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.
13/1/2018 By the front pond is a giant crack willow. The tree is magnificent; and its magnificence is greatest in winter. The twigs turn bright orange and its luminous canopy is the highlight of my garden on a sunny winter’s day. I watch it with curiosity every spring, thinking, surely its twigs can’t actually change colour; it must be an illusion created by the branches becoming gradually invisible beneath the growing leaves. But I swear that as soon as the buds start to break, the twigs lose their glow.
Friends and tree surgeons have all expressed their concerns about this tree and have urged me to either have it cut down completely, or pollarded. One large branch has already snapped off, a few years ago in a gale, and every time a new storm arrives I go outside the next morning to check it is still in one piece. Pollarding is a more acceptable option to me (in any case, cutting it down ‘completely’ would only turn it into a labour-intensive coppice), but despite the perennial anxiety it causes me, I cannot yet bring myself to lay a hand on its splendour.
6/1/2018 Staverton Thicks is one of two places in Suffolk that I like best in winter. Part of the reason may be that my first visit was in December, and the memory of that exhilarating discovery will always stay with me. But there is also a stillness about it in winter. It is not just that fewer people walk there, as I have barely ever encountered anyone in Staverton Thicks, at any time of year. Rather, the stillness is of a wood in hibernation.
The main reason for my preference, however, is that its beauty lies greatly in its quality as a quite extraordinary, walk-in, living sculpture. Its shapes can be appreciated better in winter when the ground and the branches (apart from holly) are bare: more light reaches the woodland floor, and the tall, dense bracken has died back, allowing a clear view of the weird and wonderful forms to be found everywhere in this truly unique woodland.
I knew that St Stephen’s Chapel wouldn’t officially count towards my church total – perhaps because it was built as a private chapel – but I was determined to include it nevertheless, for its ancient atmosphere and unique setting. Located near the Essex border at Bures, it was consecrated in 1218 by the Archbishop of Canterbury and lies nearly half a kilometre from the nearest road, on the western edge of the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is also believed to be the site where the coronation of King Edmund took place in 8551, which makes me wonder why it was dedicated to St Stephen and not St Edmund2.
It was the day of our tour of four west Suffolk churches in the Glem valley benefice. The tour had come about through Jane and Erica, musical residents of Hartest: they had heard about my church project through friends, and contacted me to express an interest in assisting me on my journey. After some discussion, we settled on an early September fundraising concert in Hartest church. Various obstacles, however, conspired to delay the concert until the following spring, so, wanting to make the most of the warm and long summer days in the interim, we decided to visit the remaining four churches in the benefice. Before long we had fixed a date, timetable, and picnic lunch location. Will kindly agreed to come along and play duets with me, to make the music on offer more varied and fun, and allow us a practice run of the pieces we were going to play in a concert two days later.
St Mary’s, Edwardstone
I always wondered where the grand brick gateway led, on the bend of a country lane apparently in Edwardstone, wherever Edwardstone is. I have recently somewhat tentatively concluded that perhaps Sandy, my pottery teacher, lives in the middle of the village. Although her house is next to the mobile home-like village hall, it is one of just a handful of houses at a three-way junction of small lanes, which I reach after passing a sign to tell me Edwardstone is in this direction, but none to inform me that I have arrived.
I have found myself increasingly referring to the Suffolk churches website in advance of my church visits, to find out whether I might find a church open or locked. At the beginning of my tour, it wasn’t so important: if one church was locked I could simply carry on to the next, which was unlikely to be more than five minutes’ drive away. I have tended to use local churches for convenience, on days when I am busy, so, as my list of local churches diminishes and I have to travel further to visit new ones, it is becoming useful for planning purposes to know in advance if I am likely to be able to get in.
I scan the first paragraph or two of the church entries as quickly as possible to find the information I’m looking for, trying not to notice much else, in order to see them with fresh eyes when I visit and not to be swayed by what other people deem to be interesting features. This of course means that on some occasions I have missed features that I would like to have seen. But I would rather return later, than to have my first impressions unconsciously dictated by someone else.
A pattern that has started to emerge in my search for opening information is that the majority of churches Simon Knott has found locked in the past are now regularly open. Whatfield is one such church. And there has been only a single example of the reverse: Lindsey. It seems to me a positive, hopeful pattern, suggesting that attitudes towards churches and their role in the community are changing for the better.
My plan to go north once more to visit Yaxley and Thrandeston churches via Gislingham was not entirely without ulterior motive: I would pass Thornham Parva on my way. I was itching to revisit that little treasure now that my ‘church eyes’ were sharper, and I was also on the hunt for a gravestone: I had found out not long before, by one of those curious coincidences, that one of my first cello teachers was buried there.
As I drove through Suffolk, I noticed the unmistakable yellowing of the countryside that had begun only in the last week. I was pleased by this confirmation that my chosen calendar, the astronomical rather than meteorological, was the more accurate one to follow: summer, as far as I am concerned, begins on the solstice. Of course, the reality is that seasons are constantly on the move and there is no sudden beginning or end to any season. In one year of early heat and dryness summer might seem to begin in May, and in another, it might seem to begin in July.
At the start of my churches tour, I discussed writing about it with Kim, a friend in Butley, who kindly agreed to read the first few instalments before I put them up on my website. She responded positively, and likened the project to travel writing about tours of England on horseback: an unusual way to explore the country, creating novel perspectives and adventures, but bringing its own demands and limitations to the journey.
The image appealed to me. Although the cello wasn’t alive, nor a mode of transport, it came to life in churches once I started to play, in turn making the churches come to life. It made me realise that, in contrast to Kim’s positive associations, the project conjured up for me a book I had once heard serialised on the radio about a man who hitchhiked around Ireland with a fridge. It was telling – and I don’t think the image originated purely with my white cello case. I decided then that I would make more effort to see my cello in terms of what it added to my explorations, rather than as an encumbrance.
Soon after my walk along the Alde estuary from Snape, I fixed a date to visit Iken church with my friend Mark, as I had promised not to go there without him. I very nearly left my cello at home, feeling it was an uncomfortable companion for a hot day out with another person and Bob the dog. But, in the end, it seemed to me the cello was the whole point: the idea of the trip originated with the cello, Mark had asked to come when I was going to play there, and I was reluctant to miss a day’s practice in the run up to my recital. So along it came.
St Botolph’s, Iken
Iken church looks isolated as you approach it along the estuary footpath, or even along the road, but once you reach it, it doesn’t feel very remote. There is a small settlement around it, and even a sophisticated roadside stall selling water, jam and other disparate consumables.