St Mary’s, Erwarton
Indoor temperature: 13.7˚C, humidity: 79%
For a whole year, Erwarton church had been at the back of my mind: a friend from pottery who lives in Holbrook nearby had offered to take me there. She had mentioned it was one of her favourite churches. Finally I got round to suggesting a date, and on the second attempt we made it happen. I had a friend staying with me, and so the two of us set off for the Shotley peninsula.
I had visited only one church there so far: Tattingstone. I’m not sure why it took me so long to go back. Perhaps because I didn’t fancy tackling the A12 around Ipswich. It was only a short distance, and didn’t involve crossing the Orwell Bridge – which must be my least favourite stretch of road in the whole county due to the scary side winds that sometimes blow over it – but nevertheless it was sufficient to delay my return. There was an alternative option of going through Wherstead, but the smaller roads are windy (of the other kind) and indirect, and I don’t feel confident finding my way. Not to mention the latter associations I have of the area involving locked church frustration and an upsetting encounter at Copdock. But recently I have discovered a third route: to head southeast directly to the Essex border (the Stour estuary) and take a left turn at Brantham. It might take a little longer to reach some churches closer to the Orwell estuary, but I think this is the best solution, especially as I have now found a ‘partner in crime’, a friendly bassoonist with a twinkle in his eye who lives in Stutton, near Brantham, and has offered to join me for duets in the remainder of the Shotley peninsula churches.
Our first architectural surprise and wonder of the day, however, was not Erwarton church, but the house of our tour guide, Suzanne. It was a converted modern brick cattle barn, with one huge downstairs room with polished concrete floor, and an astounding view down the hill towards the Orwell estuary. I felt as though I was in an art gallery, not a house. It was only part of a complex of agricultural buildings, which stretched out both sides of her house. It was impressive. Still, I couldn’t imagine living in a house like this anywhere, let alone in the middle of the countryside. A more contrasting home from my own would be difficult to imagine.
After ‘coffee with a view’, we followed Suzanne to Erwarton. The outside was beautiful, but I was taken aback afterwards when I saw a photo of its colourful exterior on the Suffolk churches website: the differences in light on this November day made the colours look far more monotone.
The interior was not as I expected: somehow I thought if this was Suzanne’s favourite church it might be something like Badley, or Hawkedon, or some other ancient-looking rustic little church. This one was larger and more Victorian than I expected. Walking around the church, however, I started to discover why she liked it: dotted about the walls were 18th century memorials and 13th – 14th century tombstones, all of which made the church feel more ancient than it looked. I was once again impressed by my friend Simon’s historical knowledge (he had last accompanied me to Kettleburgh and Monewden churches): he knew from what the people on the tombs were wearing when they must have been alive. This sort of thing is completely beyond me, and makes me realise all the details I must be missing in every church I visit. Along with the memorials was the myth – story – legend – that the heart of Anne Boleyn, who often visited Erwarton Hall, was buried here.
I sat in the empty chancel to play. I hope it was a bonus for Suzanne, who had expressed surprise (and, I think, pleasure) at the appearance of my cello. ‘But the whole point was to bring my cello’, I replied, equally surprised, as she had been receiving almost weekly updates on my cello-church tour.
Afterwards we finished looking around and then went outside to admire the view over the estuary – and, in my case, the churchyard wall (see header photo) – before continuing on to Harkstead, stopping briefly at the odd-looking gatehouse to Erwarton Hall.
St Mary’s, Harkstead
Indoor temperature: 13.6˚C, humidity: 79%
Harkstead church was lacking its chancel roof, and we couldn’t see much of the exterior of the church beyond the scaffolding and corrugated iron boarding. But the tower more than made up for this – or perhaps the fact it was the only part of the building properly visible made me notice it more. It was a beautiful patchwork of colours and materials.
As soon as we stepped foot in the church, both Suzanne and Simon exclaimed that it was much colder than Erwarton. ‘At least several degrees’, they said when I expressed my surprise. I didn’t think so. Luckily the thermometer was on hand to sort out the difference in opinion. By the end of our stay we found that it was only 0.1˚C colder, which reinforced the conclusion that I had come to long ago: that perception of cold in churches is more to do with us as individuals than actual temperature. My theory was that the church was darker, and therefore it seemed colder.
I have just read that almost nothing of the medieval church remains, and yet this church somehow felt older than Erwarton. I set up in the chancel, and felt like I was sitting on a stage. It reminded me of Haughley, though it wasn’t nearly as high. This time I played two pieces I was preparing for a Remembrance Day event, by Vaughan Williams and Frank Bridge. They were lacking the accompaniment, but I thought they worked relatively well without.
We didn’t spend too long at Harkstead, as we were all hungry and Suzanne had to get home. It was a fun morning, and Simon and I drove back towards the Orwell Bridge to the Suffolk Food Hall for a late lunch. Our plan to visit Freston church afterwards had to be abandoned: time – and daylight – disappeared, as it tends to do in November when you are having a good time.
All Saints’, Honington
Outdoor temperature: 16˚C; Indoor temperature: 14.3˚C, humidity: 71%
A week later, I arranged a day out to visit an animal sanctuary in Norfolk in hope of finding a friend for my rabbit, Dusty. They had a large number of single, neutered male rabbits looking for friends, unlike Wood Green Animal Shelter near Huntingdon that had a waiting list for such rabbits.
On my route was Honington church, near Sapiston where I had played at a funeral in July. Its setting was less idyllic, but the church itself was as lovely as I could have hoped for: before I had finished admiring the flintwork on the porch, I found myself standing in front of a Norman doorway, which Simon Knott describes as one of the best in Suffolk1. Inside was a font – 14th century, I have read – with all sides but one decorated. The final side showed a crucifixion scene.
This was all before I had even looked at the interior as a whole. It was a homely, simple and neat church, with an unusual chancel arch: it was rendered on the nave side. I rather liked it. It was a warm day, and the church was mild. I knew I would enjoy practising here.
Taking a break about half an hour later, I went to write in the visitors’ book and leave a donation in the box. As I was posting my small change through the slot, having run out of £1 coins, the door opened and a man came in.
‘You haven’t come to rob the church then!’ he said. I greeted him and explained I was playing my cello. I asked if he was a church warden. ‘A lay elder’, he replied. Although familiar with the term, I didn’t actually know what it meant, but I didn’t enquire. I have now enlightened myself with the help of the internet. ‘I’ve come to pray,’ he said. ‘You carry on playing, it’ll be lovely’.
I felt a little awkward, but did as instructed after checking he really didn’t mind. Once I sat down to resume playing, something odd happened. I realised I was trying to play as sincerely as I ever had in my life, just as his prayers, I assumed, were sincere. I was trying to honour and respect them through music. It was he who was praying, not me, but I realised that playing Bach in a church was probably as close as I would ever get.
I was reminded once again of Goethe’s saying, ‘Architecture is frozen music’. If the building of a church could be considered one gigantic act of prayer, then it makes perfect sense. It was a moment that has actually changed my view of cello playing, and of my church tour. Or perhaps enhanced and broadened, rather than entirely changed: I think it has opened my eyes to something instinctive that I sensed but didn’t apprehend.
I left around noon to find a café in Hingham before continuing to the animal sanctuary nearby. I spent far longer there than I anticipated, and left an hour later having reserved a rabbit and a lonely rat in need of love and friends. If I had known it might take two months or more for my chosen animals to come to live with me, I might not have gone. But I didn’t know this, and fell in love with a stray rabbit with floppy ears called Malteser, who was curious and friendly. So now I have no choice but to wait for him, and hope that Dusty falls in love with him too.
I stopped at the nearest church to Honington on my way back – Fakenham Magna – but it was locked. Suddenly I noticed the mist coming in, and obeyed my urge to hurry home before I was driving in the mist and the dark.
Header photo: Erwarton churchyard wall