St Michael’s, Framlingham On the first Saturday in December, I had an appointment at Framlingham church to play music at their Christmas Tree Festival. They had asked me months in advance, but it wasn’t until a few weeks earlier that I had come up with a suitable plan for providing seasonal, fun ‘background’ music for their event: solo cello music wouldn’t work, nor cello accompanied by piano. Finally, I had an idea: it occurred to me that several cellos might be the answer. Carols are usually harmonised in four parts, and if I could get hold of a book of carols (first port of call: the Hill Music Library, ie. my friend Penny’s house), and two or three other cellists, it might just work out.
I mentioned my idea to a cellist friend, Mandy, and she kindly agreed to play. She managed to rope in an ex-pupil of hers, and Penny gave me not only the music but the contact details of a cello-playing colleague; and, bingo! We had a cello quartet. I had only met one of the players, but I was confident we would have no trouble playing carols together.
St John’s, Elmswell
I heard about the theft of roof lead from Elmswell church from a friend. It happened shortly before Remembrance Sunday, and the rain got in. My friend suggested I contact the church and offer to play the cello there, to help with their fundraising efforts or simply for moral support, and within a couple of days I had fixed with the rector that I would go and play something at a comedy, poetry and music evening which was taking place the following week. It was unrelated to the roof incident, but it sounded fun, and I hadn’t been to Elmswell before.
St Mary’s, Haughley Outdoor temperature: 14.3˚C; indoor temperature: 12.2˚C, humidity 66%
It was a warm day, and I thought I should take advantage of it. Haughley church was one of few churches left within a fifteen minute drive from home, and for some reason I thought it was located some distance along the high street, which isn’t on my usual route to north Suffolk. As soon as I looked at the map, however, I realised that it was in fact at a junction that I pass every time I go through Haughley, and – inexplicably – I hadn’t noticed it. It never ceases to amaze me the things that you see regularly but never see.
All Saints’, Hopton Outdoor temperature: 12.1˚C, humidity: 92%; indoor temperature: 9.3˚C, humidity 56% I could see Hopton church was unusual at first glance: its clerestory – the upper part of the nave with a series of windows – was the only part built of brick. Entering the church, its full glory struck me at once. The roof (see header photo) and clerestory were built in the late 15th century, and paint was only added to the roof in the late 19th century1 – though in the absence of a church guide, I only found out these facts afterwards. The painting was done by the five daughters of the rector at the time. They were braver than I would be.
In the middle of November, a friend, Simon, came to stay. He expressed an interest in visiting some churches with me, and I was delighted. I hadn’t suggested it, for fear of inflicting my personal project on an innocent bystander, but a change from solo outings was certainly welcome. My indecision as to a suitable destination was finally resolved when I remembered the Dancing Goat Café in Framlingham: we would have to go there for lunch, as Simon is a goat fan. (The fact there aren’t actually any dancing goats at the café is neither here nor there, since he could have his fill of such silliness at my house.) There were various churches in the vicinity that I hadn’t yet visited, and a brief search online suggested they were all worth a visit.
St Andrew’s, Kettleburgh Outdoor temperature: 11.1˚C; indoor temperature: 9.4˚C
After sampling the café’s unusual and delicious lunch menu, Kettleburgh was our first stop out of Framlingham. We found the church at the end of a lane, next to a farm. The car park seemed to be a little distance away, so I pulled in at a gateway beside the churchyard to send Simon on ahead with my cello. As I was figuring out how to reverse out without ending up in the ditch, I met two friendly dog walkers, who resolved a doubt of mine regarding the correct pronunciation of the village name: it is ‘Kettle-bruh’. They also assured me that the white geese nearby, which were causing me a little concern due to an incident of intimidation that I had undergone at the beaks of some farmyard geese a few years previously, weren’t within reach of the church car park.
I thought it would be fitting to play in a church or two on Remembrance Sunday. Knowing that many more churches than usual would have services on this day, I used the Church of England’s ‘church finder’ website to look up church services in the local area. Discovering there was an evensong service at 3pm in Little Finborough church, which I had tried to visit once before and found locked, I emailed the rector to enquire whether the church would be open during the day or if I might come after the service. Before long, to my delight, I received a reply saying that if I arrived at 3.45pm I would be able to get in, and as Combs church was not far away, I decided to go there first.
St Mary’s, Combs Indoor temperature: 9.5˚C
I didn’t leave as much time as I should have – or intended to. I didn’t really expect to find Combs church locked on this Sunday, but locked it was. I didn’t have time to go to another church, and I barely had time to go looking for a key – but for want of a better plan, I decided on the latter. I found details of a keyholder on the noticeboard, and though the lady was friendly and helpful, by the time I had found her house in the depths of Combs Ford – as I thought, a separate village from Combs, but apparently a suburb of Stowmarket – and returned to the church, I had only ten minutes in which to play. Photographs would have to wait: at least I had found out that the church was regularly open on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and so I could plan my return visit more easily.
On my second return visit to the Debenham area to take photos of Winston and Debenham, I rectified my previous mistake and executed my photographic duties before going to any new churches. Afterwards I decided to pass by Aspall church, although I had little hope of finding it open, having read the rather discouraging Suffolk Churches site entry. But more often than not, churches that in the past were kept locked, I find open, or at least with a keyholder notice.
Sadly, this church was not one of them. I would go so far as to say it was my only wholly depressing attempted church visit so far. I ended up parking on the edge of a field outside one of the churchyard gates next to a ‘private property’ sign, finding nowhere else to stop, and the only hint that the church might not be derelict was a rug I could see inside the locked porch. There were no notices anywhere to indicate to the visitor that the church was still in use, and the only aspect of my visit that gave me cause to smile was the presence of a colourful flock of chickens making full and joyful use of the churchyard.
Later in the day I managed to find a contact email for the rector of the benefice, and wrote to enquire if the church was still in use. I received a friendly and apologetic reply, and was assured that if I wrote again prior to my next visit, it would be unlocked for me. I was relieved and grateful, but after a few moments’ hesitation, decided I would be neglecting my moral duty if I did not at least suggest that a keyholder notice might be put up on the porch door…
St Andrew’s, Great Saxham Great Saxham church was located to the south of the village on what seemed to be estate land, characterised by plentiful oak trees and meadows with grazing sheep. I found the church itself in a wooded area full of pheasants, a little uphill from the road. A brick wall enclosed both the churchyard and a couple of paddocks beside it, with a rectangular gravelled area that I guessed might be for horse jumping.
It was high time I branched out into west Suffolk, I thought, but I had no idea where to start. Once again, serendipity came to my aid: just a few days earlier, when I was looking up the location of Troston church, a friend asked me if I knew where Denston was. Now that I had a map of Suffolk’s churches stuck to my fridge door, it was much easier to ‘browse’ locations, and to remember to look up places that people happened to mention to me. Although perhaps not the quickest method of finding them – unless you know in roughly which area to look – on this occasion it took me only a few seconds to find Denston conveniently located in the area to the north of Haverhill that I had so far entirely neglected. Even better, the short entry for Denston in Cautley’s book, Suffolk churches, led me to expect wondrous things. It was just the hook I needed to draw me into an area of Suffolk I didn’t know at all.
A friend lent me an article about the medieval graffiti in Troston church, which I had been reading with great interest without actually knowing where Troston was. For weeks I had been meaning to look it up, but remembering this and being in a convenient location to do so didn’t coincide until I put up a photocopied map from Cautley’s Suffolk churches on my fridge door, showing all but a few churches in the corner north of Lowestoft that belong to the Diocese of Norwich. I found Troston in the north of the county, not far from Ixworth. It was one of several areas that I had not been to at all – in fact, I had barely crossed the A143 between Bury and Diss, not realising how much of Suffolk existed there, at the western end at least. So, on my first proper day off in more than two weeks, I was excited to have a pressing reason to do so.