Suffolk churches 80: Hartest, Dalham and Great Finborough (June 2018)

There have been one or two of those inexplicable gremlins at work. Almost simultaneously, I discovered that my photos of Hartest church were nowhere to be found on my camera, and that my phone had suddenly decided to delete all the photos on it. Dalham and Great Finborough churches were the only two churches I took photos of on my phone instead of camera. I have only one photo remaining, of the view from Dalham church, which I sent to a friend. I haven’t yet had time to revisit these three churches, but photos will be added here as soon as I do.

All Saint’s, Hartest
A concert in Hartest church had been on the books since last summer, and I was looking forward to it. I had resisted going inside before, even though I had driven through the lovely village of Hartest several times. Perhaps Cavendish is the ‘postcard’ Suffolk village, but to my mind, Hartest village green is far lovelier: smaller and therefore more intimate, and lined with mismatched, leaning old houses of many different colours. The church is on one corner of the green, next to the pub, where I enjoyed a good lunch during one of my previous outings to west Suffolk churches.

I picked up my neighbour, Marie, who was coming to the concert, and we set off with plenty of time to visit the farmers’ market, where we found delicious things from homemade jam to Spanish olive oil, before going back to the church.

I was surprised by the interior of Hartest church. Approaching from the churchyard gate, I expected to find a typical small village church, rustic and old inside. But instead I entered a church with two aisles, making it very square in shape, and a pristine Victorian interior. Beside the chancel was a modern-looking chapel full of glass and light. I liked it, but didn’t have high hopes for the acoustic, and I was feeling in need of all the help I could get today. Playing two Bach suites in one concert is never an easy task, but some days (and acoustics) are easier than others.

It wasn’t bad, however, for a square church. It didn’t make playing a breeze as some churches do, but it certainly didn’t make things more difficult, and I was confident I would enjoy the concert.

It was a small but friendly crowd who came to listen; a few people I knew, and many I didn’t. It was a delight to chat with them in the interval, and afterwards. It is becoming more frequent that one concert leads to another: churchwardens from nearby villages attended and I had one or two requests for future concerts elsewhere. Everyone left happy and smiling – and after a tour around the church and churchyard, so did I.

St Mary’s, Dalham
Two weeks later, I had a concert in Dalham church. It was a weekend with B&B guests and two concerts. I hadn’t managed a single church visit since Hartest. Now that I have to travel further to reach churches I haven’t visited, it becomes impossible when cello practice is urgent and has to be squeezed into any available gap in my day (inconveniently, hecticness is more of a summer problem than a winter one – just when churches are warmest). I hope I’ll be able to take better advantage of autumn this year, before it gets too cold.

I arrived at Dalham village on a warm, sunny evening. I’d never been there before and I couldn’t believe how pretty it was. It is not a village that gets mentioned often, but it is quite as picturesque as the more touristy Suffolk villages. I reached a curious brick construction – which I was later informed by my concert hosts was a malt kiln – and turned right up the hill to reach the church.

The setting of the church was truly idyllic. Dalham might challenge Polstead for second place in my unofficial competition for best countryside view (Aldham is still the front runner). I was told that on some days Ely Cathedral is visible from outside the church; I couldn’t see it, but I expect very clear conditions are needed. Beside the churchyard was an old brick wall, which looked as though it ought to enclose something very important. The gentleman who met me on arrival showed me the grand country manor to which it belonged: Dalham Hall. I felt as though I had just stepped back two centuries in time.

The church itself was also beautiful, sitting on its own on a hill. I didn’t want to go inside on such an evening, but it couldn’t be helped, and I was amply rewarded with a stunning interior, complete with wall paintings and a medieval rood screen. I knew to look out for graffiti at Dalham church, though I didn’t know where, so I did a quick circuit of the church and found it on the tower arch: windmills, dates, initials and many other things besides.

My delight only increased when I took out my cello to play: the acoustic was wonderful. I knew I was going to enjoy this concert. But I didn’t know how much. I think perhaps Dalham was my most enjoyable concert in a long time, perhaps ever. That is not to say I haven’t enjoyed other concerts greatly, but is an indication of just how special this particular concert was. It was one of those rare occasions where everything falls into place and feels good. Technical limitations and frustrations fade away for a short while and there are no obstacles in the way of the music.

I think our enjoyment of the concert carried directly to the audience. The response was enthusiastic, and two churchwardens asked me to go and play at their churches, Gazeley and Lackford. It was a wonderful evening which I will never forget.

St Andrew’s, Great Finborough
Outdoor temperature: 18˚C; indoor temperature: 18.2˚C, humidity: 60%
The next day I had to take my B&B guests to Stowmarket train station an hour before I was due at nearby Woolpit church for an orchestral rehearsal. We were playing a difficult piece by Britten that evening, and I needed to practise it. Luckily, there was one church in the vicinity that I hadn’t yet visited: Great Finborough. I had partly been waiting to go with my friend Penny who works at Finborough School next door, but it hadn’t yet happened. And partly it was a church that didn’t appeal to me, and I thought having company there would make it more enjoyable.

Of course, I had no justification for my aversion to Great Finborough church, other than disliking its spire, which is visible from miles around. It is a Victorian affair, built by Richard Phipson, the same architect who built the Woolpit church spire, and one more in Ipswich. I am sure it is an admirable piece of architecture, but sadly I don’t have the capacity to admire it – at least, not in this context, in the middle of the countryside. Relocated to the roof of the Natural History Museum, perhaps I might have more luck.

Arriving at the church, I was pleasantly surprised. The churchyard was sunny and well-kept, with the feel of a village park, and flattered the church. The views across the countryside towards Buxhall were much more pleasing to me than the view of the church from the opposite direction, and I now looked forward to seeing inside it.

I have discovered that the spire wasn’t by any means the extent of Phipson’s involvement in this church’s architecture: he in fact rebuilt all of it apart from the porch. But I did enjoy its interior, dark though it was, and its acoustic was surprisingly good. I had only half an hour to practise, but it was enough for me to master the difficult passages, and to leave for Woolpit feeling satisfied that I had done enough to enjoy the evening’s concert.

Header photo: view from outside Dalham churchyard

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