There was another benefit to staying away an extra night: I was on the cusp of reaching 300 churches, which I had arranged with myself I would achieve by 11th April, the second anniversary of the start of my church tour. Having an extra day to visit churches now, a week earlier, meant I might reach the milestone sooner. There was no rush, of course, but I was excited about the prospect. I was on 296 and wasn’t completely sure I would manage 4 churches that day, but I would try. If I was successful, I would also have covered nearly all the churches on the Felixstowe peninsula; at least, all the villages, if not the town itself and its suburbs.
All Saints’, Waldringfield
Indoor temperature 9.7˚C, humidity 77%
Having established that our best option for lunch was the pub in Waldringfield, I met my friend Nick at Waldringfield church with a plan to visit two churches in the morning and go for a walk in the afternoon, if the weather was amenable. It was a chilly, grey day, and I had warned Nick he would have to suffer more cello practice than music: sometimes there is little resemblance between the two. But he wasn’t put off.
We went to look at the view from the churchyard first, which Nick had read was one of the church’s best features. At first I doubted there would be any view, so enclosed by trees were we. Reaching the east end of the churchyard, however, the landscape opened out over the Deben estuary. It was satisfying to become better acquainted with two estuaries in one trip.
St Ethelbert’s, Falkenham
Indoor temperature: 10.8˚C, humidity: 72%
The perfect weather wasn’t expected to continue, but the sun was still shining when I got up, so I took advantage of it. My afternoon’s walk the previous day was so delightful that I decided to do the same walk again but in reverse.
Afterwards I drove through the suburban Trimleys near Felixstowe to reach narrow country lanes leading to the villages on the Deben side of the peninsula. My first stop was Falkenham,. It was an odd little church, with a grey brick nave and no chancel to speak of. But I liked its diminutive size, view over the estuary and lovely acoustic. Already the sky was gloomy, but it soon brightened up sufficiently to improve the light inside, and I was glad: not for the first time, the light switches had eluded me.
St Martin’s, Nacton
Outdoor temperature: 11.9˚C; indoor temperature: 15.8˚C, humidity: 56%
I had booked two nights away at the beginning of April in an area of Suffolk that I barely knew: the Felixstowe peninsula. I hadn’t visited a single church there. It was an idyllic spring morning, and driving to Steve’s house accompanied by sunshine, blackthorn blossom, daffodils and one of my favourite Mozart piano concertos was almost too much for me. Heaven is on Earth, if only we would stop long enough to realise it.
Despite my best efforts to be punctual, the daffodils outside my front gate had distracted me on departure and I was 1.5 minutes late for coffee at Steve’s house. We both exclaimed this simultaneously when he opened the door. It was an ongoing joke between us, after he told me early on in our acquaintance that coffee was served at 11, which I found – perhaps unreasonably – hilarious. ‘Do you have a butler?’ I responded.
All Saints’, Laxfield
A windy but delightful walk with Nick at Covehithe a week later redeemed my failure to explore the area on the day of my concert. I was introduced to the coastal plant ‘Alexanders’ – a strange name in both its first and last letters (a capital A, and an ‘s’, even in the singular). Nick told me its name, and I told him it was edible, having heard it mentioned in the context of foraging. I couldn’t remember enough about its edibility to suggest picking some; but now, having done my homework, I will certainly not walk past it again without doing so.
Our walk was followed by a heavenly vegetable lunch at Darsham Nurseries café, and then we decided on Laxfield for an afternoon church visit, after passing by Nick’s house to pick up my cello. I had driven through the village various times, but it always seemed to be late afternoon or early evening when I had run out of stamina and wanted to get home. It had obviously never made enough impression on me to include it in my day’s plans, probably because it was in the centre of the village and looked large, with a cramped churchyard, none of which qualities particularly attract me. But this is simply because I’ve been spoilt with tiny and remote churches. In the grand scheme of England’s church settings, Laxfield’s is a lovely one, and its interior soon had me feeling ashamed of my prejudices.
St Mary’s, Stratford St Mary
After a weekend of rehearsing a challenging cello duet programme, I managed to persuade my sister, Sheida, into a brief stop off on her way home, to play in a church with Steve and me. The plan was to meet at East Bergholt, but although I had made sure it was open and there were no services that afternoon, it hadn’t occurred to me to check for events. On arrival, I saw a banner outside the churchyard advertising a concert that day, but it didn’t say at what time. Then I found a message from Steve on my phone saying there was a rehearsal already underway for a concert at 4pm.
I was annoyed with myself for the oversight, but at least there was another church close by: Stratford St Mary. Reaching it involved a one-junction run on the A12; and there it was, only a few seconds from the turn-off. Its tower is a Suffolk border landmark, a welcome sight from the main road. But this proximity benefits only the A12, not the church. Still, the fields behind the churchyard and a farm shop and café next door made its location feel more pleasantly rural than it might otherwise have done.
St Peter’s, Monk Soham
On the first Saturday in March I was due in Covehithe church for an evening concert. For this trip I had a travelling companion – Maureen from Monks Eleigh – whom I had warned in advance that I was planning to visit another church on my way there. Covehithe was nearly as far away from my house as it was possible to get without leaving the county, and I wanted to take advantage of the journey. She wasn’t put off, so we set off together in the middle of the afternoon.
St Michael’s, Woolverstone
Outdoor temperature: 14˚C; indoor temperature 10˚C, humidity 78%
It was a glorious February afternoon when Steve and I headed to Woolverstone, the only remaining church for us to visit on the Shotley peninsula. I had forgotten it was in the grounds of Ipswich High School for Girls, and couldn’t quite believe what I saw: it was the estate of a country boarding school, not a day school, and certainly not one bearing the name of Ipswich. A greater contrast to Ipswich School, the other private secondary school in Ipswich itself, was hard to imagine.
Mandy’s funeral was fixed for the following week in Darsham church. It wasn’t many weeks since I was there playing in a cello concert she had organised. Darsham was just down the road from Westleton, where I was staying, and I thought it would make things easier if I paid the church a visit in advance, to check the acoustic and to have time alone in the space where I would be doing my utmost to play perfectly for her and her family.
The following morning was perfect and un-forecast. It was a day for walking in the marshes, and I set off for Blythburgh. Without any thought beforehand as to whether I would go inside the church – I had visited on a few previous occasions, the last accompanied by my cello – I found when I arrived that I had to. It is impossible to walk past such a building.
It was no less bright than on the May afternoon of my last visit. I sat down on the step of the font and absorbed my surroundings. This might be the only building I know that the same effect on me as a beautiful outdoor landscape. If any church could make me believe in God, I thought, this was it.