St Mary’s, Preston St Mary
I hadn’t been inside Preston church for perhaps five or six years. As I had become accustomed to in such instances, I could remember the general size and layout of the interior, but none of the details. As I approached the door, I could hear the organ, and feared once again that my 400th church plan for two days later would be thwarted. But I went inside anyway to find out how long the organist planned to stay.
I resumed my winter treasures this year thinking that there were only two or three subjects I had had to leave out in 2018. But as the month of February progresses, I find, again, that I am having difficulty deciding what to include. January brought aconites and snowdrops, and the start of February saw my first violet and periwinkle sightings as well as the first blackbird, thrush and skylark songs, all within 24 hours. The mild winter has brought out the blackthorn already, as well as daffodils and early-spring-flowering plums and cherries. The hawthorn in my roadside hedge is already sprouting, and weeping willows are starting to glow green-yellow. It is easy to trick oneself into thinking March is already underway, but I have no desire to wish away this most unloved month of February. Part of the pleasure is in knowing what lies around the corner, and savouring the hints of something not yet arrived. I wouldn’t want to lose a month of anticipation; nor would I want to lose a month of calm in which to continue my slow but steady and satisfying progress on long-neglected jobs.
So, instead, I am thinking back to December and January afternoons, and choosing a topic that applies to the whole of this season of low sun: the quality of light and shadow on a sunny day. It is glorious in the morning, but the afternoon brings a special orange glow. It is the kind of oblique light chased by artists and photographers, and not easily found in summer, except at sunrise and sunset.
St Peter’s, Baylham
It was another sunny day, and my destination was the road running between Needham Market and Ipswich: a prime location for churches I hadn’t yet visited. I didn’t know what to expect of Baylham; the only thing I knew of it was the Rare Breeds Farm, which was north of the village and on the other side of the railway, so not really in Baylham at all. The main road was as anonymous as I expected, but soon I came to a right turn signposted to the village. The church was up a hill, with stunning countryside views. There is little better than the quality of light on a sunny winter’s day, whether in the morning or the afternoon, and I stood gazing across the meadowed valley for a contented few moments before entering the church.
St Botolph’s, Culpho
After Grundisburgh, I drove down the road to Culpho. It was a pleasant change to find churches all within five minutes’ drive of each other, after my tour of north-west Suffolk before Christmas, which has the most spaced out parishes of the whole county. I have forgotten the reason for this, and haven’t managed to track down the information I once read about it. I also had to look up again the strange village name: apparently it is derived from Old English and means ‘Culf’s spur of land’ – from ‘hoh’, the same origin as the word ‘Hoo’, as in Sutton Hoo and Dallinghoo.
St Mary’s, Akenham
I was due at Akenham church, near Ipswich, to play at a cream tea and evensong on the first Sunday in August. Akenham was a Churches Conservation Trust church, and, I was informed, the evensong services in August are held there, the first of which was always preceded by a cream tea. I managed to rope in Steve to play duets with me during the cream tea; I felt solo Bach was suitable for the service but not for the jollities in the churchyard.
Getting there was an adventure. Despite being almost on the outskirts of Ipswich – only a mile from Whitton – it felt as though it was on a hill in the middle of nowhere. Along the lane before I came to the rough track leading to the church, I passed a tractor and baler that looked like two of the first mechanised pieces of farming equipment to appear in the countryside. They had an amusing charm about them, but looked somewhat impractical for the task in hand. Clearing a field of cut straw is a big job.
St Ethelbert’s, Herringswell
I had delayed visiting Cavenham, north of Bury St Edmunds, as I had spotted Cavenham Heath nearby on the map and wanted to combine my church visit with a walk there: it was a bit too far away to make a separate trip appealing. For nearly the first year of my church tour, having a cello with me made this impractical. This time, however, realising that Cavenham was in fact only fifteen minutes’ drive from my friend Penny’s house in Bury St Edmunds, and that I now had a cello case which I could happily carry on a walk with me, no further delay was necessary. An added benefit of stopping off at Penny’s house for a cup of tea was that she had a map of this small area of northwest Suffolk that I discovered was missing from my collection.
St Andrew’s, Boyton
The following morning I went back to where I had left off, on what Simon Knott – but no one else I have heard – calls the Bawdsey Pensinsula. Boyton was first. Driving around the little lanes of this sandy area of Suffolk is a pleasure: it feels truly rural. This makes sense, of course, as you would never be ‘passing’ on your way anywhere. There is nowhere to pass to. I met only tractors on my journey; thankfully no large ones or the roads would have struggled to accommodate us.
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 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.