I had planned to fit in a week’s walking in Cornwall in June. But while I was dithering, a B&B booking came in for mid-June, and soon after I realised that a cello-free holiday any later in the month was impossible, as I had two concerts on 30th June and a large pile of music to learn. So three days in a far corner of Suffolk with a large amount of cello practice on the agenda was the best I could manage. I found a lovely place to stay, at Heckingham on the Norfolk Broads, for added holiday feel.
I planned to visit as many churches as possible in the Lothingland area between Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. These churches are in the county of Suffolk but are in the Diocese of Norwich, and so sometimes they are not included in Suffolk’s total number of medieval churches (more than once I’ve had to explain to vicars why my church count total is greater than theirs!). According to my map, there was a relatively long list of churches in this area, and I wasn’t expecting to fit them all into one visit. But I was soon to discover, after some hours of confusion, that the list was significantly shorter than it appeared. Many of the churches listed were in fact within Lowestoft, which I had no intention of tackling, and several of the remainder are now in Norfolk: in 1974 the county border moved southward. It never occurred to me that a map of medieval churches might be out of date. Only ruins remain of one further church – Flixton, of the Lowestoft variety (there is another Flixton near Bungay) – but they are apparently very difficult to find, and I decided not to attempt it in the hot weather, without a proper heat-proof cover for my cello case. I had already bought the material for it, but not yet worked out how to make one…
My church count for Lothingland therefore plummeted from 22 to 10, of which I had already visited 2 on a previous trip. I realised I might have to venture outside of Lothingland even on this short trip.
St Andrew’s, Weybread
Outdoor temperature: 21.9˚C; indoor temperature: 19.1˚C, humidity: 57%
I had arranged a cello duet rehearsal with Will at Mettingham church, near Bungay, in the afternoon, so I decided to stop off at a couple of churches near the Norfolk border on my way. The first was Weybread. It was a pretty, round-towered church with a grand flint porch. The most striking thing about the interior I only noticed once I had walked up to the chancel and turned around: the west wall of the nave had a large painting on it. This was no medieval wall painting, but a Victorian one, apparently dating from the 1890s1. I thought it very impressive.
I took out my pile of music, and sifted through it, somewhat horrified by the size of it. But I knew the key was to take it one by one, as it is with visiting churches, and to prioritise. I was hopeful that I could make a good deal of progress in three days. I sorted the pieces into two piles: the ‘serious practice’ pile, and the ‘remind myself of how they go’ pile. I started with a piece from the latter pile to warm up, and then moved on to the former.
After 45 minutes’ practice, I was satisfied by the start I had made, and packed up to move on to the next church. I always make time to walk around the church and churchyard, but I sensed that these few days away would be more concentrated on cello than they would be on the details of the churches I was visiting. I didn’t mind too much: I was still appreciating my practice venues, seeing new landscapes and villages, and making practice feel like a holiday.
St Mary’s, Flixton
Indoor temperature: 20.8˚C, humidity: 61%
Flixton (near Bungay) was my next stop. I walked up the hill from the shady road, and was surprised by what I saw when I reached the churchyard: the tower looked as though someone had taken a pencil sharpener to it. The blue door reminded me of the (Victorian) Unitarian Church in Islington where I had ballet classes as a child. I suppose it must also have had a blue door, though I couldn’t swear to it; and the association wasn’t entirely pleasant, although as far as I remember I did enjoy ballet. But perhaps the fact I don’t remember when I stopped those lessons, or being sad when I did, is a more accurate indication of my true feelings about them.
Whether the Unitarian Church door was blue or not, I think in hindsight the association was reasonably justified, as I have found out that this church is almost entirely a Victorian rebuild. The door also must have been Victorian, and I can’t say that I like the style or colour in this context, irrespective of any childhood memories. I preferred the interior, however, with its unusual font, light-filled chapel at the west end of the north aisle, and patched wooden roof. I’d never seen a church roof repaired like this: some might conclude the repairs were careless, unskilled, or lacking in funds to complete properly, but I didn’t mind them. And it is possible the job wasn’t finished yet.
The acoustic was good and this always positively affects my feelings towards a church. I got stuck in to practice, and eventually, realising I was running late (not an unusual state of affairs), I packed up hurriedly and left for Mettingham.
All Saints’, Mettingham
Indoor temperature: 19.8˚C, humidity: 61%
I didn’t exactly know how to find Mettingham church: the distance was too far to use my walking map for navigation, and this time my satnav offered me no Church Road. I chose Vicarage Lane instead, hoping this would give me a good chance of ending up near the church.
Just before turning onto Vicarage lane, I met a car coming the other way, whose occupant had stopped to speak to a dog walker. I waited for a few seconds, and then the driver reversed back to the junction and allowed me to take a left turn. The car followed me until I pulled into a makeshift car park at the end of Vicarage Lane, unsure where to go next. It wasn’t until the car parked next to me and the driver got out that I saw it was Will, as lost as I was. I was amused that I hadn’t realised it was he who was following me – such is a hazard of anonymous silver cars, though he did a better job of recognising mine than I did his – and I had been worried about blocking the road. We examined the map together and eventually decided that if we took a right turn we’d find the church nearby along the main road.
There was nowhere to stop however, and the driveway up to the church was blocked with a bollard, so we turned around and decided we could get away with using the large car park of the adjacent tea room (of which I made a mental note, should I ever be passing this way again…).
I had chosen Mettingham church for our rehearsal as it appeared from the information I found online that we’d have a good chance of finding it open. But we were out of luck. I’d hoped we’d have at least two hours to rehearse, and we’d already wasted a good deal of time trying to find the church and somewhere to park, so I wasn’t too pleased. I rang the keyholder, still with a sense of dread after my unpleasant experience the previous month, and a friendly woman told us she’d be along to open the church for us.
She didn’t want to leave the key with us, and asked how long we needed. I tried to persuade her, without success, that we could drop it back when we had finished. The latest I seemed to be able to push back her return to lock up was 5pm, which left us little more than an hour. We would just have to make the best of the time we had.
We didn’t finish rehearsing all the pieces, but we got through the most important ones so that we’d know what we needed to practise for our next rehearsal two days later – when, I was determined, we would find a church that was already open, even if that meant trying several different ones.
We chatted to the lady and her husband before we left. The reason for the church no longer being kept open soon became clear – at least, in the keyholder’s mind, though the reasoning baffled Will and me. ‘We had a grant from English Heritage, and were open on weekends for a decade’, she told us. ‘That’s over now so we keep the church locked’. She sounded almost proud of the fact.
It made me sad, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why a grant would be required to open the church, when others managed to do it regardless, but I said nothing. There was no use starting a conversation about such matters, as I had gradually learnt. The vast majority of parishes that open their churches every day (some are even left open permanently) know that this is what churches are for, and that if there is anything to be stolen, it should be removed, locked away or alarmed. It is a matter of principle. Those who leave their churches locked, on the other hand, are adamant that due to the threat of theft and vandalism, they cannot keep them open. There is no persuading them otherwise – despite the fact, I discovered, that insurance companies prefer open churches to locked ones, and statistically there is a greater chance of theft or vandalism if the church is kept locked.
Still, it was good to meet friendly people from the village, and I tried to focus my attention on the fact of her generosity in coming to open and lock up for us. She showed us a few items of interest in the church, particularly numerous sections of lead with footprints carved on them that had been removed from the tower roof during a restoration project. Most of them had initials inside. She didn’t know when they dated from, but I loved seeing the changing shoe fashions shown by the shapes of the footprints. They were now in a frame on the wall at the back of the nave.
We had at least made a start on our concert programme, though my anxiety on the subject remained due to the rushed rehearsal. We walked back down to our cars, and I left for my accommodation in nearby Heckingham, with excitement at the prospect of reaching the Broads.
Header photo: shoe prints found carved on the tower roof at Mettingham church