ sign I was used to seeing, there was one stating that it was closed for refurbishment. So I continued on to Earl Soham, a church that I’d always thought was in a pretty setting, at the end of a gently sloping grassy drive in the middle of the village.
When I stuck my head round the door, however, I very nearly walked away again. I didn’t fancy such a dark church on a day like this. But I told myself to stop being silly: an open church wasn’t to be turned down. So I went to fetch my cello, reassuring myself that I didn’t have to stay inside for long.
The darkness wasn’t caused by stained glass or lack of windows, but by large trees – mostly conifers – planted too close to the church and blocking out the light. But I was amply rewarded for my decision to go in: the acoustic more than made up for the gloom, and as well as some fun bench ends, I found a unique collection of graffiti on a wooden table at the back of the church. It reminded me of a plaster cast covered in signatures, and I wondered what its story was.
Afterwards, relieved to be in the sunshine once more, I walked around outside and was surprised to find that at the back of the church there was no hedge or fence between the churchyard and the house next door: the churchyard merged into a garden. I suppose the garden might lose some of its privacy, but there was something about it that I liked very much. It seemed to symbolise the inseparable nature of community history and individual lives.
After phoning Nick and Mandy to confirm our meeting time at Walpole, and to suggest Mandy brought her cello and some duets if she fancied it, I left for Badingham.
St John’s, Badingham
Indoor temperature: 14.9˚C, humidity: 63%
I had tried to visit Badingham once before, and was pleased to be able to get into the church this time: I liked the look of it. I knew from what I’d read to expect a ‘seven sacraments’ font, which I duly admired upon entering the church, but I was surprised when I looked towards the chancel: the nave sloped steeply uphill. I think Badingham is the first church I have seen which seems to have been deliberately built on a slope, rather than having sunk at one end over the centuries.
I walked up to the chancel and turned around to enjoy the unusual view over the nave, noticing also the handsome hammerbeam roof and its angels. Near the altar I found a large and elaborate tomb: a feature of churches that I usually regard with amused curiosity rather than admiration, and this one was no exception.
When I sat down to play the cello, I had the strange sensation that I was leaning backwards towards the altar. At first I thought it was an illusion, due to the sloping nave, but I soon realised it wasn’t: the nave and chancel sloped in opposite directions. It was an odd and rather disconcerting experience.
The church acoustic was good – as I have come to expect of long, thin churches – and though my visit was cut slightly short by my appointment at Walpole Old Chapel at 3pm, it was a memorable one, rounded off nicely by a tour around the sunny spring churchyard.
Walpole Old Chapel
Walpole Old Chapel wasn’t on my church list, and may not even be medieval, but much like the other chapels I have visited, it was one that I couldn’t miss. Everyone raved about it, especially Mandy and Nick who’d told me often that they would like to take me, and I knew it was a unique building: a farmhouse converted into a chapel. But I knew little else about its history.
Now I know that it was converted in 1689, and that the ‘Independent’ congregation first met in nearby Cookley in 1649, but it is uncertain when exactly between these two dates the farmhouse began, in secret, to be used as a chapel. Since 1995 it has been in the care of the Historic Chapels Trust.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner, but I was glad it had occurred to me in time to ask if Mandy would like to bring her cello and some duets: I didn’t feel up to performing a piece on my own to any audience, however small, and I knew the chapel was open to the public on Saturday afternoons. Sight-reading duets felt far less formal, and playing music with other people is usually highly effective in distracting me from any dissatisfaction or discomfort I might be experiencing in my own playing. Mandy had brought a baroque duet I’d never come across before. It suited the chapel perfectly, and I enjoyed the thought that, theoretically, it was music that might have been heard here at the beginning of the building’s new life as a chapel.
The chapel was quite as wonderful as I had imagined, and looking around afterwards was a great pleasure. There were box pews around the perimeter, and some in the middle. At the back was a little ‘library’, with old hardback books in keeping with the feel of the chapel. I could happily have spent an afternoon reading there.
I went upstairs to the gallery, not always feeling entirely safe and wondering if the floor might give way beneath me. Logic soon intervened, however, remembering that we live in an era of overly enthusiastic Health & Safety: I’d probably never have been allowed upstairs if there’d been so much as a loose floorboard. There were quite as many treasures to find here: wonky ‘homemade’ pews and stairs, and huge amounts of graffiti on the backs of the pews. Most were initials, and gave the amusing impression that members of the congregation were claiming their personal seats, and if anyone should dare to take their place they would be in trouble. I also found a couple of boats; the first I think I have ever seen.
We chatted for a while with the lady who was there to welcome visitors, and then walked back to our cars. At Cratfield we’d felt the lack of a cup of tea to round off the afternoon properly, so we made sure to put that right today: tea and flapjacks in Mandy and Nick’s beautiful, flower-filled cottage garden were the perfect end to a lovely day.
Header photo: Earl Stonham roof detail