St Lawrence’s, Lackford
I had once been to Lackford Lakes, and once to West Stow Anglo-Saxon village and country park, but that was the extent of my knowledge of this area north of Bury St Edmunds. When I was asked to give a concert in Lackford church by a member of the audience at Dalham, I was even more delighted than usual by the prospect: in the afterglow of that wonderful occasion, I felt I could never have enough of them.
Arriving at Lackford church was hardly less exciting than arriving at Dalham: turning off the main road and driving through a modern housing estate didn’t raise my hopes, but I soon emerged into open countryside with pretty views, and a perfect location in which to enjoy the late summer sunset.
As I got out of my car, I realised I had left my ‘handbag’ at home (in inverted commas because it is an accessory nowhere near as elegant or lady-like as the bags I would normally associate with such a description). I am not entirely sure how I managed it, but thankfully, as I was already wearing my glasses for the purposes of driving, and I had a separate bag containing everything I needed for the actual concert, I was missing nothing crucial. The only inconvenience was that I had left my camera at home so as not to add to my concert baggage, intending to use my phone for the purpose.
The church was pretty, welcoming, and had a good acoustic. I was coming to enjoy these village concerts more than any other, with sizeable audiences drawn from community, friends and family, and everyone always smiling and happy to have an excuse to gather together in their under-used, beautiful historic church, and hear it filled with music. Even one of the faces on the wall seemed pleased. A kind churchwarden, John, lent me his phone to take pictures.
I hadn’t planned to play a Bach suite at Lackford, but a last minute change of accompanist forced a last minute change of programme. Bach is the most difficult of any music I would play at a village church, and I had hoped to avoid it on this occasion – simply because with so many concerts to give, one sometimes feels the need to opt for an easy life when it is available. And this time, I was in the middle of preparing a different and extremely challenging programme for a recital in three weeks’ time. But it couldn’t be helped, and churches are, after all, the best places to play Bach suites.
The concert was thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting. At the end, a lady approached us with a bottle of wine and a bunch of flowers – as had happened so many times over the summer. I laughed, willing her to break with gender convention and hand the flowers to John, my stand-in accompanist, and the wine to me. Of course she didn’t, and I vowed to myself that on the next such occasion I would do a swap then and there. It would raise a laugh, I’m sure, though I might worry a little about causing embarrassment to those who had bought them. I am not a die-hard feminist, but I like to challenge the status quo once in a while…
At Dalham, the concert organisers had told me my cousin was their daughter’s godmother; here, I met an old friend of my aunt’s. James, my accompanist at Dalham, had also met a lady of retirement age who told him his father used to play the piano at her ballet lessons in Surrey when she was a little girl. These sorts of coincidences happen so frequently now that I am no longer surprised by them. But I still find them curious, and fun: the intricate networks of acquaintances and relations spread far and wide.
I decided to come back the following week to visit other churches in the area. I liked the feel of it. Lackford Lakes would also have to be put on my list for a return visit…
St Catherine’s, Flempton
Outdoor temperature: 20˚C; indoor temperature: 19.5˚C, humidity: 68%
As I had arranged with myself, a few days later I set out for the Lackford area again to visit some other churches. The first one I tried was Hengrave, not realising this was no longer open to the public: the Suffolk Churches entry was long out of date. However, finding no signs nor an obvious way to get to the church, which was within the grounds of Hengrave Hall, I continued along the main road and reached Flempton church soon after.
I wasn’t sure where to stop, so I turned right at the churchyard and followed the road round to a pub car park at the back of the church, opposite an attractive old village green that seemed not to have reached the twenty-first century – apart from the cars, of course. I went to check if the church was open, and see if there was anywhere closer to park. Since there was no back entrance into the churchyard, parking nearer the main road junction seemed a better (and more legal) option. I left the pub car park with a lasting souvenir of my visit to Flempton: I reversed into the low brick wall enclosing the car park. I am coming to the conclusion that man-made obstacles below windscreen height ought to be banned. Not all of us have the mod-cons of camera screens on the dashboard or warning beeps… although, I am assured by friends who do have them, they are no guarantee against reversing collisions.
But such things don’t worry me much. A car, to me, is simply a functional machine, to be used until it is worn out, and I have no particular concern over the aesthetics beyond colour and basic design. It seems to worry other people more, and I am frequently asked what happened to the rear corner and light of my car. I reversed into an oak tree in the Bradfield Woods car park. That obstacle was visible in the rear view mirror. I just wasn’t looking in the right place.
Flempton was, strictly speaking, Flempton-cum-Hengrave, I was informed by a sign, which made me suspicious that Hengrave was now out of circulation. But this joint parish was in fact created centuries ago, after the Reformation, when the Catholic Hengrave church became a private chapel, followed by a school and then a convent1.
I admired the entrance door with its intricate carvings – the mid-14th century (though much restored) originals, I later read2. Indoors, I am ashamed to admit the wealth of stained glass was beyond my appreciation abilities, and apart from enjoying the shape and feel of the church, I found little to encourage me to linger after I finished practising. My practice was productive, however, and I was able to concentrate on my challenging recital programme, since the change in programme at Lackford meant that my next concert, at Wattisfield the following weekend, would be an exact repeat.
St Martin’s, Fornham St Martin
Indoor temperature: 19.2˚C, humidity 70%
I had a friend in Fornham St Martin who played in the National Youth Orchestra with me. Sometimes we would share lifts to the orchestra courses, and so I visited her house a few times. I remember, in my ignorance, being surprised by the modern and (let’s face it) ugly brick houses built in rural villages. That was more than twenty years ago. My overriding experience of Suffolk villages until then was of pretty old thatched cottages and village greens. What I didn’t realise was that most of the modern housing estates (of which there are many more now than there were then) are hidden away out of view.
Since moving to Suffolk in 2011, I have thought of Fornham St Martin basically as a suburb of Bury St Edmunds. It isn’t, in fact, but I imagine it soon could be. The road layout in the area has changed completely in recent months, and new housing developments are underway. Now I am a little less naïve, and realise how privileged I am, I have a more ambivalent attitude towards such matters. Nevertheless, I was relieved to find myself in no doubt that I had arrived in a village, once I pulled up outside the pub next door to the church.
I loved Fornham St Martin church even before I got out of the car, because I could see a ‘church open’ sign beside the road. It is rare that I can unload my equipment straight away and walk up to the church in the happy knowledge that I will be able to get inside.
Entering the church was no disappointment either: after passing through a handsome brick porch, I was met by a sea of colourful kneelers propped up on the shelves in front of the pews. The church was less victorianised and more interesting than I expected. Its pleasant acoustic I expected even less: despite the south aisle (this much was Victorian) and square shape, the sound resonated through the building, and as a result I prolonged my practice here.
As I was packing up to leave through the chancel door, as instructed by the keyholder who had come to lock up, I met a churchwarden entering to fetch a ladder from the back of the nave. He, David, had heard about the concert at Lackford and started to chat to me about the musical events of the church, concluding that if I would consider giving a concert there, the village would be very pleased. We exchanged contact details and I went outside to take photographs.
I left for home in good spirits, waving to David who was now up the ladder mending the church noticeboard.
When I got home, I emailed the contact I found for Hengrave Hall to enquire after its church. It was privately owned now, I was informed. But my friend Penny had performed there more than once, so I decided not to give up so easily. I explained what I was doing and asked if concerts were ever given in the church, or if it might be possible to make an appointment to visit with my cello; if not, then I would cross the church off my list. The response came back again that it would not be possible as it is privately owned.
Well, I thought, I can now remove Hengrave from my list with a clear conscience. But I also felt there was some lack of imagination and good will in such a response. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have music played at your private church? Or if someone had a particular reason to want to visit it, would you not be willing to allow them in? As my friend, Mark, pointed out to me, if somebody asked to come and play music in my summer house, which is little more than an open-sided thatched hut (for some unimaginable reason – this is entirely theoretical, you understand), I might think they were a little odd, but, all else being equal, I would almost certainly say yes, as long as they weren’t proposing heavy metal. And we are not talking about thatched huts; we are talking about a unique, historic building of Saxon origin, and the only medieval Catholic church in Suffolk. I suppose it is possible they are inundated with requests to see it, but I hardly think this likely. My only hope now is to find a way to be asked to play at a posh wedding there (or funeral, according to their website) some time in the future. I am already mulling over the idea of a surreptitious county-wide campaign…
Header photo: Sunset at Lackford church