I set off from home on an absurdly mild Sunday morning in January, intending to visit Flowton church near Ipswich, which I knew to be kept open. I had planned to approach from the west, along the Hadleigh to Ipswich road, until I thought to consult Google maps. I found it was marginally quicker to approach from the north. Though requiring a slightly reluctant change in mindset – driving routes seem to be more of an influencing factor in my choice of destination than I realised – I decided this was actually quite convenient, taking me through an area with several churches I hadn’t yet visited. There was a reason for this, however, apart from the route: I had been led to believe that Offton, Somersham and various other churches nearby were kept locked. After a little online research, I was pleased to discover that this information was only partially correct, and that I ought to have a choice of open churches: Somersham, Nettlestead and Bramford, as well as Flowton.
I passed Offton church on my way to Somersham, and, seeing a sign indicating there had been a family service that morning, I thought I might as well stop, on the off chance it had been left open. But, as promised, it was locked. I also found Somersham locked. As I drove away, I thought vehemently that there ought to be a legal requirement for churches to be open on Sundays, just as there are legal restrictions to supermarket opening hours on Sundays. In fact, the latter makes little sense to me in the 21st century; the former, on the other hand, would be entirely logical. What is the point of all these poor churches otherwise? Are they not to have company even on a Sunday?
The sunshine calmed my indignance a little, as did reminding myself that I shouldn’t be short on churches to visit today. I was only really aiming for two, or at the outside, three. I decided to go straight on to Flowton, having exhausted my small supply of Sunday patience.
Flowton was far lovelier than I expected. The old brick floor was delightful, as well as the beams, crown posts and acoustic. I found some particularly interesting graffiti: I wasn’t sure whether the representation was of an animal or person, or something in between. Another carving was more abstract, but still seemed to have the curves of a face or figure. I decided to stay here as long as I fancied: I have realised there is no point in rushing, especially when you never know what the next church will be like, or even if you’ll find it open.
Practising here was nearly bliss – nearly, I say, because despite wearing my fingerless mittens (the second pair I received for Christmas), and practising for a relatively long time, my fingers never quite warmed up.
I was grateful to my thoughtful friends for their Christmas gifts. I am even discovering the benefits of having two pairs of fingerless mittens rather than one: I can leave one pair in the car against the possibility of forgetting them, as I do with a music stand. And if I go to play in a church with friends – so far only of the male gender, with larger hands than me – I have a spare pair to offer them, of a dark green and looser fitting variety, rather than salmon pink and almost certainly too small. Though, to speak greatly in favour of my lovely friends, they are not the sort of people who would care about such an insignificant detail as colour.
I don’t really believe in giving (or receiving, if I had a choice) Christmas presents just for the sake of it, as they can unintentionally become a burden to both the giver and the receiver. But when they are such perfect gifts – beautiful, thoughtful and exceptionally useful – they bring great joy, and fulfil all of the positive functions and symbolism of a gift. In the case of my pair of handknitted green mittens, it also brings me the priceless, lasting gift of the fond company of a friend recently departed. If only it were possible to make every gift given to a loved one so perfect.
St Mary’s, Nettlestead
Indoor temperature: 9.9˚C, humidity: 81%
When I had had my fill of Flowton church, I headed down the road to Nettlestead. Its tower was as tall and narrow as Nettlestead’s was short and squat. The sign on the church noticeboard made me smile: I could certainly feel The Peace, even before I went inside. And the flower-filled porch was beautiful.
The church didn’t feel as ancient as Flowton – possibly only because of its Victorian floor – but nevertheless it was lovely, with just as many interesting features. A flying cow bench end in the chancel puzzled and amused me in equal measure. Also mystifying was a little window – a ‘squint’ – just to the side of a south nave window. The magnificently carved font gave the impression of being lopsided, from any angle I looked at it; but I think this may have been an illusion created by the animals protruding from the column supporting it. The other possible explanation is that it really was asymmetrical, due to having been blown to pieces by a bomb in 1940, and put back together during the church’s restoration by Munro Cautley – the author of my ‘church bible’, and Diocesan architect at the time1.
I tried out my second pair of mittens properly here: Mandy’s Mitts, they will be known as from now on. This time I put on my extra fleece as well, and it made all the difference: eventually my fingers warmed up. The rest of me hadn’t felt cold at Flowton, but perhaps it takes a surplus of circulating heat in order to reach the extremities.
I couldn’t choose between the two pairs of mittens for warmth or comfort, though the superiority of Mandy’s handknits is not in dispute. This time, however, I needed to practise a piece involving thumb position – stopping the string with the side of the thumb at the first knuckle – and the slightly longer and looser fitting thumbs meant that I had to fold the left one back in order to be able have my knuckle free for this purpose. Then they were perfect. Having examined the knitting, I have now worked out that I should be able to undo the last few rows of the thumb, cast off again, and I will have solved the problem permanently.
Having spent so long at Flowton, my practice here was shorter, but I felt that the division of time had been appropriate, and I left for home having enjoyed my sunny outing and feeling I’d made good progress for my two recitals the following week.
St Gregory’s, Barnham
The following day was a much anticipated one. Finally, after a two month wait, I was driving to Hingham in Norfolk to pick up Malteser the rabbit, Dusty’s new friend. At least, I planned for them to be friends, but I just had to hope she’d love him as much as I did. Despite my excitement, however, I was keen to take advantage of my hour’s journey up there, and searched beforehand for an open church near the Norfolk border.
It is a little hit and miss in this area of Suffolk whether you will find a church open or locked. But I was able to find out online that Barnham was open every day. Arriving there was a delight: aconites, snowdrops and narcissi were out in the churchyard. Starlings were making a racket in a nearby tree. There was an odd, constant rumbling in the background. I stopped to listen, trying to identify the noise. I could only conclude it was the sound of fighter planes in the distance at RAF Lakenheath, but the lack of variation in the sound and volume seemed strange. In the end I gave up my attempts at detective work and went inside.
Barnham church was a little dark, and I could see my breath. I thought about playing in the lighter chancel, but there was a large table at the front of it, and I thought I’d feel cut off from the rest of the building so I sat in the nave instead. The acoustic was good, and my practice was productive, even though it took until I was about to leave for my fingers to warm up.
A dog walker came in as I was packing up, with his woolly and enthusiastic little dog who gave me a good welcome and sniff over. His owner asked me why I’d chosen to play in Barnham church, and we chatted for a while. He was very friendly, and asked for my contact details in case the church wanted to contact me to give a concert there.
My visit ended with a little disappointment: I could find no visitors’ book and nowhere to leave a donation. But I soon forgot about it, as my attention turned to the long-eared, exceptionally soft and sweet creature who was only half an hour away from becoming part of my family.
Header photo: Flowton church floor detail