I love the Stour Valley. The steep hills and marshy ground near the river mean that more land is given over to small meadows for sheep and cattle than on the higher, flatter ground where I live. The hills also provide some of the best views in Suffolk. Of course, the river itself is the central draw: over the years I have felt an increasing compulsion to be near water, especially rivers.
As 10th May was my mother’s birthday, I decided that a church tour of the Stour Valley would be a fitting way to celebrate it for her. I also wanted to walk and enjoy the many bluebells– which grow in the hedgerows as much as the woodlands in this area – and so an overnight stay at a remote farmhouse I had discovered near Stoke by Nayland seemed the best and most enjoyable way to do both, especially as the weather forecast was good.
Leaving my cello at the farmhouse after visiting Polstead church on the way, in order to enjoy it properly this time, I walked up to Stoke by Nayland village via a scenic footpath. I knew, of course, that the area was hilly and beautiful, but I was captivated by this half-mile stretch of path. This is my ideal way of happening upon country churches: off the road, on foot along a beautiful path… walking round a bend and suddenly seeing a church tower on the hill in the distance. The sunshine was a bonus.
In spite of this, I am more than coming to terms with my voluntary encumbrance in the form of a cello. What it adds to my church visits more than outweighs its inconvenience as a travel companion.
This view was not surpassed in my evening’s walk, and I did not manage to go far enough to find the bluebells. I did, however, visit the swallows at the lake off Scotland Street. It used to be a stunning and wild-feeling wetland, before, to my dismay, it was almost completely cleared of rushes, dredged and turned into a lake that would not look out of place in an urban park – an effect exacerbated by the new iron railings. Nevertheless it is a peaceful place. It is one of my favourite destinations for solitude accompanied by a good dose of swallow watching.
St Mary’s, Stoke by Nayland
The following morning after breakfast I drove up to the village with my cello. Parking on the road beside the church’s huge brick tower, this was the first aspect of the building that stopped me in my tracks, staring in admiration. The second was its beautiful entrance door, ancient-looking with intricate carvings and a waney inner edge – described by Simon Knott as the ‘best late 15th century doors in Suffolk’1.
Although it is very different in many ways, the church reminds me a little of Blythburgh church in its size, layout and bright interior. On this occasion it was not, however, as busy as Blythburgh, perhaps due to the relatively early hour, and after seeing a couple leave the church as I was entering, I was able to play the cello without worrying about disturbing anyone’s quiet enjoyment of the church.
When I opened the door to leave, the smell of warm spring air and sunshine rushed in, overwhelming me. ‘The smell, the smell!’ raced through my mind, an echo of the silly but heart-felt text message, ‘the moon, the moon!’, that my friend Mark and I have got into the habit of exchanging, by way of alerting each other to a particularly beautiful, usually full, moon. On this occasion though, there was no one to share the smell with, so I enjoyed the exhilaration alone.
A few weeks later I received an email from someone involved with Stoke by Nayland church who had seen my entry in the visitors’ book. He asked if I would like to play at a church event in August, and I was more than delighted to say yes. The prospect of a return visit is a joyful one.
St James’, Nayland
I decided to head for Nayland church next and then follow the Stour upstream to Bures. When I arrived at Nayland, I found the church covered in scaffolding. The churchyard, however, had a large, lovely lilac in bloom as well as areas of enthusiastic cow parsley and bluebells, all doing their best – with great success – to distract me from the less beautiful spectacle of the covered church.
Inside the church I found a man and a woman chatting, a church warden and the vicar respectively, I guessed, although they didn’t introduce themselves. They were both friendly and welcoming and started to tell me about the other churches in the benefice. I enquired about the building works and was told the roof and various other parts of the church were being repaired or replaced, costing £100,000, mostly raised by the village. My appreciation of the dedication involved in keeping these churches standing went up another notch.
After the vicar left, the churchwarden finished what he was doing in the vestry while I got out my cello. He then asked me what pieces I was playing, as, he said, he might have played them on the bassoon. The conversation took an amusing turn when we were comparing which instrument reached a lower pitch, and he told me it was possible to add a fairly decent extra note to the bottom of the bassoon’s range by inserting a toilet roll tube in the top of the instrument. Who would have thought this particular use could be listed amongst the humble toilet roll’s secondary careers…
The interior of the church wasn’t outstanding, although it was perfectly pleasant. The strangest feature was the organ: its pipes were mint green and pink-purple. I couldn’t decide at first how I felt about this, but by the time the conversation turned to toilet rolls being employed to a musical end, a tinge of the bizarre had rubbed off on my perspective of the church and I found it inoffensive in an amusing sort of way.
St Mary’s, Wiston
The route from Nayland to Bures, running very approximately parallel to the River Stour, must be one of the most attractive in the county. This was partly the reason I had chosen to visit Nayland, Wiston and Bures in that order, all in one visit.
Wiston village is also called Wissington, but I have mostly heard its church referred to as Wiston. It is one of the most perfectly situated churches: remote, set amongst a maze of dilapidated farmyard barns, meadows, willow trees and ponds, and much closer to the river than to a road. I have found it impossible to follow some of the footpaths around the church that are marked on the Ordnance Survey map: I have tried and failed several times, always having to return to the one path I do know how to find which is signposted from the drive. Although the exterior walls might be described as ugly, or at least dull, due to the beige render, the church’s age (it is Norman), tiny size, wonderful location and interior wall paintings make the exterior walls unusually irrelevant to me in appreciating its beauty.
This visit added acoustics to its list of outstanding qualities. Stepping into the church’s gloom, the drop in temperature was extreme. I knew I my hands would be cold here, which I find unpleasant when practising the cello, but the sound created by the church more than made up for it, so I stayed a while, and tried recording some music to hear what it sounded like further back. My playing was imperfect, but the acoustic was not…
Playing whilst being watched by a medieval dragon was a strange experience. This dragon is the legendary ‘Bures dragon’. There is a modern carving of the dragon in the hillside not far away at Bures, to be viewed from outside St Stephen’s chapel. St Stephen’s is not officially on my churches list, but is so old and special that it will be a necessary extra.
As I opened the door to the porch on leaving, there was an even more overwhelming blast of wonderful spring fragrance than earlier in the morning at Stoke by Nayland. It was gone by my second step into the churchyard. I went back into the porch to check if the smell had any relation to the sun warming the stones. No: the smell was gone. I even went back into the church briefly and came out again; still no smell. I knew that our noses get accustomed to smells fairly quickly, but was surprised by the speed on this occasion. But there was also a sense of magic in its transience. It was like music: after you stop playing there is only a momentary echo before it is gone.
St Mary’s, Bures
When I reached Bures, I parked on the road on the east side of the church and entered the churchyard along a footpath which forked before it reached the church. Not able to tell which door would be open, I approached the south porch, which turned out to be locked – though it was worth the detour. Walking round to the north door afterwards, I noticed how different this side of the church was. I found the south side with its tudor brickwork, variety of style and colour and churchyard wildlife sanctuary much more characterful.
On the unlocked door in the north porch I found a notice of a funeral at 2pm. My heart sank: it was 12.55pm. To my surprise, however, the church was empty. Still, I hesitated about fetching my cello. But I was reluctant to go home without playing here, and, after all, there was no one about, so I decided to go in. Neither the interior of the church nor the acoustic particularly captured my imagination, and so I was happy with a brief acquaintance. While I played, I reflected on the notice – the first such notice I had ever seen – and the fact that no one had arrived yet to set up. Nor had anyone arrived early for the funeral, as people often do. Did this mean that the dead man had few or no friends or family? Were the vicar and the undertakers the only ones involved in organising the funeral? I may have been fanciful in imagining such a scenario, but at that moment I worried it might be a lonely affair.
I was walking back along the footpath through the churchyard, looking at the sky and smiling at my first joyful swift sighting (and hearing) of the year, when I became aware of shouting coming from the road. I looked round and realised it was two men in a van waiting at the temporary traffic lights in front of the church, and that the yelling was directed at me. My ears slowly tuned in and the noise became identifiable as questions:
‘Wo’ iz za’?’
‘Wo’ ya goh?’
‘A cello!’ I yelled back, just as they were pulling away. I don’t know if they heard me.