Suffolk churches 11: Snape, Sternfield and Hemingstone (May 2017)

The following Monday I had arranged to meet a friend, Cristina, to visit the Alde Valley Spring Festival at Great Glemham before a rehearsal in Rendham church. I left home in high spirits: I had just heard the tit chicks cheeping in the kitchen ceiling for the first time– the nest entrance was a hole in a wall beam – and the first ox-eye daisies were coming into flower by the driveway.

Unfortunately the morning’s adventures did not start off so well, as neither of us had remembered that the festival was closed on Mondays. Annoyed with myself for not registering this important piece of information when I looked up the website the night before, we came up with an alternative plan to park at Snape Maltings and go for a walk on the marshes – it seemed a promising location to find somewhere to leave my cello for an hour or two.

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Suffolk churches 10: Stoke by Nayland, Nayland, Wiston and Bures (May 2017)

I love the Stour Valley. The steep hills and marshy ground near the river mean that more land is given over to small meadows for sheep and cattle than on the higher, flatter ground where I live. The hills also provide some of the best views in Suffolk. Of course, the river itself is the central draw: over the years I have felt an increasing compulsion to be near water, especially rivers.

As 10th May was my mother’s birthday, I decided that a church tour of the Stour Valley would be a fitting way to celebrate it for her. I also wanted to walk and enjoy the many bluebells– which grow in the hedgerows as much as the woodlands in this area – and so an overnight stay at a remote farmhouse I had discovered near Stoke by Nayland seemed the best and most enjoyable way to do both, especially as the weather forecast was good.

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Suffolk churches 9: Dennington, Sibton and Blythburgh (May 2017)

Since starting my churches tour, I had been longing to get back to Blythburgh church, my first ‘floor church’. I had failed to see the angels on the roof the first time I visited, and now I was curious about them. But, more importantly, although I suspected Blythburgh possessed the best floor of all, I couldn’t remember exactly what it looked like. I had searched online, thinking that someone, anyone, must have noticed the floor as well as the roof, and put up some photos. But no, it seemed I was the only church floor addict. I found a few references to Blythburgh’s ‘brick floor’, but I knew the description was neglectful: it was like calling one of the insane, ancient oaks in Staverton Thicks ‘a tree’. I found a small part of the floor just about accidentally included in a few photos of the church, but not enough to see it properly. These frustrating glimpses only increased my desperation to get back there.

So, on my next free day I set out for northeast Suffolk, with the intention of reaching Blythburgh in the afternoon, after stopping at other churches on the way. I was anxious to practise the cello, having managed very little the previous few days, and I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to practise in Blythburgh church, let alone get out my cello. I had chosen a cloudy, chilly Monday in the hope that it would be less favourable for tourism, but still, it was May, not January, and with the superlatives to be found on the Blythburgh page of the Suffolk Churches website1, I thought I would be lucky to have the building to myself even for five minutes.

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Suffolk churches 8: Clopton, Otley and Ashbocking (May 2017)

It was a little over a week since my walk in Captain’s Wood, and a visit to see the bluebells at Staverton Thicks was becoming more urgent. This time it wasn’t difficult to find an opportunity to combine a walk with church touring: my cello had developed an annoying buzz and I would need to leave it in Woodbridge for half a day to be glued back together. I arranged to drop it off one morning when I had time to continue to the Thicks, only 15 minutes beyond Woodbridge.

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Suffolk churches 7: Buxhall, Shelland and Semer (May 2017)

St Mary’s, Buxhall
The next morning I decided to try some local churches as I was only free until lunchtime. I had passed Buxhall church several times already since starting my project, but for some reason that I cannot now understand, I had been putting off stopping there. Perhaps it was precisely because of ‘passing’: I hardly ever thought of Buxhall as a destination, except occasionally to visit the dining pub, mostly when my parents were still alive, or once to buy a mower, which was not exactly on my list of exciting outings. Today, I decided, that would change.

Buxhall church

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Suffolk churches 6: Chattisham and Washbrook (May 2017)

There is a vet at Copdock, not far from Ipswich, that I like to use when I am not in a rush. As well as being small and friendly, I enjoy the pretty drive from Hintlesham, down a single-track road with woodland, meadows and steep hills. The surgery is in a converted barn on a country lane, difficult to find unless you know where it is.

There is one part of the route that I particularly love, where the road feels very remote and runs through a valley. The summer before last, I found a very large grass snake in the middle of the lane there – the biggest I’d ever seen, and the first in many years. I got out of the car, thinking it was sunbathing, but still it didn’t move. I crouched down to examine it: shiny, soft and in pristine condition, but lifeless. It must only just have died. I could not imagine what had happened – there was not a mark on its body. It bothered me for a long time afterwards: the moment of delight and excitement had turned so quickly to sorrow. Thankfully, the sighting a year or so later of another equally large grass snake, this time slithering off into the bracken at Staverton Park, was all the more joyful for overwriting the earlier memory.

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Suffolk churches 4: Butley, Burgh and Coddenham (April 2017)

Approaching an old church induces a similar effect in me as approaching an old pollard oak. The closer I get, the more my daily preoccupations melt away into insignificance. Touching the tree, climbing into it, or entering the church, I become part of a greater, more worthy existence, no longer a small, flawed individual. In the presence of an immovable, grand and beautiful structure that has stood in this spot for centuries, awe and peace replace racing thoughts and mundane worries. I become aware of the speck that is a human life span. It is a fact often difficult to make peace with, but these giants administer the harsh truth with a large dose of comfort.

There are also historical and structural parallels of course. Hardly a church has not been partially or almost entirely rebuilt since its original construction in medieval or even pre-Domesday times1. A pollard oak, where the tree is cut some two or more metres off the ground and new shoots sprout from the stump or cut branches, often lives longer than a ‘maiden’ uncut tree. A coppice on the other hand, cut at ground level and resulting in a ‘stool’ from which hundreds of new shoots grow, can become gigantic and may live indefinitely, certainly for millennia…

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Suffolk churches 3: Thornham Magna, Burgate and Wortham (April 2017)

I went back up to north Suffolk the day after the Lavenham concert. I was eager to visit other churches in the area, and I had intended to go to Thornham Magna on my first trip, but this was preceded spontaneously by Thornham Parva and I didn’t get round to a fourth. Three churches – fewer than I anticipated – seemed to be a comfortable number to manage in one trip without getting too tired of all the lugging, setting up and packing away, as well as fitting in some meaningful practice between church-gawping and photo-taking.

St Mary’s, Thornham Magna
Thornham Magna churchThornham Magna was my first stop. The church was just down the road from Clay Street, where one autumn I had gone looking for pollard oaks mentioned by Roger Deakin in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, and had found not a single one. The walk was not in vain, however: on following his described walk down the lane (not a street by any stretch of the imagination) and turning off onto a footpath, I did eventually find some huge, extremely impressive and ancient pollard oaks in a patch of tangled woodland which was probably once a medieval deer park.

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Suffolk churches 2: Pakenham, Beyton, Felsham, Polstead and Lavenham (April 2017)

St Mary’s, Pakenham; All Saints’ Beyton and St Peter’s, Felsham
My second outing, just under a week later, took me first to Pakenham church. I had hoped to sit and write for a while by the pond at Pakenham Mill, Suffolk’s last working water mill, but it was Easter Monday, and discovering on arrival that an Easter egg hunt was in progress, the plan seemed destined for failure and so I turned round and headed for the church. I thought I knew where it was but had some trouble discovering its location at first and had to ask directions. It was worth the effort: I found a cruciform church with an octagonal tower and spring-filled churchyard. Wanting to enjoy the sunshine before venturing indoors, I sat on a bench next to a row of flowering cherries, all satisfyingly full of buzzing bees. Both tree and bench were dedicated to Anne Browne, 1962-1987. Everywhere there are people trying to learn to live with death, absence, loss – and in the inexplicable and exhilarating presence of buzzing cherry trees and life exuding from every corner. No wonder there has always been a religion-shaped hole in the human heart.

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Suffolk churches 1: Harleston, Mellis and Thornham Parva (April 2017)

Please note: this blog has no ambitions to provide comprehensive descriptions of Suffolk churches – this work has already been carried out wonderfully by Simon Knott at www.suffolkchurches.co.uk, where you will find further information and photos if you are interested in learning more.

The real decision to start touring Suffolk churches with my cello was, in the end, not really a decision at all. After several weeks of mulling it over, unsure whether it was too unrealistic an ambition even to begin, I discovered suddenly that I had been approaching the idea from the wrong set of circumstances. The question was not would I like to take my bulky, heavy cello on a tour of Suffolk churches (well… not particularly), but rather, if I had to do a lot of cello practice, probably more than I’ve done in 15 years, would I prefer, and be more motivated, to do it at home or in different churches around Suffolk?

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