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.
It was the weekend of the Stoke by Nayland Arts and Literary Festival, and I had booked tickets for two talks. To my disappointment, both of them were cancelled. My friend Mark persuaded me to go to a different one, about a book on prehistoric Britain – more his line of interest than mine, but nevertheless I was easily persuaded, having heard and enjoyed the same person speak about oak trees a couple of months earlier in Norwich.
Both Layham and Shelley churches were on the way to Stoke by Nayland, via a slightly less direct route than driving through Polstead, but just as scenic, and, on balance, my preferred one.
With a busy start to June, and my challenging recital only two weeks away (the idea was still rather alarming to me), cello practice rather than church visiting was my priority. So, when I had time to leave the house to practise, I had no ambitions to visit more than one church, and looked for one near home or on my way to or from somewhere, and unlikely to be full of visitors. Bildeston was an obvious first choice.
St Mary’s, Bildeston
I realised only quite recently, on a full moon evening walk at New Year, that St Mary’s church is visible from the end of my garden: it sits on the next hilltop a little under 3 miles south of my house, and was floodlit that night.
I have always loved the location of St Mary’s. It is at least half a mile from Bildeston village, up the hill at the end of a lane, with views over the countryside. A newer, sunny graveyard across the lane seems a happy place to be laid to rest. This was my third attempt to visit the church: the first time it was locked, and the second there was an event, perhaps a wedding. This time I was glad to find it open and empty. A barn next to the church was being rebuilt or converted, and a very charming Liverpudlian builder greeted me as I was unloading the car. He seemed excited by the idea of taking an instrument to play in such wonderful buildings, and said he would try to stop the machines long enough to hear it.
I ended up at Hoo church in a rather roundabout way: via Kettleburgh, Brandeston and Cretingham. I went in search of lunch, and very nearly didn’t get any. At Cretingham, the only one of the three pubs to be open and serving food, I found the kitchen had officially closed two minutes before my arrival. But the lady at the bar took pity on me – she went to ask if they could make me a sandwich and came back with a much better answer: they hadn’t cleared up yet, and had kindly agreed to take my order.
After a somewhat chilly lunch (I was determined to stay outside although the wind had got up and drizzle was threatening), I continued down the road to Cretingham church. My excitement at approaching the light and friendly-looking church was short lived, as there were large pieces of wood lying on the grass outside the porch, by which I deduced that building work was in progress. Inside, the builders were having lunch, and I could see the tower was the subject of their attentions. Someone from the village – a churchwarden perhaps – was with the builders, and in answer to my query he informed me the work was bell-related. He started to direct me animatedly towards features of interest in the church, so I went in for a guided tour.
It was the morning of the annual plant sale at Thorpe Morieux village hall. I had never been with my friend Penny, only with her husband Jeremy and their boys, Sam and Tim, so I was feeling apprehensive at walking straight into an embodiment of Jeremy’s absence1. But I wanted to go, and was glad that Penny and Sam also felt able to; Tim had a more pressing engagement with his GCSE revision. I decided to take advantage to fit in some practice at the church before the arrival of guests in the afternoon.
Thorpe Morieux is near Brettenham, and only a few miles from my house. I have always been intrigued by its curious name (Morieux), which I have recently discovered is the name of a family who once owned the village manor, and taken from a place called Morieux in Brittany. Its associations for me are almost exclusively of childhood bike rides: we would stop there to visit the church and the llamas. I am glad to say the llamas (as well as the church) are still in residence.
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.
My church trips seem to bring luck. On several occasions I have found, heard or seen new things before leaving home, or on the journey. Today it was newts: I caught sight of one in the front pond as I was opening the driveway gate, the first since I had found two in the flowerbed wall more than eighteen months ago. A Sainsbury’s delivery driver had spotted another one crossing the same driveway after dark last autumn. He thought it was a lizard, but I knew it was a newt.
This excitement of course delayed my departure: I had to make sure I wasn’t mistaken, and watch for a while to see if there was more than one, and whether I could tell which kind of newts they were. After half an hour or so, I had spotted four newts in one little sunny patch near the edge of the pond. At least one of them was a great crested newt. I am hopeful this small sample area indicates a healthy breeding population.
It was the day of the cello concert in Darsham for which I had been practising duets with Will, a cellist near Halesworth to whom I had recently been introduced. Without extending my journey by more than five minutes, I found I could pass through Charsfield on the way. Its significance to me was as the village of Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s ‘portrait of a Suffolk village’, published in 1969. The evening before, the 1974 film of the same name was shown at the Arts Picturehouse cinema as part of the Bury Festival, so, never having seen it or read the book, I decided to go.
During the week I decided to go to some local churches on my way to Lavenham and Bury St Edmunds. I have begun to find the varying contexts of my church visits and their accompanying states of mind fascinating: I often notice in myself some reluctance to visit local churches that I pass on a regular basis, or at least whose villages I have long been acquainted with. I can only assume this is because they lack the element of adventure: not exciting enough a destination for a day out, they are relegated to errand-running trips, mere cello practice necessity (still, more exciting than practising at home), or other humdrum contexts, with their relative dullness of mind compared to the excitement of the unknown and the prospect of a day’s adventure. However, on most if not all occasions, these local visits have transformed the mundane into something memorable and special, and given me new insight into places on my doorstep that I had never properly appreciated or perhaps even bothered to get to know. This week’s visits were no exception.
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.