A change in my church-visiting mentality had taken place over the previous few weeks. In the spring, James – my accompanist – suggested that a concert to celebrate my very last church visit would be a great way to end the tour. He thought it should be a church that I hadn’t yet played in, and since I had already played in over 300 churches, it required some mulling over. We finally settled on Orford, for its size, location and musical associations.
In the autumn, I finally got round to investigating the feasibility of our plan. ‘Yes’, came back the reply from the churchwarden responsible for bookings, ‘but it would be sensible to find a date sooner rather than later as we get quite a lot of bookings’. Yikes, was my internal response. How could I anticipate when I would finish my tour? I didn’t want to risk running out of time, but the winter months wouldn’t be suitable for a concert, so it would either have to be autumn 2020 or spring 2021, neither of which was strictly ideal: I expected to finish well in advance of spring, but the previous autumn might be a push. In the interests of caution, however, I finally settled on a date in May 2021, and James agreed.
St Andrew’s and St Patrick’s, Elveden
I drove past Elveden church once or twice, west to east, when I was staying in Rushford. It was interesting to drive up south to north from home this time: I could see how the roads linked together now. The church puzzled me: first I didn’t think it could be the medieval church of Elveden; then I thought there must be two churches side by side: I could see two towers, and two buildings, from the road. Finally I looked up Elveden church to try and understand what I was looking at, and found something remarkable: the son of the leader of the Sikhs, Prince Duleep Singh, moved to Elveden Hall in the late 1860s. The roof interior and font in the church were part of his restorations. The huge extension built on the road side of the old church was late 19th century work, and the cloister and second tower, a bell tower, were built in 1922. When I went to look in person, I found a large open space on the south side, from where I could appreciate the cloister, bell tower and only available view of the old church.
I was quite pleased with my arrangements for the following day. There were three churches in the vicinity of Rushford that I hadn’t yet visited; one was apparently open every day, and the other two I succeeded in arranging access to. I had been avoiding Redgrave for a long time after a somewhat unpleasant phone conversation with a keyholder: he was polite, but only just. His manner resembled that of a suspicious bouncer more than a welcoming keyholder – even though I had been put in touch with him by the Churches Conservation Trust, which is responsible for the church. I hoped I might find the details for another keyholder online, therefore bypassing the necessity of contacting this man again, but it had taken me 18 months to get round to it. Thankfully, I did find another keyholder, and this time I emailed rather than phoned. The prompt response I got couldn’t have been more of a contrast, friendly and enthusiastic, and my attitude to the church changed accordingly. By the end of our communications, I couldn’t wait to visit Redgrave.
St Mary’s, Mildenhall
The following morning I woke up a full three hours earlier than the previous day. I was glad, as I was determined to fit in 3 church visits and a walk before I ran out of daylight. My 4th church – Brandon – would be at 7.30 that evening.
I was impressed when I discovered that all three churches I planned to visit in the vicinity of Mildenhall were kept open. Simon Knott (Suffolk Churches website) has little good to say about Mildenhall as a town, or the surrounding area for that matter; but, as my morning’s outing proved to me, it only takes a sunny day and an open, welcoming church to give a positive initial impression. In fact, the open, welcoming church alone is usually enough for me.
St Mary’s, Santon Downham
I overslept the next morning. But officially this was a holiday, so I was glad of the extra sleep. By the time I had looked up churches, and fed and watered Fluffy Chicken, it was well after 11am. Her christened name is Knicker, from my trio of Brahma chickens, Knicker, Bocker and Glory, named triumphantly by my friend Jo; but she always ends up being called variations on Fluff, for more than one obvious reason… I always hesitate, then laugh, then try to explain, when booking a vet appointment and the receptionist asks me her name. When the vet comes out and calls for ‘Knicker’, I just have to hope there aren’t too many people in the waiting area paying attention…
All Saints’, Ixworth Thorpe
Ixworth Thorpe was worth the wait. I had been passed from one person to the next, each one saying they would let me in at 2pm on my way down from Norfolk; each one then getting in touch to say they couldn’t, or another person phoning me to say the previous person couldn’t. But eventually I arranged with Karen, the Rector of Ixworth and the countless other churches in the benefice, to stop off the following Monday on my way to Rushford, a village on the Norfolk border where I would be staying for three nights to visit the churches in northwest Suffolk.
I was running late, as usual when I have to get my animals and myself ready to go away. No matter how much time I leave for the job, it never seems to be enough. And on this occasion one of my Brahma chickens was coming along for the ride, in a dog crate. This would be an amusing novelty for me: Church Visits with Fluffy Chicken. I knew I would worry about her if I left her at home for more than two days without dedicated attention: she needs feeding and watering at least twice a day, and this is a time consuming business, as she is blind and keeps losing her food and water, even if it is right in front of her. So my travelling companion she would be.
All Saints’, Chelsworth
I hadn’t been inside Chelsworth church since long before the start of my church tour; 5 or 6 years perhaps. At the beginning, I didn’t plan to go back to the churches I’d already played in; but, as with town churches, I’d long since changed my mind because the number of churches left to visit is no longer daunting to me. I wanted a church near home, and Chelsworth was one of the closest. The exterior of the church has long been a favourite sight of mine as I drive through the pretty village, and I was curious to see inside it again after so long.
All Saints’, Chedburgh
One Saturday, I planned to visit Depden church, a locked church whose keyholder details I found online. But after she told me she was going out at 1.30 – I wasn’t quite sure I’d make it in time – and that I would have to walk ten minutes along a muddy field edge to get to the church (at this rate in the rain), I thought it might be more sensible to try Chedburgh. This poor church, by contrast, was right beside the A143. Luckily, she had the phone number for the keyholder there, and I had no trouble making alternative arrangements.
I picked up the key nearby and went back to the church, which, at first sight, wasn’t a very beautiful one: I found its grey brick tower bordering on ugly. It passed briefly through my head that perhaps this was in fact a Victorian church, not a medieval one. But once I managed to shift my gaze to the rest of the building, I concluded this wasn’t likely.
All Saints’, Mendham
I found Mendham church just after the turn-off from the A143 towards Halesworth, where I was due for a midweek lunchtime recital: I thought practising in a cold church would be a better warm-up for the recital than practising at home, as well as the fact it wouldn’t be cancelled out by a long drive afterwards. But I wasn’t quite prepared for how cold Mendham would be, and hoped Halesworth would be at least a few degrees warmer. I had to resort to my full-blown warm up: running around the church numerous times – it had two aisles, which made this easier – and jumping up and down. This did no more than begin the warming process, but that was sufficient: it continued successfully when I began to play in my fingerless gloves, which would now be a fixture of my church-visiting bag until spring at least.
St Andrew’s, Timworth
As soon as I arrived at the porch of Timworth church, I remembered my previous attempt to visit: it was the church with the strange porch gate, bird mesh and the most cumbersome and possibly hazardous contraption I had ever seen holding the two together. This feature of the church was not something you would ever be in danger of forgetting.