Crippling indecision and a pile of chores had turned my intended four days’ break into barely two, and I left home in a bad mood. I was going to Westleton, near the coast, as the accommodation options for other destinations I’d considered had gradually dwindled the longer I dithered, and somehow I found my cello once again in the passenger seat. It was an easy opportunity to arrange a cello duet rehearsal on my way home, as Will, the other cellist, lives not too far from Westleton. Still, church visiting was otherwise not amongst my plans.
All Saints’, Saxstead
Passing through Saxtead proved too much of a temptation: I had missed the church on a few occasions because I spotted the sign too late. This time I was prepared: I remembered in time to look out for it and take the turn down the driveway. It wasn’t until I walked up to the churchyard gate that I realised, to my surprise, that the church didn’t have a tower. From the road, and even from the car park in front of the gate, the view was almost entirely obscured by trees.
There is a signpost not too far from where I live which points to Thurston and Drinkstone. It caused me much hilarity when I was a child. I felt perhaps I should visit their churches consecutively – Thurston first of course – to keep their logical pairing. But they are not adjacent villages, so in the end practicality dictated that I should abandon my childish word games. Tostock seemed a fitting companion for Drinkstone, lying only a couple of miles further north, on the far side of the A14.
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.
St Peter’s, Lindsey
One Saturday afternoon I arranged to meet my friend Mark at Lindsey church, as he had requested to accompany me when I went there. I arrived first and found it locked, without a keyholder name or phone number in sight. It would certainly have been occasion for the echoed cry of despair, ‘where in God’s name is the key to this church?’ (see Onehouse church) if there had been a porch noticeboard to write it on. But there was nothing. The notices by the road were locked behind glass, and contained no useful information about how one would go about taking a look inside what I’d been led to believe was a very singular church indeed.
St John’s, Onehouse
I had tried to visit Onehouse church the day I went to Buxhall and Shelland, with forewarning from the Suffolk churches website that I might find it locked. ‘Where in God’s name is the key to this church?’ was a despairing handwritten note Simon Knott had found on the noticeboard. But there was no need for me to leave a new note: I found a list of churchwardens with phone numbers – an adequate substitute for a list of keyholders. It was the end of a morning’s outing and by the time I found the church down a pot-holed track well outside the village, I had run out of energy to make phone calls or wait around, so I decided to arrange a visit another time.
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.
St Lawrence’s, Little Waldingfield
One blustery Saturday, cello practice was overdue and I wanted to get out of the house, but the idea of visiting a church or two for both purposes was not specific enough for my indecisive state of mind. The only sufficiently compelling destination I could think of was Gestingthorpe, a village beyond Sudbury and just over the border into Essex, where I had been told a medieval kiln firing was taking place that afternoon. I had never heard of such a thing, though my friend Mark assured me it was a fairly regular event. So, being a fan of pottery, I decided to go along and see for myself. The first church along the route that I hadn’t yet visited was Little Waldingfield. If I had the time and desire, I thought, I could afterwards continue on to Great Waldingfield and Acton, although I wasn’t sure how many of them I would find available on a Saturday afternoon at the end of June, when there is often a flurry of weekend village events.
St Peter’s, Cretingham
It was the day of the Cretingham ‘Peace Bell’ fundraising event (see here, first section). I couldn’t remember exactly what the fundraising was for, only that – obviously – it had something to do with church bells. I was excited to be visiting a church to perform at a community event: this was my first such church visit since the start of my tour.
The churchyard was adorned with pretty hanging bells made of board and decorated by residents of the village. I discovered fewer people than bells in the churchyard, but their welcome was warm. The organisers seemed worried on my behalf that there were so few people, as the previous day had been busy, but I assured them it didn’t matter, especially as I wasn’t expecting a ‘sit down’ audience.
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.