I was on my way to Bromeswell to play in a concert organised by my neighbours’ 11-year-old granddaughter, and planned to stop at Little Bealings church, near Woodbridge. I had done my research and was confident that my plan would proceed without a hitch, giving me plenty of time to practise before the concert.
But my confidence was misplaced. It was locked. I managed to find a phone number online, and my conversation with the keyholder proceeded thus: she didn’t have her key on her right now. It was locked because there were building works in progress. But it would be open two mornings a week if I wanted to come back another day. Despite my requests for clarification, I came out of the conversation unsure whether I couldn’t go in because she didn’t have her key, or because of health and safety. Still, I managed to force my brain out of its confusion and into logic quickly enough to ask when the building works were expected to finish, and say I’d return after that. The end of March, she said. Little did I imagine what a different situation we would find ourselves in by then…
My only other option, I concluded after a good few minutes of dithering, was to go to Woodbridge. Melton, a redundant church, was also kept locked and I hadn’t yet had a response from the Melton Old Church Trust about when I could visit. I worried that by the time I had found somewhere to park, and walked to the church, I would have very little time to do any practice. But the choice was between practising in a church I’d already visited, or going to Woodbridge. I chose Woodbridge.
More than two weeks passed before I visited another church. But a break can be helpful, and – when I drafted this account, not all that long ago – I was no longer worried about fitting in the remaining churches before September, thinking it would require little more than a few extra bursts of effort, and some additional advance-organising. Now, of course, life looks very different. Who knows when my next church visit will be, let alone whether concerts will be back on the menu by September. It is a pity, but entirely insignificant in the context of the international crisis we find ourselves in. I will simply resume when circumstances allow. In the meantime, I have plenty of churches still to write about, and once I’ve caught up, then perhaps I can get ahead a little on the planned book… Not to mention cello practice. I feel myself even luckier than usual to have these things in my life, as well as a large garden and lots of animals, which between them carry the potential of indefinite mental, physical and companiable occupation.
St Margaret’s, Southolt
I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get into Southolt church, as I had read it was a redundant, locked church in the care of its village. But I was going to be in the area, so I thought I’d try anyway, as the Suffolk Churches website had kindly informed me that almost every house in the vicinity of the church was in possession of a key.
St Mary’s, Hadleigh
I had been to Hadleigh church a few years previously, but I didn’t remember much about it except its size and setting: it was large, and set within a courtyard-type space, with the old guildhall on one side of the churchyard-lawn hybrid, and a huge Tudor gateway on its tower side. This gateway once led to the now-demolished medieval Deanery . I was more than surprised to discover that its tower was medieval: it is the only large church in Suffolk with one. I thought that spires – which I don’t like much – were Victorian features; but it turns out that even if they are medieval, I am still not entirely convinced…
St Mary’s, Preston St Mary
I hadn’t been inside Preston church for perhaps five or six years. As I had become accustomed to in such instances, I could remember the general size and layout of the interior, but none of the details. As I approached the door, I could hear the organ, and feared once again that my 400th church plan for two days later would be thwarted. But I went inside anyway to find out how long the organist planned to stay.
St John’s, Denham
The most up-to-date information I could find on Denham church – the Denham near Eye rather than Bury St Edmunds – was from 2007. The Suffolk Churches website informed me that it used to be kept locked without a keyholder; ‘now’ there was a keyholder. I was hopeful that the passage of time, and movement in a positive direction, might mean that it was now kept open. At the very least, I had a chance of finding a keyholder.
I pulled up on the verge opposite the churchyard gate, where I saw a car parked and a man in overalls clearing out leaves from the ditch outside. I said hello and asked, ‘are you connected to the church?’ He looked up but didn’t answer, perhaps not knowing exactly what I meant; so I added, ‘do you happen to know if the church is kept open?’ Then he did answer, in the affirmative, so I took my things out of the car. At this point, seeing my cello, he stopped his work and came over to talk, walking with me up the path and round the back of the church to the open door. The church had no tower, which gave the impression from across the road that it was small. But walking up to it, I began to realise how large it actually was.
All Saints’, Stoke Ash
I had been to Stoke Ash once before, when I found it, and the Post Office that supposedly had the key, closed on a weekday afternoon. This time I decided to go in the morning, in the hope that I might be more likely to succeed; and if not I’d have a second chance on my way home in the afternoon.
The church was still locked, but I found a phone number for the post office, which I decided to ring just to make sure I wasn’t wasting my time driving to the village. I always experience a particular thrill when I manage to gain access to a previously problematic church. Not to say that I don’t still prefer to find them open, but there is a strange sense of satisfaction involved in finally being able to see inside and ‘tick off’ a locked church on my map, now that I feel I have to be more strategic in tackling them. They are often isolated churches within a sea of ticks, which at this stage in my project is another reason I find it so pleasing: it is like inserting the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Neighbouring Thwaite would have to wait for another time when I had done more homework: apparently it is now a village hall, and a key is not freely obtainable.
St Michael’s, Boulge
I had visited Boulge once before, the time that I also stopped at Debach, not realising it was now a private house. I don’t remember if this was before or after I started my church tour; if it was after, then it was certainly near the start. On that occasion I came away assuming it was kept locked, but something I read on the Suffolk Churches website made me realise that most likely I had simply tried the wrong door, and that if I went back I would find it open.
St Mary’s and St Peter’s, Barham
Barham, near Claydon, was my aborted 4th church visit from a few days earlier. Like Claydon, this church was also up the hill on the east side of the A14, but from this churchyard there were clear views across the Gipping Valley. It was a lovely setting, but the noise of traffic was unrelenting, and I knew that everything between here and the opposite hill was road, rail or housing, mostly new developments. It was not as rural as it appeared at first glance.
A lady was getting out of her car as I pulled into the car park.
‘Is there an event on in the church, do you know?’ I asked her. ‘There seem to be a lot of cars here’.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘They might be in the meeting room at the back. It’s unusual for there to be so many cars. I’ve just come to do the flowers’.
We both went up to the church, and found it empty, so I went back to fetch my cello. When I returned, the lady I had arrived with was talking to another lady.
‘You’re welcome to play your cello,’ she said. ‘We’ve had communion in the other room and we’re having tea now. Please do join us if you’d like’.
St Peter’s, Baylham
It was another sunny day, and my destination was the road running between Needham Market and Ipswich: a prime location for churches I hadn’t yet visited. I didn’t know what to expect of Baylham; the only thing I knew of it was the Rare Breeds Farm, which was north of the village and on the other side of the railway, so not really in Baylham at all. The main road was as anonymous as I expected, but soon I came to a right turn signposted to the village. The church was up a hill, with stunning countryside views. There is little better than the quality of light on a sunny winter’s day, whether in the morning or the afternoon, and I stood gazing across the meadowed valley for a contented few moments before entering the church.
All Saints’, Easton
I thought I hadn’t been to Easton village before – and Easton Farm Park has long been on my list of places to visit, with or without accompanying children – but when I pulled up near the picturesque pub and miniature village green, I knew I’d driven through it once before, and could even remember the conversation I was having at that moment with my friend Mark, who was sitting in the passenger seat.