It was almost a month since my last church visit. I thought it was simply due to lack of time, but I wonder now whether a reluctance to accumulate more churches to write about played a part. Writing wasn’t flowing, and I was making very slow progress. It was partly my fault: I had failed to write any notes on the churches I visited in Lothingland, and visiting ten churches in three days is a sure way to forget which one is which. I had photos to remind me, but still it was hard going. I have learnt my lesson, and have vowed to make writing up notes a priority, though this in itself is no guarantee of success. Mercifully, however, the flow picked again just before I embarked on my next trip to the northeast, allowing me to resume my tour with unambivalent enthusiasm.
All Saints’, Worlingham
Outdoor temperature: 27.4˚C; indoor temperature: 23.9˚C, humidity: 69%
After considering my accommodation options and being tempted by a shepherd’s hut near Bungay, I eventually settled on a room in Beccles. The idea of not having to drive anywhere for supper in the evening was the deciding factor. I like Beccles very much, for its size, atmosphere, proximity to the Broads and position on a river – and on an unexpected hill, with views over the river into Norfolk from St Mary’s churchyard in the town centre (see header photo). There is also a huge number of churches nearby, providing me with plenty of excuses for future visits.
I decided to try Worlingham church again. I thought there was a good chance I would find it open this time, on a hot day at the end of July. A greater contrast to my previous visit attempt in February I could not imagine: then it rained for two days solid. Today we were in the middle of a heat wave, and it hadn’t rained for nearly two months. Worlingham turned out to be my hottest church visit so far, by several degrees.
There was no live grass left in Worlingham churchyard. The dusty soil, straw-coloured ground and smell of pine trees took me back to Doñana National Park in the south of Spain. I entered the porch, tried the door handle and, happily, the door gave way. The interior of the church surprised me: it was smaller than I expected, and its roof was steeply pitched. I liked it a great deal more than I expected to. Worlingham is more or less a suburb of Beccles, and for some reason I thought this would impact on the character of its church. This isn’t always the case, of course, and it is good to be reminded of this. Simon Knott considers it a church of urban character; I disagree. Perhaps it is because of its small size: for me, not only the Victorian character but the possession of two aisles – making the nave square in shape – are what make a church feel urban.
I continued to drip with sweat indoors. Although it was a little cooler than outdoors, the lack of breeze and increased humidity made it feel just as sweltering, and practising the cello only made the sweat flow more freely. I enjoyed it though, and reminded myself of the novelty of the heat, and how much I would wish for it in the winter. It was twenty degrees hotter than my visit to Great Ashfield church in February.
It was unusual to see an oil painting on the wall of Worlingham church. The notice beneath it explained that it was of the Lych Gate, the memorial to the men of Worlingham who died in the First World War. It was atmospheric, and I rather liked it.
On my way out I met a friendly man who had come to water the plants on his wife’s grave. We chatted, and I listened intently, not only to what he said, but to his accent. It was definitely a Suffolk, not Norfolk, accent, despite our being so close to the Norfolk border. It was music to my ears.
St Peter’s, Weston
Indoor temperature: 25.1˚C
Weston was another church I had tried twice in February without success. In the porch, I remembered, was a sign saying the church was usually open until 5pm, so I thought there was a good chance it might be true in summer, even if it wasn’t in winter.
The rabbits had been busy since my last visit: most of the gravel path was covered in sand, and several large holes were evident beside it. I did indeed find the church open, and I felt a great deal of satisfaction at reducing further the number of churches on my ‘locked’ list.
Weston had other similarities to Worlingham: the churchyard smelled of pine trees, the church looked large from the outside but much smaller on the inside, and I liked it a great deal more than I expected to. It felt less Victorian than Worlingham, but its walls were pristine; it must recently have been decorated.
Weston is in possession of one of the few seven sacrament fonts in Suffolk. I didn’t recognise it as such at the time, though I did admire the font greatly, as well as the wall paintings and some curious bench ends: one at the back of the nave that looked like a thatched cottage, and a dragon and rather scary-looking person in the chancel…
I enjoyed my practice in Weston church; its acoustic was better than Worlingham’s, and practice always seems to improve later in the day when I have been playing for longer.
I surprised myself by enjoying the decorative stained glass in the east window. My best discovery, however, was outdoors. I found a Tudor brick doorway on the south side of the nave, that indoors was blocked and plastered over. It was beautiful in itself, but its appeal was added to greatly by the discovery of a bee’s nest behind it. There was a piece of wood with a hole in it attached to the door, which I couldn’t imagine any possible use for except as a doorway for bees. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but I concluded there was a good chance it had been put there on purpose.
St Peter’s, Brampton
Indoor temperature: 26.1˚C
Having been delayed due to a rather crucial road closure, it was already 1.15pm by the time I arrived at Brampton, and I was due at Westhall at 2pm for a duet rehearsal. I was happy with a short visit, though: the location of the church was not ideal, on a hill beside a sharp bend in a fairly busy road, and I was in no desperate need of further cello practice before the rehearsal.
I found a parking spot and was pleasantly surprised by the extent of the churchyard, given its apparently rather cramped position. I decided to have a speedy picnic lunch outdoors before entering the church and spending all of ten minutes on my ongoing thumb-strengthening efforts, for a baroque sonata by Francoeur. It was time well spent, however: ten minutes of thumb position a day was what had got me to the point where, without developing blisters along the way, I could get through the devilish movements without stopping.
It was a long, thin church, attractive and with a pretty window in the north side of the chancel. My favourite feature was an external one: the very beautiful brick east chancel wall, which I spent some minutes admiring before heading off to Westhall, just down the road.
St Andrew’s, Westhall
Indoor temperature: 23.5˚C
I had been looking forward to Westhall for many months. I knew it was a stunning church, having happened across mentions of it on more than one occasion, and I knew I should go with Will, as he lives there. But I didn’t want it to be a visit in which we were so worried about rehearsal time that I wouldn’t get to enjoy the church properly, which was why I hadn’t suggested meeting there sooner. This seemed the right occasion. I was staying nearby, we were reviving music we had played less than a month previously, and I didn’t anticipate the rehearsal being too long or intense, so there should be plenty of time to look around afterwards.
Before I even reached the church, I was in a state of awe. Not at a sight, but a smell: the overpowering fragrance of lime flowers. The enormous lime tree overhanging the car park was in full bloom, a whole month after my first whiff of the smell a little way further north over the Norfolk border. I was once more astounded by the individual flowering habits of different trees.
The sounds of a cello wafted through the open door, and my awe continued when I entered the church. ‘So this is it!’ I exclaimed to Will in place of a greeting. It was worth the wait. And that was only from first impressions: the character of the interior, the wall paintings and the font that stood in front of me. In my ignorance, I had no idea that medieval fonts were originally painted, and wondered why this one was. It was another of the seven sacraments fonts but even I could tell that it was different to all those I had seen so far, and not only because of the paint. The scenes depicted were elaborate and lively, despite the mutilated faces. I may not understand the stories they depicted, but I could see at a glance that they were stories, unlike the other fonts where I had to peer closely and wonder what I was looking at.
Will took me through the tower archway at the back of the south aisle: it struck me as slightly odd that the tower was off centre – explained by the fact that this was the original location of the church, and the nave was a later addition (see photos in slideshow below). Turning around once inside the tower, we looked at a quite extraordinary Norman arch: it was far larger than the doorway it framed, and on the outer arch were faces. Above it were three further small arches.
There were so many fascinating details it was hard to know which to look at first: the wall paintings, bench ends, rood screen, floor, decapitated figures on the roof, a 17th century tomb with an extremely long-winded brass inscription, a sculpture made from part of a dead elm, and graffiti everywhere: daisy wheels, initials, even a horse – that was a first for me. The tomb lid was covered in rectangular designs resembling Union Jacks, but my research has yielded no clues as to their true identity. If the graffiti post-dates the invention of the Union Jack in the 17th century, it is conceivable that this is what they are; on the other hand they may be some kind of ritual protection mark of which I can find no mention.
When I had satisfied my curiosity and amazement, we sat down to rehearse. Thankfully, as predicted, this rehearsal was a good deal shorter and less intense than our previous one in Henstead church, and within an hour and a half we had finished, leaving me feeling relaxed and with plenty of time to explore at my leisure.
Outdoors was hardly less interesting than indoors: on the west side of the church was another Norman arch – more modest than the interior one – and I found not one but two oak trees growing out of the north side of the church. There was also a cedar in the churchyard growing like an umbrella. The branch formation at the top, though not as impressive as the elm sculpture indoors, was nevertheless wonderful.
I left the church in high spirits, happy with my day out, and even happier that probably for the first time I had found sufficient hours in the day to adequately fulfil all three of my holiday desires: writing, churches (and cello practice), and still with plenty of afternoon left for a walk along the River Waveney before supper. A long-overdue cooling off in the river on the way back was the perfect end to the day.
Header photo: view across the River Waveney from Beccles