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.
St Mary’s, Kentford
I had planned a day out to visit Kentford, Denham (St Mary, near Bury, rather than St John, near Eye) and Depden. But when I phoned the keyholder at Depden, she advised me to wait for better weather: the path was so muddy, she said, I might not be able to stay upright carrying my cello. If I hadn’t been dependent on her for the key, I probably would have gone anyway; but I couldn’t really insist, beyond saying I was planning to wear wellies, which didn’t convince her. So my outing was reduced to two churches. Kentford was first, after some errands in Bury.
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…
15/3/20 Although it seems not to get as much as attention as flowers or blossom, pussy willow is for me – and many others – a highlight of late winter. Quite strangely and uniquely, it is a name that is over-specific and under-specific at the same time. It is not one species of willow, but several; and it is not a permanent name for these species, but a season-specific one. They are only referred to as pussy willow at the time of year when their male catkins emerge, covered in soft, silver fur.
I realised only a few weeks ago that they couldn’t all be one species, because the pussy willows I have seen near my house have shorter fur than the ones near Lavenham, which are as much fluff as bud, and glow when the sun is behind them. For five years I used to drive past them every week, but I rarely have a reason to go that way any more, and the road they line is not enticing. It is fast, bendy and not easy to stop on. Still, I have been wondering if I might not be too late to go looking there this year.