St Mary’s, Ashby
Indoor temperature: 18.1˚C, humidity: 56%
I reached the keyholder of Ashby church on my first attempt, and arranged a visit for 11am the following morning. I turned off the road down a dusty farm track, which – if it weren’t for the car I was travelling in – might have looked exactly the same when the church was first built. I saw the octagonal tower of the church hiding behind a bed of nettles and a hedge just beyond a crossroads in the tracks, which I later read was a medieval road junction1.
When I reached the church I could see that only the upper part of the tower was octagonal; the base was round. The whole church was thatched, and I continued to revel in the illusion that I had time travelled. I stepped down several feet into the long, narrow nave, to be met by the keyholder and a Norman font. The thatch was visible inside the church, which was a delightful sight for a second or two, until I wondered what effect this would have on the acoustic. Rushmere was the last thatched church I had visited with no ceiling, and it had no acoustic at all.
Despite the old and rustic character of the church setting and exterior, the interior was mainly Victorian. I loved the feel of it nevertheless. My fears about the acoustic were unfounded: the long, thin shape of the church must have gone some way towards cancelling out the effect of the exposed thatch. I limited my playing to ten minutes, so as not to keep the kind lady waiting longer than necessary, and then chatted to her while taking photos. Just as I was going outside to the churchyard, a couple arrived asking if they could look inside. They told me they’d been following me: they’d just been at Lound and had seen my message in the visitors’ book. They, too, were trying to visit all of Suffolk’s churches, but obviously without a cello. I felt a little less guilty for inconveniencing the keyholder now: at least other people had benefitted too.
I rang the keyholder of Corton before leaving, and was grateful when I was told I could fetch the key from his house and stay as long as I wanted. I told the couple I’d be there at least an hour if they wanted to take advantage of easy access to second locked church, but they gave me no clear answer: they had a ‘church schedule’ to follow. Unlike my haphazard journeys. So we all said cordial goodbyes and went our separate ways.
St Bartholomew’s, Corton
Outdoor temperature: 16.2˚C, humidity 63%
If the keyholder hadn’t been willing to lend me the key, I might have left Corton church for another time, as I had a duet rehearsal a couple of hours later and desperately needed to do some serious practice. His friendliness and relaxed attitude quickly offset my previous afternoon’s annoyance at finding the church locked, and I arrived at the church with a plan for outdoor fun: I had spotted the ruined tower and courtyard garden the day before. I was probably more excited about the pretty little garden than seeing inside the church. Little did I realise, however, that Corton would be one of my most memorable church visits.
To my surprise, I found that the tower had a ceiling (roof?) – perhaps at the level of the old bell stage – and so I decided to practise there. It would sound better, and perhaps provide some shelter: it wasn’t quite as warm as the day before, and though it wasn’t particularly windy, it only takes a small breeze to knock music off a stand.
My practice was delightful and productive, the tower creating a far better acoustic than I thought possible. I was competing with the cheeping of baby birds, whose nest must have been somewhere above me in the tower. As I was practising, the couple I had met at Ashby arrived. I was glad they had decided to come after all.
I could quite happily have left without seeing inside the church, but I knew that would be foolish. So I went inside to the truncated nave and large chancel. It was attractive, despite the unusual shape, and I particularly liked the two bench ends leaning against the nave wall, one bearing a dragon and the other a boar. My tour of the churchyard was just as much fun: seeing the full shape of the half-ruined church, and discovering a tree covered in yellow lichen that was perfect for climbing. I enjoyed my squirrel’s-eye view of the world for a few minutes, before descending in favour of a picnic on the beach.
I was so close to the sea it seemed a shame not to take advantage, but, being unfamiliar with this part of the coast, I didn’t take into account the distance and steep descent from the road to the beach. I had disregarded, as I usually do in Suffolk, the label of ‘cliff’ on my map. This time, weighed down by a cello and having only twenty minutes to spare, I shouldn’t have. I didn’t have enough time to tackle it. So I perched on the cliff side amongst the scrub instead: eating my lunch with a view of the sea and within earshot of the waves would have to suffice.
St Mary’s, Henstead
Indoor temperature: 19.4˚C, 64%
I was excited about my next church visit: it would be my 200th. I knew it would involve hard work, as Will and I had a lot of practice to do, but spending most of the afternoon in this milestone church would be fitting. I had told Will I’d meet him at Barnby, and that we could go on to Henstead if it was locked, but when I arrived and phoned him to ask where he’d managed to park, I eventually realised we were at different churches. ‘There’s a giant daffodil outside,’ he explained, much to my confusion. He was at Henstead. Henstead was open, however, and Barnby was locked, so I drove over to join him.
Henstead church must be one of the hardest churches in all of Suffolk to stop at – as I knew from my failed visit in February – and again I had to ask Will where he’d left his car. The only safe spot nearby was on the verge beside the driveway of Henstead Hall at the crossroads. To be sure not to offend, I left a note in the windscreen with my phone number saying we were inside the church.
I was happy for Henstead to be my 200th church: its Norman doorway was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. The interior of the church was strange, inasmuch as the floor appeared to be made of pinkish-red coloured concrete. I’d never seen such a thing, and certainly not in a church. But it was aesthetically fairly harmless, all things considered. And everything else about the church I liked: it had a light, spacious and friendly atmosphere. There was plenty of space near the altar for two cellos, and I was happy to spend what turned out to be three hours rehearsing there. Certainly the longest duet rehearsal of my life…
The rehearsal was intensive, but by the end we both felt much more confident about our approaching concert. We decided to celebrate my 200th church by going out for supper in Beccles, and we made a great discovery: a perfect garden to sit in belonging a dining pub in the centre of town. Despite the perfect weather, we had no trouble finding a table in the pretty garden, and we enjoyed our supper with swifts swooping above our heads.
Header photo: Ashby church