All Saints’, Stansfield
Outdoor temperature: 21.9˚C; indoor temperature: 20.4˚C, humidity 68%
Logistics had to play a part in my outing today: I was soon going on holiday and realised that there would be no further convenient opportunities to get to the farm supplies shop in Lavenham to stock up on animal food and bedding. Most churches in the southern part of west Suffolk are reached from my house through Lavenham, and so my destination was decided.
I always feel that I am entering the wilds of Suffolk when I cross the Sudbury to Bury road at Bridge Street, a semi-village a few miles beyond Lavenham. I’m sure it’s mostly because I was entirely unfamiliar with this area before I began my church tour; but it cannot only be that. With its rolling hills and quiet villages, it is a part of Suffolk that seems barely to feature on a map. I expect tourists, foreigners and non-local traffic are rarely seen in this part of the county. For me it has been a wonderful discovery. The landscape is unique, and most if not all of the churches I have visited have surprised me with their charms. Simon Knott suggests that, being a poor, agricultural area, there was not much money around in Victorian times to be lavished on church restorations. What a relief.
I found Stansfield locked, but the keyholder was just across the road. I went out to meet him and he followed me back towards the church. As I took a slight detour to my car, explaining that I needed my cello, he followed me and peered through the window, asking what I had on the back seat. Chicken and goat food, I told him, in the midst of explaining what the cello was for.
‘It’s good to meet a true eccentric’, he said as we walked up the church path.
‘Yes, I can definitely claim that for myself’, I replied, laughing.
He opened up for me and left. He would certainly win the prize for the jolliest keyholder so far.
There was the most marvellous smell outside, and I looked around to find its source. There was no sign of a lime tree, and even if there was, it shouldn’t be in flower in the middle of September. I couldn’t see any other shrub or tree in blossom, so eventually I was forced to abandon my urge to identify and instead simply enjoy the mysterious fragrance for a few moments before entering the church.
The interior was simple and bright, with a few interesting features: two old wooden chests, a consecration cross on the wall, an attractive pulpit and a rather odd font. It looked like its corners had been hacked off and then what was left placed on columns that seemed to be trying to compensate for the battered font. The font itself is apparently late 13th century, and the marble columns Victorian1. At what point between those times the font was so abused is not clear.
It was the kind of church in which I most enjoy practising: the surroundings and generous amount of sunlight meant that even on a sunny warm day such as this I didn’t feel overly deprived by being indoors. And my encounter with the jovial keyholder made my visit as much as the church did.
All Saints’, Wickhambrook
Indoor temperature: 19.2˚C, humidity 72%
I have come to the conclusion that the churches I find most frustrating are the ones that have a sign outside saying they are open every day (sometimes even giving their opening hours), raising your hopes and then dashing them as soon as you try to turn the door handle. Sometimes of course there is a reason why the church is locked that day: keyholder illness, for example, or another unforeseen difficulty. But usually, I have found, it is generally no longer kept open, and no one has bothered to remove or change the sign.
Wickhambrook was one such church. There was a detailed map with keyholder locations, however, which I was grateful for. The description often provided, ‘opposite the church’, is not always as helpful as you might think: churches don’t always face the road, and sometimes there is more than one ‘main’ entrance to the churchyard. I was pleased to discover that the nearest key was at the house next door, and also reassured to have company: a villager who’d come to retrieve a flower arrangement she’d made for the church. I thought it odd that she at least wouldn’t know where a key was to be found, but her presence gave me more incentive to be successful in my key hunt.
Luckily the keyholder next door was home, and seemed happy to come and open up for us. I enquired about the notice stating the church was open every day. She gave me a vague answer involving ‘discussions underway’ and ‘theft’, but it was clear from her response that the church was kept locked, and had been for some time.
Any lingering annoyance I felt on the subject was instantly dismissed from my mind when I entered the church, especially as the keyholder had said I could drop the key back when I’d finished, so I knew there was no rush. It was as thoroughly lovely as its exterior and porch details had led me to suspect. ‘One of the less interesting churches in the area’ was Simon Knott’s verdict. I suppose such might be the case for those only interested in specific historical features, or if you want to compare it to the likes of Denston and Hawkedon; but I prefer to take churches on their own terms. And in my opinion, there was nothing lacking in the interest department: its floor, memorials, graffiti, whole names engraved on the columns, holy water stoup in the porch, and simple, bright chancel were all very much to my liking. Although the church had two aisles, the acoustic was good, and the prospect of being left to practise at my leisure was a pleasant one.
Afterwards I read about the Saxon flintwork in the north east corner of the north aisle, and I went outside to examine it. But I am too ignorant to identify such things, and will just have to take it on faith that such an old part of the building still remains.
On the south side of the church I found something else that I had never seen before, and was just as exciting to me as Saxon flintwork: owl pellets. I didn’t really know what owl pellets looked like, but I thought there was nothing else they could be. They were oval, silvery, dessicated pellets containing a large quantity of shiny black beetle exoskeletons. The owl must have had a favourite perch on the church, as there were a number of them. At first I was worried that the owl was going hungry, and had to settle for eating insects, but when I got home and set about identifying which owl they belonged to – if such a thing were possible – I soon realised they were likely to be little owl pellets, which do eat mostly beetles in the summer months. Shortly after that, however, I realised that little owl pellets could be easily confused with kestrel pellets. This was no less surprising, as I had no idea kestrels ate so many beetles. The detailed descriptions of the pellets or where one would find them did not help me choose between the two, so I gave up in favour of asking around for a local bird enthusiast who might be able to identify them for me.
I dropped back the key, glad that I’d managed to get into two locked churches today with relatively little trouble, and left for nearby Stradishall.
St Margaret’s, Stradishall
Indoor temperature: 19˚C, humidity 73%
Stradishall was also locked. This time I had to drive to retrieve the key from a nearby farm; but I was grateful to have reached someone on the phone.
‘Ours is a poor church I’m afraid – there aren’t many people to look after it’, the lady said as she handed me the key.
I had already had time to admire the timber porch and door before I went to fetch the key, and on returning and opening the chancel door, I was baffled as to why she had apologised. I found only a beautiful old church with many historical features. It certainly needed some fresh air – it smelled strongly of damp and the stonework was greening in many places – but that was the only indication that this might not be a well-used, well-loved church. It was clean and tidy; a little on the dark side compared to my other church visits that day, but otherwise just as I like rural churches to be. I found wall paintings, parts of the old rood screen, well-graffitied pillars, a pretty font and a simple roof and brick floor.
The acoustic was also wonderful. I was glad I had made the effort to get inside, and that although I had found all three churches locked today, I hadn’t had to walk away from any of them.
Header photo: Wall painting in Stradishall church