I headed east from Heckingham, planning to visit the first churches I came to across the county border. This was where my confusion began: according to my OS map, Fritton church was in Norfolk. But it was on the list for Lothingland on my church map. I decided to believe Ordnance Survey for now, and continued on to Herringfleet, which, to my disappointment, I found hidden beneath scaffolding and filled with builders. I didn’t have far to go, however, to reach the next church, Somerleyton.
St Mary’s, Somerleyton
Outdoor temperature: 22.4˚C; indoor temperature: 19.4˚C, humidity: 61%
All of the churches I visited today had one thing in common: they had wonderful acoustics. That alone would have been enough to make me feel as though I was on holiday, but I also had the Broads landscape and sunshine to assist. The quantity of cello practice I knew was awaiting me didn’t detract significantly from the holiday feeling.
I would have expected these churches to have one further thing in common: round towers. Oddly, though, Somerleyton’s was square. It was an aisle-less but large church, and I could see its most outstanding feature almost as soon as I walked through the door: the rood screen. Walking up the nave to take a closer look, I could see the paintings on it were in near perfect condition – the result of restoration, I’m sure, but impressive nevertheless.
I could wait no longer to resolve my confusion about the county border, so before I made my way to Blundeston I took out my Ordance Survey map again, and my church map, and compared village names. There was no doubt about it: a good proportion of the churches I had thought were in Lothingland were in fact in Norfolk. After a little rooting around, I found the explanation on the Suffolk Churches website: in 1974 the county border had moved southward. I took great satisfaction in crossing off all the churches that were no longer in my itinerary. Still, I noticed in myself a little sadness that my list of Lothingland churches had suddenly dwindled to a neglible number. I had assumed I would need at least two short holidays in this part of East Anglia to complete them – a prospect that had held plenty of attraction for me.
St Mary’s, Blundeston
Indoor temperature: 19.5˚C, humidity: 60%
Beyond Blundeston primary school I found the church. I think it is the first church into which I have been welcomed by a teddy bear – standing on a 12th century font. Blundeston was a wide church, with a round tower and churchyard somewhat too small for the building. Carpeted church floors are not to my taste, but it was otherwise attractive enough to outweigh this detail: I loved its roof and sense of spaciousness. Above all, I was enchanted by its wonky floor. The exceptionally long pews on the north side sloped down from the aisle towards the wall. It is an odd fact that photographs never seem to capture wonkiness adequately. Many a time I have photographed wonky pews and floors, only to find that it is barely noticeable in the photograph. Perhaps it is because the perspective in photographs is distorted already. At least the floor at Blundeston seems to have been severely wonky enough for the pews to at least appear mildly so in photos.
Blundeston, too, had a medieval rood screen, though its paintings had almost faded into oblivion. The presence of a grand piano surprised me. I played it briefly to check if it was in good repair, and found it perfectly playable. The thought of giving a concert here was very appealing, and not for the first time it occurred to me I should be making a list of Suffolk churches in possession of a decent piano… a list which unfortunately has never progressed beyond intention.
My cello practice here was delightful. Much as I enjoyed every aspect of my visit, however, my favourite detail was probably an unintentional one, of the kind that would have put a glint of mischief in my dad’s eyes. I found a blocked Norman doorway on the north side of the church, and there was simply no getting round the fact that it was a rather startled but friendly-looking face.
St John’s, Lound
Indoor temperature: 20.1˚C, humidity: 62%
When I entered Lound church, I was astonished. It was full of what could only be described as bling. It looked more like a Catholic church than an Anglican one. I was amused, not knowing the origin or reason for all this gold paint. A couple came in shortly after me and asked if this was a Catholic church. I told them it wasn’t, but that they might be forgiven for thinking so; I had seen nothing like it so far on my church tour.
I have seen, and admired, many elaborately decorated Catholic churches in Europe, but I could only view this one with amused curiosity rather than admiration. I think it had to do with the fact that everything in the church that wasn’t covered in gold paint – most of it, really – was as plain as you could possibly imagine. These decorations weren’t of a piece with the church; they were superimposed onto something quite contrasting. It wasn’t that I found it offensive; it just seemed slightly ridiculous, particularly the font cover. The organ, on the other hand, I was able to admire, as decorated organs in otherwise simple churches are fairly common in Suffolk.
Simon Knott is full of praise for this 1912-14 restoration by Sir Ninian Comper (a name which, however many times I read it, still registers first in my brain as ‘Sir Nincompoop’), which he describes as a ‘sumptuous Anglo-catholic vision of a pre-Reformation liturgical space’1. I suspect the fact Knott is Catholic gives him an in-built leaning towards flamboyant churches.
Another feature of the restoration was a wall painting of St Christopher. I could tell it was modern, but I failed to notice the car and aeroplane occupying the periphery. The plane was apparently added in 1964 when the painting was restored. Why not? It could barely make this very peculiar church any more bizarre.
I tried two more churches, Ashby and Corton, but both were locked. At Corton I tried phoning the keyholder. There was no answer. On finding Ashby locked as well, irritation started to bubble up, as there was a sign on the road actively encouraging people to take the detour down the track to go and see the church. It seemed a shame to end the day on a failed mission, but I had no appetite to make further phone calls just now, and since I was staying in the area I could easily ring ahead to make an appointment. I decided to waste no more time. I would go back to Heckingham instead and make the most of the beautiful evening.
Header photo: Rood screen detail, Somerleyton church