St Petronilla’s, Whepstead
Outdoor temperature: 22.5˚C; indoor temperature: 17.1˚C, humidity 65%
It was with some trepidation that I set out on my next church visit nearly a week later. I was heading in the direction of Bury St Edmunds and knew that in the area south of the town I was far more likely to encounter open churches than locked ones, but still I was dreading the next occasion when I might have to phone a keyholder.
Whepstead turned out to be just the antidote I needed to my experience at Copdock, however. I met two friendly women outside the church, a mother and her daughter. They asked me if this was St Petronilla church. It was a name I hadn’t heard before, and I explained what I was doing and that I wasn’t familiar with the church. In response to their questions about my project, I said that sometimes I played on my own, and sometimes I gave concerts. They replied, ‘you can play to us today then!’ and told me they had come to Whepstead to look for family graves: Gloria, the mother, had grown up and married here; her daughter was baptised in the church, and this was the first time she’d been back in more than forty years.
Entering the porch, we discovered St Petronilla was indeed its name, strange as it sounded. Inside was what I believed to be a huge Norman chancel arch. But reading the entry on the Suffolk Churches site, I discovered that not only is this church the only one in the whole of England dedicated to St Petronilla (only named thus in Victorian times), but the Norman arch is also in fact Victorian. Still, I enjoyed it, as well as the particularly beautiful rood stairs.
Gloria and Helen stayed to listen to my playing for a few minutes before going outside to the churchyard to look at gravestones. They said how much they enjoyed my playing, and I told them how much I enjoyed meeting friendly people again after my last experience. We were all better off for our brief crossing of paths.
Afterwards I went outside and discovered that the church was particularly attractive when viewed from the south side of the churchyard. Its squat tower was curiously in harmony with an unusual tree I came upon, with branches that looked as though they were designed as seats. I couldn’t imagine how it ended up that shape. Nor how many people over the last century or more might have sat or stood in those branches…
All Saints’, Chevington
Indoor temperature: 16.4˚C, humidity: 64%
If Whepstead church reminded me how wonderful it usually is to meet people on my church tour, Chevington reminded me why visiting Suffolk’s churches is so exciting. I couldn’t have asked for a better combination to make my Copdock experience seem like a distant bad dream.
I pulled up outside the churchyard at the end of a lane to a view of a more varied and ornamented church exterior than I had seen recently. It was pretty. As I walked up the church path, I saw a maze that had been cut into the grass on my right. How much effort that must take to maintain, I thought, and made a mental note that I mustn’t leave the church without walking it.
I reached the porch and walked through a grand Norman doorway into an interior that exuded a kind of welcoming, cool peacefulness. It was different from other rural churches; perhaps more modern, certainly with plainer, brighter white walls. But even from the back of the nave I could tell there was something unusual about the chancel, and I walked up the aisle to see it.
It reminded me of something or somewhere I couldn’t quite place, and still can’t. It was almost entirely modern, had very little in the way of pews, and very much in the way of space. I loved it, despite my usual preference for the ancient and crumbling. I couldn’t wait to play in there; I imagined the music reverberating around the chancel, creating an other-worldly experience. It barely even occurred to me that I could have sat in the nave instead.
It was a magical experience, and one that was best enjoyed alone. As I played, I looked up at the tie beams on the roof. To my astonishment, I saw they were dated: one 1590, the other, ‘C.P. 1638’. I suppose once the precedent has been set, it seems a shame not to continue it. Afterwards I took a look at the other side of the same beams, and on this side a name as well as the date was engraved: ‘1590 Thomas Frost’ (see header photo). The sense of continuity in these buildings never ceases to fascinate me. Four centuries might as well be four days.
Further exploration of the church revealed an attractive Norman window, which reminded me of Barrow except without the decorative figures. The somewhat battered font bore graffiti, and, finally, I noticed that I had not been the only musician in the church after all. In fact, a whole band of musicians had been present, playing the drums, lute, bagpipes and some sort of wind instrument (perhaps a primitive oboe), amongst others. I smiled.
I went out to the churchyard and started to walk the maze, aware that there was a man gardening not far away across the fence who might think me a little odd. But I am now completely at peace with my oddness, and soon, walking round the maze became a trance-inducing activity. It was an unusual maze in that there were no dead-ends, you simply had to keep going back and forth until you had walked along every – or so it seemed – possible path, finally arriving at the centre. The temptation to cheat was strong towards the end: it looked like a small maze from the outside, but inside it seemed endless, and I was already running late. But I resisted, and was rewarded with the satisfaction of completing it.
Two days later I received an email (and a generous donation to my Justgiving page) from Simon, a churchwarden at Chevington, thanking me for my visit and fundraising efforts and saying how sorry he was to have missed my playing. As well as offering to go back, I mentioned my concert in Hartest – a few miles away – the following weekend. There, to my surprise and delight, I met Simon and his wife and was able to say in person what I had said in my email reply: how much I appreciated the reminder of just how many enthusiastic, generous and welcoming people there are out there caring for Suffolk’s churches.
Header photo: Chevington roof detail