I accidentally left my walking boots at Nick’s house, so I went to fetch them the following morning and was easily persuaded to stay for a cup of coffee. I was driving back towards Westleton Heath for a walk afterwards when I saw a sign for Darsham Marshes on my right and changed my mind.
It wasn’t a large nature reserve, so my walk was short, but I was glad to discover it. As I was nearing the end of the loop I met a group of three women looking at something on the ground and talking excitedly. I stopped and asked them what they’d found.
It was otter poo, they told me. ‘It’s not often one meets people getting excited about poo,’ I said. The lady who had identified the droppings held up a piece and put it under my nose: I was slightly taken aback, unsure how I felt about sniffing poo, and certainly never having had any presented to me at uncomfortably close quarters by a stranger before.
She reassured me. ‘It doesn’t smell bad! You can tell they are otter droppings from the smell.’
‘They apparently smell of jasmine,’ one of the other ladies explained. I could only detect a very faint fishy odour, but I was amused by the idea. ‘What a very lucky creature to have poo that smells of jasmine,’ I said, feeling our conversation was getting more surreal by the second. I asked where the path led across the boggy ground, said goodbye and continued on my way.
St Margaret’s, Linstead Parva
Indoor temperature: 5.6˚C, humidity: 75%
I was due at my friend Nick’s house in Sibton Green for lunch, so I looked up churches on near the route from Metfield. I was surprised to discover that Linstead Magna (‘greater’) church has as good as disappeared, but Linstead Parva (‘lesser’) is alive and well. Their names might have suggested the opposite outcome. But this suited me well: I am always more attracted to smaller places and churches.
Pulling up outside Linstead Parva brightened the dreary morning instantly. Only one phrase whirled around in my head as I parked my car and walked up to the churchyard: ‘what a dear little church!’ Simon Knott, I have discovered, also describes it as such, so a dear little church it must be. It reminded me of the diminutive Redisham. I imagine it must be slightly larger – given Redisham’s supposed (and disputed – by me) status as the smallest church in Suffolk – but it was impossible to tell without seeing them side by side, or at least one straight after the other.
Instead of going in search of sunshine this February, I decided in favour of a four-night church-visiting and writing break. I am having no trouble tolerating winter this year; in fact, I am thoroughly enjoying it, so there is no need to escape. I wasn’t really in need of an escape from home, either, but I have learnt to recognise the benefits of a prophylactic holiday: life tends to get very busy from March onwards, with few convenient opportunities after that to take a break until the autumn. For me, now, holidays usually just mean a change of scene and making the time for the important activities that tend to get squeezed when I am busy: church visiting, cello practice, thinking, writing, walking and seeing friends further from home.
I left home at 2pm: later than I intended. It was such a glorious day that, aside from my usual slowness in getting myself and the animals ready, I had to go for a walk before getting into the car. It was a cold, frosty day but the sunshine was warm and bright. I examined my church map and decided to try a couple of churches near the A143 east of Diss: just off my route to Metfield, where I was staying the first night. I couldn’t remember if this was an area with mostly locked churches or mostly open ones, but there were a number of churches along this stretch that I hadn’t yet visited, so I wouldn’t run out of choices.
St Peter’s, Freston
Indoor temperature: 5.3˚C; humidity: 71%
Steve had arranged for us to pick up the key from a member of the Paul family: the owners, Steve told me, of most of this area of the Shotley peninsula. Tessa Paul’s house and garden overlooked over the estuary and pretty countryside, but any potential for envy was instantly dealt a fatal blow by the proximity of the Orwell Bridge and the A14.
Though I didn’t know it until shortly beforehand, I was in for a special treat: my next church visit would be accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra bassoon section.
I had already fixed the date for a church outing with Steve when my friend Joost got in touch to arrange a visit. After discussing a few possibilities, he suggested the Saturday I was meeting Steve, who then mentioned that Joost’s colleague, Dan, was due to pick up his bassoon: Steve had been performing surgery on it. Dan was persuaded to join us for one church in the morning, and I picked up Joost from Manningtree station on the way to Steve’s house, where we all met for coffee.
I set off from home on an absurdly mild Sunday morning in January, intending to visit Flowton church near Ipswich, which I knew to be kept open. I had planned to approach from the west, along the Hadleigh to Ipswich road, until I thought to consult Google maps. I found it was marginally quicker to approach from the north. Though requiring a slightly reluctant change in mindset – driving routes seem to be more of an influencing factor in my choice of destination than I realised – I decided this was actually quite convenient, taking me through an area with several churches I hadn’t yet visited. There was a reason for this, however, apart from the route: I had been led to believe that Offton, Somersham and various other churches nearby were kept locked. After a little online research, I was pleased to discover that this information was only partially correct, and that I ought to have a choice of open churches: Somersham, Nettlestead and Bramford, as well as Flowton.
Holy Trinity, Middleton
Outdoor temperature: 10.9˚C; indoor temperature: 8.9˚C, humidity: 78%
It was another glorious morning. Middleton was the neighbouring village to the south of Westleton, which I had left until now because there were fewer churches in the vicinity, and I had visited most of them already. Today, I only had time for two church visits on my way home. I was looking forward to it: I didn’t know Middleton at all.
So I thought, but when I arrived, it looked familiar: I must have driven through once or twice before. It is odd that I didn’t remember its name, because it is a distinctive and friendly-looking village, with pub, church, and many houses clustered around a village green of just the right size to give a sense of both space and community.
Two days ago I heard of the unexpected death of Mandy, a cellist friend with whom I visited Wenhaston church shortly before Christmas, and whom I last saw on the day of the church visits I have written about below.
I first met Mandy and Nick over five years ago, after an introduction from a friend of my father’s, when we played together in the Lavenham Sinfonia. But our friendship developed more recently, and has been a hugely important part of my last two wonderful years. This has been largely due to my church project. Their encouragement and enthusiasm, as well as joint church visits, have been truly wonderful aspects of my tour. Music, gardens, turtle doves, chickens, Suffolk churches, cello, baking, knitting, books and home grown fruit and veg are just some of the subjects we have chatted about. A borrowed book on my bedside table bears Mandy’s name inside the front cover. How little did I think, even three days ago when I picked it up to start reading it, how poignant a simple glance in its direction would soon become. Arriving at their beautiful cottage in Sibton Green has been the closest I have felt, since my parents died, to the embrace of a safe and affectionate home where I could forget about the outside world for a while, chatting and drinking tea by the fire with a cat stretched out on my lap.
My mind continues to circle round the fact of her death, half baffled, half disbelieving, unwilling to touch it and yet unable to leave it alone. And my thoughts travel constantly to her family, whose pain will be great.
All Saints’, Blyford
Indoor temperature: 8.7˚C; humidity: 78%
From Holton I continued along the road to Blyford: all of the churches were very close together in this area, and it felt good not to have to drive more than than 15 minutes from Westleton all day. I found the church opposite a pub – as it should be, I always think – on a little green at a junction with the main road. It must have been a main road (by rural standards at least) as it was signposted in one direction to Halesworth, and in the other, to Blythburgh. But I was very aware that my unfamiliarity with this area of Suffolk made it feel remote, no matter how much traffic might be passing, or how many people might be visiting the pub. On a Wednesday mid afternoon in December, however, neither the road nor the pub were frantically busy, and mine was the only car parked on the green.
St Peter’s, Wenhaston
Indoor temperature: 11.9˚C, humidity: 72%
I arranged to meet my friend Mandy at Wenhaston church the following morning after a walk on Westleton Common. I had heard a lot about the church and its famous doom painting, though it took me a while to match up the name I was hearing with a name on my church map, due to its pronunciation: Wena-ston, rather than Wen-haston.