St Mary of Grace, Aspall
I was due in Brundish for an evening concert. It was the day of the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust bike ride, so I decided to take advantage of the fact that usually inaccessible churches would be open on this day. Aspall church was at the top of my list: the Aspall of cider fame, and – for me – church notoriety. I had found my last attempted visit thoroughly depressing: there was nowhere obvious to park, no sign of the church being in use, and no keyholder notice. My depression was lifted only by the flock of chickens in the churchyard, and, a little, on emailing the vicar afterwards, who assured me that if I contacted her before my next visit, she would make sure it was open for me. For one reason or another, I hadn’t made it back there yet. But today it lay near my route to Brundish, and I was excited by the prospect of overwriting this memory.
All Saints’, Great Glemham
It was a beautiful, warm day, and the last day of my break in east Suffolk. After a perfect walk through all the habitats Walberswick had to offer, I set off homeward with enough time to visit two churches.
Great Glemham was my first stop, a village known to me only as the location of the Alde Valley Festival in spring, to which I had managed one failed visit with my friend Cristina, neither of us realising it was closed on a Monday. I will make it there one day, especially since there seems now to be an autumn festival as well.
I was surprised when I reached the village: it was not how I imagined it at all, especially after visiting Little Glemham church. It is true, that was a gloomy, rainy day, and today was sunny; but this seemed an altogether brighter and more welcoming place, regardless of the weather. Great Glemham didn’t seem so great, however, either in church or village. In size only, I mean, because I was thoroughly delighted by what I found: a little church in the centre of a small village with pretty rows of cottages on either side of the lane. Thankfully, the A12 seemed not to bother this place in the slightest.
All Saints’, Frostenden
It was my third attempt to visit Frostenden. This time, having failed to note down the keyholder’s contact details on my last visit, I looked at my call history and phoned the number that I concluded must have been either for Wrentham or Frostenden. It didn’t much matter which: I wanted to visit both. It might sound odd to whoever answered that I didn’t actually know who I was calling… but it was my best hope of getting in, as I could find no information online.
A gentleman called Paul Scriven answered the phone, and told me he was keyholder of Frostenden church. It turned out he’d been at my concert in ‘Coovehithe’ in March, which made my church-visiting-cello-playing intentions thankfully devoid of suspicion.
All Saints’, All Saints South Elmham
It was time for a return visit to the South Elmhams and Ilketshalls. I had visited many, but by no means all, the ‘Saints’: they boast a total of 13 churches between them. And, so far, I’d found all of them open.
All Saints’ was my first stop. I drove down a track signposted to the church, until it stopped at the entrance to a house. Another signpost pointed along a field edge, and behind a high hedge I could see the church tower. Reassured that it was close by, I took out my cello, bag and music stand and walked along the footpath.
St Andrew’s, Walberswick
For some time, I thought there were only ruins at Walberswick church. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I’d never walked, only driven, past, and when driving one’s eyes are drawn to the most obvious feature: ruins are hard to overlook. That was the only reason I hadn’t yet visited Walberswick church: I was waiting for a convenient sunny summer day. But after giving a concert at Covehithe, I read its history, in which a comparison was made to Walberswick: they were both small churches built within the shell of a larger church. The ruins of the large churches are in fact on the scale of Blythburgh. The newer, small churches are completely out of proportion with the enormous towers they join onto, but each is unique and beautiful.
St Mary’s, Tuddenham
The following Saturday I had a concert in Tuddenham – near Bury St Edmunds rather than Ipswich. This concert had been booked over a year in advance. I had never booked anything this far ahead before: I usually don’t get round to buying a new diary until midway through December. Serendipity stepped in, however, as a couple of weeks earlier I had been given a 2019 calendar as a present, and had been wondering what use I could possibly make of it.
I picked up Tim on my way – my friend Penny’s son who had kindly agreed to turn pages for my accompanist, James. As at Rede the previous weekend, having familiar, smiley faces in the audience made a huge difference to my feelings about the concert: not only Tim, but also Christopher, who was to accompany me the following weekend in Brundish and wanted to hear how one of the pieces should go. There the similarities ended: the church and the audience were significantly larger, and the acoustic wasn’t nearly as rewarding as at Rede – though I am aware this judgement was entirely relative. There was nothing objectively wrong with the acoustic, it is simply that I have been spoilt so often.
St Peter’s, Little Thurlow
It was the last day of my church-visiting break, and I thought I had plenty of time to pack and tidy up before meeting the keyholder at Little Thurlow church at 11am. And then suddenly I didn’t. I was ten minutes late arriving at the church, which I knew I should have made more effort to avoid, because of the lady’s brusque, slightly flustered manner on the phone the previous evening. As with Great Thurlow, I don’t think she was the keyholder listed, but either a member of the family, or a farm employee, or both.
She was waiting for me inside. My lateness didn’t improve our interactions: she was polite, but no more. I apologised and did my best to win her round with gratitude, friendliness and smiles, but my efforts were in vain: I would have been an inconvenience even if I had arrived on time. I guess I had interrupted her work. I offered to return the key afterwards, but she replied that she’d have to come back to lock up. Her tone implied quite clearly that I couldn’t possibly be left in charge of the key – despite the fact I knew, from Sue’s investigations the previous day, that there was someone in the village from whose porch I could have simply taken and returned the key, if anyone could have remembered which house it was. So I gave up and simply thanked her again for letting me in.
St Mary’s, Great Bradley
The following morning I decided to start from the church furthest north along the county boundary and work backwards in a line, allowing for a maximum of four church visits that day. The furthest church was Great Bradley, only minutes’ drive from Withersfield: they were so close together in this area that I didn’t have to travel far.
Judging it prudent to reserve a couple of days’ ‘sanity break’ in the first of two brief gaps in summer bed and breakfast bookings, I saw a good opportunity for a church-visiting holiday. A scan of my church map revealed a glaring gap in the far southwest corner of Suffolk. Searching for accommodation is not amongst my list of enjoyable leisure activities when time is short, so, having quickly found an attractive-looking converted outbuilding in Withersfield, near Haverhill, I booked it without too much further thought, besides checking the location and size of Withersfield: I didn’t want to stay in a suburb of Haverhill. What I didn’t realise, however, was that the building was right beside the main road through the village – something that wasn’t apparent from the photos or the description – and that the road through Withersfield is a commuter route into Haverhill and therefore suffers from rush hour. But these are things that require prior acquaintance with an area, and rush hour was not something I was used to anticipating in rural Suffolk. Except for the harvest time sort of rush hour, which also happened to coincide with my visit, and led to earthquake-like shocks every time a combine harvester (beetle-monster) passed my window late into the evening.
St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Clare
Before I made these unwelcome discoveries, however, I was able to fit in three church visits. My first stop was Clare, a church that I had tried to visit once before and was disappointed to find locked. I suspected that I was too late on that occasion, and that a lunchtime visit would be more successful, which indeed it was. I find it curious that Clare (which seems to me more a little town than a village) isn’t classified as a town, whereas Orford (which seems more of a village than a town) is. I am not sure of the criteria used for these classifications.
St Mary’s, Akenham
I was due at Akenham church, near Ipswich, to play at a cream tea and evensong on the first Sunday in August. Akenham was a Churches Conservation Trust church, and, I was informed, the evensong services in August are held there, the first of which was always preceded by a cream tea. I managed to rope in Steve to play duets with me during the cream tea; I felt solo Bach was suitable for the service but not for the jollities in the churchyard.
Getting there was an adventure. Despite being almost on the outskirts of Ipswich – only a mile from Whitton – it felt as though it was on a hill in the middle of nowhere. Along the lane before I came to the rough track leading to the church, I passed a tractor and baler that looked like two of the first mechanised pieces of farming equipment to appear in the countryside. They had an amusing charm about them, but looked somewhat impractical for the task in hand. Clearing a field of cut straw is a big job.