St Peter’s, Creeting St Peter
It was a beautiful afternoon when I drove to Creeting St Peter church, which had been left open for me. It took me a while to find it: for a church so near both Stowmarket and the A14, it was well hidden away.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of the acoustic: the church was crowded and dark. But I found a ray of sunshine at the front of the nave and set up there, and found the acoustic beautiful, as well as the wall paintings which I could see well enough in the dim light. It felt so precious to be there on my own, and once I was warmed up the pain in my left arm subsided. I had organised a concert in Trimley St Mary church near Felixstowe that week with friends, so practice was a necessity. I felt the obstacle to playing was as much psychological as it was physical – the diagnosis was cubital tunnel syndrome, a compressed nerve at the elbow – and that I needed to do this concert for my own sanity as much as anything. If the programme was lightweight, I hoped it wouldn’t do any damage.
After my visits to Depden and Westley, and contacting a few other churches with the result of having several potential audiences waiting for me, I decided to leave it a while. Although I was desperate to visit churches again, I simply wasn’t ready for an audience. Both because I was out of practice, and because I was feeling too emotional to be sociable or ‘perform’. I just wanted to be alone.
After a few weeks, however, I decided to try a change of tack. Instead of getting in touch with churches where I already had a contact, either because I’d tried to visit before or because I’d been due to give a concert there this summer, I would try churches with which I’d had no previous communications. My reasoning was that if they didn’t know who I was, perhaps they would be less interested in hearing me play.
I targeted a group of three churches in east Suffolk that I had attempted to visit before: finding out that Bruisyard church, memorable for my churchyard playing in February 2019, was once again open every day, I was overjoyed. Carlton would have to be opened for me, but that was alright: I was confident I should have Bruisyard to myself first. Saxmundham was open for prayer from 2 to 4pm on the day I wished to visit, so that, too, was easier. Until the churchwarden emailed back to ask what time I planned to come as he wanted to listen.
Yesterday morning I was caught unawares.
Walking up the river from Looe Harbour in south Cornwall, I saw a green sculpture of a seal on the rocks. I stopped briefly to read the plaque, feeling no more than mildly curious.
A distinctive ‘one-eyed’ scarred bull Grey Seal […] who was a familiar sight in the harbours of south Cornwall for over 25 years. Eventually he settled on the rocks of Looe Island as his home and made Looe Harbour his dining room where he was fed and his company enjoyed by local fishermen, townsfolk and countless visitors.
‘A Grand Old Man of the Sea’ and a great favourite with all.
In life, Nelson was a splendid ambassador for his species; now, in bronze, he serves as a potent symbol of the rich marine environment of the area and a permanent reminder of the need for it to be cherished.1
As I moved along to allow others to pass me on the walkway, I saw a bunch of wilting red and yellow roses lying beside Nelson’s left flipper.
St Mary’s, Depden
I attempted to resume church visits in the last week of June. I hoped that playing the cello, and visiting churches, might help me psychologically. James, my accompanist, had died two weeks earlier, and for a while I had been struggling with a worsening nerve problem in my left elbow. I had rested it for ten days or so, and the pins and needles in my fingers had gone. Although I knew that wasn’t the end of the story – the nerve was still uncomfortable, sometimes painful, if I used my hands too much – I felt it was time to resume gentle playing, for the sake of my mental health more than anything.
Churches were now open for ‘private prayer’, so I decided to try ruins – no key needed – and churches where I had a contact already. I thought it would avoid the need for lengthy explanations. Depden came to mind: a church in west Suffolk that I had enquired about visiting twice before, in winter, when I was told the path was far too muddy for me not to end up falling over. I would have gone anyway, but the keyholder was adamant. I spoke to the same keyholder again, and she remembered me. I could tell from her voice that she was delighted with the idea of my coming. ‘But I’d better just check, and ring you back,’ she said. After my experience at Honington, I very nearly said, ‘I think cello playing counts as prayer’, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to utter the words. In any case, I was sure she would call back to say yes.
26/7/20 The other day I found myself standing ankle-deep in the River Wylye.
When it was time to go, I said to my friend Peter, ‘Can you leave me here and come back for me tomorrow?’
I was joking, of course. But not entirely. Between the long moments of blankness – the simple staring at the crystal-clear surface, at the colourful gravel bed, listening to the flowing water – thoughts came and went.
‘I could stay here for hours.’
‘I love chalk streams.’
‘Is this what meditation is?’
‘A chalk stream is actually all I need to feel better. It could cure me of anything.’
I felt odd this morning. Part of me was sorry to be going home today, not knowing when I might get out again; and part of me was anxious to get back to the safety of home. I had intended to go for a walk and leave late morning, but a phone call from my friend Joost changed my plans: he had suddenly panicked that London would be locked down by the weekend and he wouldn’t be able to leave, so he had decided to pack his bag and get on a train. He had already missed the opportunity to get to the Faroe Islands where his partner and dog live, and felt a horror of being stuck in London for an indeterminate period without any work. We had discussed it a few weeks previously, and I had offered him the option of ‘self-isolation in Suffolk with goats’, which seemed to him a far preferable alternative.
I told Joost I would be passing Stowmarket station mid-afternoon and could pick him up, so he booked his ticket accordingly. Despite my lack of walk, it was too late to fit in four churches: I now had a time limit and was also slow to set off, distracted by the whole strange situation. Still, I thought it would do me some good to blot out the world for a while with some cello practice.
St Margaret’s, South Elmham
St Margaret’s was the very last of the ‘Saints’ churches, so called because the 11 villages – as I thought – of Ilketshall and South Elmham, in northeast Suffolk, are named after Saints. But I have now read that Homersfield church is also called St Mary’s, South Elmham, bringing the total to 12. All the Saints have their own church, apart from St Nicholas’ church which has disappeared. Although you might more accurately say that the villages only exist insofar as they each have a church: most of them consist only of a few scattered houses.
St Margaret’s, Sotterley
I had delayed visiting Sotterley church more than once: this was a church to enjoy in warm, dry weather, as it was a mile’s walk or so from the road, in the middle of the Sotterley estate. I would have gone in winter, had a bright day presented itself while I was in the area, but it didn’t, and so I waited.
The start of the path was obvious; after that, I had to scan the oak trees and field edges for white signs with black church symbols to find the next section of my route. I felt the thrill of a child on a treasure hunt. Before long I saw the grand house through a gap in the hedge on my right, across a pond, or perhaps more likely a moat (see header photo), and I knew I was nearly there. Sure enough, at the next sign on a small bridge across a ditch – the River Blyth, apparently – I could see the tower of the church poking above a dense cluster of trees. I’d stopped a couple of times to give my shoulders a rest, but yet again I was glad of my lightweight cello case: it was worth every penny I’d spent on it, and made walks such as these not only possible but delightful.
On my way to Wingfield church, I saw a café whose name I recognised from Instagram. On a whim, and not without some misgivings over whether it was strictly sensible from a virus point of view, I stopped. But I would arrive too early at my accommodation even if I visited two more churches, as the owner had asked me to come after 4.30pm. I passed a chicken residence, then stables and an animal supplies shop, and found the café beside some horse paddocks: certainly a novel setting. I poked my head through the door to check it wasn’t too busy, and that I could sit at the required distance away from other people. Only two tables were occupied; one by a group probably above the age of 80 who seemed entirely unconcerned about the threat to their health, and another by a man with tattoos all over his face and head (not to mention the rest of his skin that was visible) and his companion. I found a corner to sit in, answered the usual questions about my cello – some from the tattoo man, who was very genial – and treated myself to a piece of coffee and walnut cake.
It was the middle of March and I had booked two nights away in Rumburgh to fill in a few gaps on my church map. I suspected this would be my last church outing for a while. In fact, I felt some uncertainty as to whether I should be going at all: the government was being rather slow to impose movement restrictions, I felt, and I wholly expected to be confined to home within a week or so. But church visiting is usually a fairly solitary activity, and I didn’t think it would do any harm if I took sensible precautions. So I set off for Syleham church near the Norfolk border, a church that I had long saved up to visit on an occasion when I could give prior notice to a lady I’d met at Metfield church. She had given me her contact details, and wanted to gather some villagers to come and listen. But I suspected it would be a long while now till that would be possible, and so I decided to visit on my own and let her know that I would come back another time to play for them.
Driving up the A140 towards Diss, I suddenly remembered that Stuston church was just off the main road, and I might as well pay it a visit to see if the building works were now finished.
All Saints’, Stuston
As I drove up the lane, I saw first that the red and white tape cordoning off the porch was gone. Feeling hopeful, I drove past the scene of my number plate mishap two months earlier and to the churchyard entrance, where I found there were still two builders’ vans parked, and two men standing beside them. I got out of the car and asked if they had finished their work yet. ‘We’re just clearing up,’ he replied. ‘But you’re welcome to go in’. I explained that I wanted to play the cello, if that wouldn’t disturb them. One replied, ‘I like a bit of cello!’ So I took my equipment out of the car and walked up the newly gravelled churchyard path.
Everything I heard on the radio on the morning of 29th February told me that this was the day for doing something unusual. Visiting churches was nothing unusual for me, but visiting Ipswich was. It was also a duty – to be repeated several times in order to find all 12 medieval churches in the town centre – which would have been undertaken extremely reluctantly if I didn’t have Steve as my driver, tour guide and musical companion. I had no inkling at all of just how unique our afternoon would turn out to be…
St Mary’s at Stoke
Steve knew a sneaky parking spot near the centre of town which didn’t involve paying for a car park – something he told me he couldn’t bear doing. His aversion to paying for parking was much more extreme than mine, it turned out. It was obviously nothing to do with the money; he’d happily do anything else with the few coins required for the purpose, including give them away to a stranger, I suspect. It was simply the principle of paying to park your car. After a good giggle about Steve’s unexpected strength of indignation on the matter, and expressing my surprise that there was anywhere without parking restrictions so close to the town centre, we walked up to the main road, from where we could see no fewer than three churches. Steve suggested we first go to the one directly ahead of us, on the same side of the river and up a hill. This turned out to be St Mary at Stoke.
As we were walking up the hill, I complained about Steve’s customary speedy walking pace (which he usually blames on his dog pulling on the lead, but I am sceptical). I told him I couldn’t walk that fast uphill with a cello, to which he replied that he thought his bassoon was probably heavier – at least with a music stand in the front pocket. We stopped and swapped instruments. He was right. It was at least as heavy, probably heavier: difficult to say for sure, as the weight distribution was so different. I was surprised. ‘It’s all that metal!’ Steve said.