I accidentally left my walking boots at Nick’s house, so I went to fetch them the following morning and was easily persuaded to stay for a cup of coffee. I was driving back towards Westleton Heath for a walk afterwards when I saw a sign for Darsham Marshes on my right and changed my mind.
It wasn’t a large nature reserve, so my walk was short, but I was glad to discover it. As I was nearing the end of the loop I met a group of three women looking at something on the ground and talking excitedly. I stopped and asked them what they’d found.
It was otter poo, they told me. ‘It’s not often one meets people getting excited about poo,’ I said. The lady who had identified the droppings held up a piece and put it under my nose: I was slightly taken aback, unsure how I felt about sniffing poo, and certainly never having had any presented to me at uncomfortably close quarters by a stranger before.
She reassured me. ‘It doesn’t smell bad! You can tell they are otter droppings from the smell.’
‘They apparently smell of jasmine,’ one of the other ladies explained. I could only detect a very faint fishy odour, but I was amused by the idea. ‘What a very lucky creature to have poo that smells of jasmine,’ I said, feeling our conversation was getting more surreal by the second. I asked where the path led across the boggy ground, said goodbye and continued on my way.
St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Wangford
Indoor temperature: 6.6˚C, humidity: 74%
The name Wangford amuses me, tempting me to make a joke of it every time I say it. The church, however, struck me as ‘funny-peculiar’: because of the direction from which I entered the churchyard, I ended up doing almost a full circuit of the church before I found the door. The building had all sorts of bits sticking off it, sideways and upwards, and the tower looked too tall and wide for the rather truncated and low-lying body of the church. I’m sure if one was able to take the long view of it from all sides, it probably would have looked much less odd; but only from the north churchyard entrance was there a clear view of the whole building – and only just.
Indoors I found a more conventionally Victorian church. It was light, possessing enough large, clear windows to offset the stained glass, and had a stunning acoustic. Practising here was a treat, and I took full advantage.
I was sitting next to the pulpit, the likes of which I had never seen before. It was highly decorative, with panels containing pictures, not painted but created out of wood: 17th century Flemish work, I read. The strangest thing about the church, however, was something that completely passed me by when I visited: the tower is at the east end of the church. I think the reason I didn’t notice is because the open side of the churchyard seemed to be the south side but was in fact the north. By the time I had walked around the church looking for the entrance, I was so disorientated that directions as simple as north and south were lost on me.
I was not at all sure of my next destination until the last minute: I looked at my church map and saw several churches marked that I couldn’t find on my Ordnance Survey map. I was confused, and wondered if they were ‘disappeared’ churches like Linstead Magna. But after examining my map in forensic detail, I finally realised that Uggeshall and Sotheton were there; the villages (or rather, hamlets) were just so small and so close together that they were unidentifiable as villages, and the crosses marking their towerless churches were also hard to spot. Somehow their invisibility on paper made me doubtful as to whether I would find them open, but since Uggeshall was so near, I decided to give it a go.
St Mary’s, Uggeshall
Outdoor temperature: 7.6˚C; indoor temperature: 6.8˚C, humidity: 92%
I was very pleased I did. A more contrasting church to Wangford – on the exterior at least – was hard to imagine. The church was thatched, including the tower stub, and the chancel roof was higher than the nave. The nave was rendered, and the chancel and tower base made of flint. It almost didn’t look like a church, but I loved it. It was the sort of building that could transport you instantly back to the Middle Ages.
There was a blocked doorway that puzzled me: the archway seemed to be constructed of Roman brick, but the style looked Norman. I have had to consult my friend and old-building expert, Mark: his diagnosis is that it was most likely a Saxon doorway made with Roman bricks. I walked past some unusually swirly graffiti on the porch benches, and entered through an actual Norman doorway, whose rear side charmed me with its lopsidedness.
That was the almost the end of the ancientness: inside was a wholly Victorian church, apart from the nave roof. But there was plenty more to enjoy: practising the cello in this building was a special experience.
Before I even opened the door to the porch to leave, I could smell an amazing fragrance: I hadn’t fastened the latch so some of the air was entering the church. It took me back to Barsham church which I also visited on a dull February day. It wasn’t the smell of sunshine or warmth, so what was it? Perhaps it is just one of those wonderful gifts that must remain mysterious…
As I stepped out of the porch into the churchyard, I experienced a few moments of complete disorientation. I couldn’t remember which way I was facing, where I’d left my car or where I’d entered the churchyard. It was disconcerting, even unpleasant, like waking up in the night during or after you have been away, and having a few seconds of complete blankness in which you can’t remember where you are. I had to walk round the church before I could get my bearings, and it was a great relief when I did.
Encouraged by my wonderful discovery at Uggeshall, I decided to go looking for Sotherton church next.
St Andrew’s, Sotherton
Indoor temperature: 5.8˚C, humidity: 81%
I wasn’t quite so lucky at Sotherton: I found the church locked. But instructions were given to find the key at the farmhouse next door, and a very impressive farmhouse it was too: the modern roof tiles let it down somewhat, but the plethora of mullion windows compensated. I found its friendly owner doing some potting by the back door, and we chatted for a few minutes before I went off with the key.
The light was starting to fade. There was too much stained glass in the church and no electricity as far as I could tell, so I took photos first. Then I set up in front of the altar where it was lighter, thanks to the clear east window. There was a smell of flowers: a pleasant one this time, not the usual rotting smell from cut flowers left too long. I managed a good amount of practice, noticing that I had had no problem with the cold today, or any of the last few days, in fact. I had no doubt Mandy’s Mitts were partly to thank, but I also hoped I was, by now, getting used to playing in cold churches. It is very satisfying to feel one’s tolerance or stamina increase, whether cold tolerance or playing stamina. It is ample reward for time and effort expended…
The lower register of my cello was flattered by the chancel: usually this is the part of my cello that I find slightly lacking; whether due to its small size or some other mysterious detail of its construction, I don’t know. But here, the bottom strings boomed, and I enjoyed its temporary transformation.
After admiring the roof angels (19th century, apparently) and a 13th century tomb, I wrote in the visitor’s book, finding I was the first person to do so since Simon Knott’s visit in October. I wondered vaguely about the mathematical probability of our meeting in a Suffolk church…
I was relieved to get back to my accommodation in Westleton – only 10 minutes away, so great was the quantity of churches in this area. I had enjoyed my day’s outing, but my body was telling me in no uncertain terms, as it had been for a week or two, that it wasn’t happy with all this activity. All it wanted right now was to sit still in one place and rest.
Header photo: Sotherton church roof angels