There was another benefit to staying away an extra night: I was on the cusp of reaching 300 churches, which I had arranged with myself I would achieve by 11th April, the second anniversary of the start of my church tour. Having an extra day to visit churches now, a week earlier, meant I might reach the milestone sooner. There was no rush, of course, but I was excited about the prospect. I was on 296 and wasn’t completely sure I would manage 4 churches that day, but I would try. If I was successful, I would also have covered nearly all the churches on the Felixstowe peninsula; at least, all the villages, if not the town itself and its suburbs.
St Martin’s, Trimley St Martin
Indoor temperature: 10.6˚C, humidity: 64%
I had taken down the number for the Trimley St Martin keyholder the day before, and phoned in the evening to make an appointment. I had assumed I would be able to access both St Martin’s and St Mary’s, since they were less than 100 metres apart, but the keyholder told me that St Mary’s now belonged to a theatre group and he didn’t have the key, or know who did. I resolved to do my own investigating another time; one would have to do for now.
A very friendly elderly man met me in the porch at 10am, and explained that electricians were working inside, so he had to wait anyway; my coming to play was no inconvenience. The interior was Victorian and the chairs and carpet lent it a somewhat urban feel, but it was pleasant, clearly used and loved. I’d been spoilt by the acoustics the previous day, and derived a strange kind of satisfaction from the greater challenge of practising in more difficult conditions. I was surprised by my own reaction, as this is not the sort of challenge I am usually so enthusiastic about.
Afterwards I went outside for a wander. I was astonished to find a sign indicating the boundary between St Mary’s and St Martin’s midway through the churchyard: I had never seen anything like it. The keyholder directed me to some World War I graves at the back of the churchyard. I was puzzled as to why these should be of special interest. Was it because of last year’s 100th anniversary? Or was it was more a generational interest? Do older people feel more connected to the First World War, and therefore more connected to its dead?
I went back inside the porch to pick up my cello, and noticed an impressive map of the churchyard on the noticeboard. I thanked the keyholder for his kindness, and he informed me that scaffolding would be erected the following week for works to the tower. St Martin’s was an attractive little church, its exterior far more so than its interior, and I was glad to have visited before it was hidden away.
St Mary’s, Newbourne
Outdoor temperature: 10.5˚C, humidity: 67%; indoor temperature: 10.7˚C, humidity: 71%
As I drove to Newbourne, I passed a café. Another one. I had already decided to have lunch at Brightwell Barns, but now I had a dilemma. With all the benefits of the internet, there are many rural tea rooms and cafés that apparently you can only find if you happen to pass them: I had looked up cafés in the area on arrival and found only one or two, and certainly neither of these. I resolved that I would go back to try the Newbourne café another time.
Newbourne church was little and strangely shaped: with the tower on the south side of the nave, it looked too short. But it was endearing, and once inside, the church took on more natural proportions.
I found it chilly; much colder than Trimley, but according to my thermometer this was not in fact the case: the difference was a mere 0.1˚C, in favour of Newbourne. My perception of temperature is still sometimes a mystery to me. In Trimley I took off my extra layers; in Newbourne I had to put them all back on again. The humidity was 7% higher, but I am not convinced this relatively small difference could have accounted for it.
Still, the sun was shining on me through the chancel window and I soon warmed up. I could see a blackthorn tree in full blossom on the north side of the churchyard and made a mental note to go and find it afterwards. I did a lot of practice and made satisfying progress on the new pieces I had to learn, although not without annoyance: Walton had written his Passacaglia for a famous Russian cellist called Mstislav Rostropovich, who had edited it for publication. This edition included his fingerings, which no one with hands the size of mine could possibly use. So I spent a good deal of time exasperatedly crossing them out and replacing them with my own. Any experienced string player knows that adding fingerings is usually best left to the individual: what suits one person will not suit another, and putting them in permanent ink only causes needless crowding of the music. So why editors persevere in this irritating practice is beyond my comprehension.
Packing my cello away, I indulged my curiosity about the old books on a shelf to my left: I wanted to know if they were as old as they looked. The dates I found were 1721, 1783, 1786 and 1807. It was exiciting to know these books had belonged to the church for so long, and that all parties were trusting enough – and the public respectful enough – to leave them be for everyone to enjoy.
Another delightful feature was a pigeon carved in the outer archway of the porch. It was a modern addition, judging by the date beside it, which I think read 1980; but I liked it. I thought Winston church ought to have such a pigeon, to honour Winnie the Wood Pigeon who took her name from the church. I did think this particular pigeon looked rather like the elegant Winnie, and the idea of an immortalised Suffolk pigeon appealed to me. Not sufficiently, of course, to be brave enough to attempt the creation myself. Quite apart from my limited artistic ability, I instinctively recoil from the idea of being the agent of engravings on historic buildings or pen marks on books. Logic, or appreciation of anyone else’s graffiti, has not taken away this sense that I would be defacing a sacred object.
Outside I made an unexpected discovery: the church was on such a high hill that I found myself level with the roof of a house on the north side of the churchyard. It was an unusual perspective, which I enjoyed for a few minutes before circling the churchyard to work out how the roads joined together within this landscape.
Then I headed for the Brightwell coffee shop, where the front garden, complete with ducks and duck pond, looked enticing. But the wind was bitter and I was forced to take shelter inside. Revived by my break, I decided to head for Martlesham: at the back of my mind was my 300th church – which I was now more confident of reaching this afternoon, open churches permitting – and my choices for this milestone were Martlesham or Brightwell. For several reasons I decided against Martlesham: I had history with the place – my time fostering animals for the RSPCA, which hadn’t been wholly positive – and due to Martlesham feeling in some ways almost a suburb of Woodbridge, I thought I was more likely to find it locked than Brightwell. So Martlesham would be my 299th church.
St Mary’s, Martlesham
Indoor temperature: 10.7˚C, humidity: 61%
As I drew into to the church car park, the place came back to me: I had been here once before to walk along the estuary one freezing January morning, although I am not sure I visited the church on that occasion. The walking route to the estuary itself was complicated and not easy to find without a map, so I could easily have bypassed the church.
It was located well away from the village, leaving any unpleasant memories thankfully in the distant background. This part of Martlesham couldn’t feel any less like a suburb of Woodbridge, or any more remote from the industrial estates beside the A12. The setting was lovely, as was the view over the river (see header photo), and it looked as though I had missed a stunning display of snowdrops – and was too early for an equally stunning display of bluebells.
The church interior was a little too cold and dark for such a glorious afternoon, and I was sorry to be indoors, but playing the cello here soon distracted me. It was a pleasant church, after all, with some interesting features: a wall painting, lovely bench ends and a modern stained glass window.
All Saints’, Kesgrave
Indoor temperature: 15.2˚C, humidity: 52%
My 300th church didn’t go to plan. Confidently assuming Brightwell would be open, like every other non-suburban village church I had encountered on the peninsula, I walked up the steep hill to the church laden with all my equipment to find it not only locked, but no answer from any of the four people and multiple phone numbers listed on the noticeboard. Except for one: the keyholder was leaving for an appointment and couldn’t open the church for me.
Absolutely determined not to give up, I tried each number several times, and on my fourth attempt to the second keyholder, someone picked up. It was the keyholder’s sister. She passed me over.
‘I don’t have a car and I can’t lend you the key but I can come with you’. She lived in Kesgrave: not far away in the grand scheme of things, but far enough to leave me with approximately five minutes, if I was lucky, to play in Brightwell church after taking the ferrying into account: I was due at Steve’s house at 5.30pm. It wasn’t promising to be a very relaxing 300th church visit.
I had no option. This was my last church on the peninsula apart from the Walton and Felixstowe churches at the other end of it. But, as I was examining my map, trying desperately to follow her instructions as to how to find her house – she was bizarrely explaining it to me as though I knew Kesgrave, even though I told her I didn’t – an idea occurred to me as I put the phone down.
Kesgrave. It was theoretically a town church, but I had already decided that I would be including them all in my tour after all. If I was going there anyway to pick up a key, it made more sense not to drive all the way back again, and it would save me at least twenty minutes. Assuming it was open, of course, and I wasn’t confident it would be. So I phoned back the keyholder: she didn’t know if it was kept open either, so I told her I would check before coming to her house, and phone to let her know.
To my huge relief and slight amazement, the door gave way as I turned the handle. Good on Kesgrave, I thought. It might be on a busy main road, but it was open. And for all that, it was a rather lovely looking old church: on the outside at least. When I entered, I found a huge spaceship-like extension at the back, carpet tiles and a glassed off chancel which all but removed any lingering sense of a medieval church. But not quite.
I sat near the chancel to play, as I often do, though the shape of this extended church made it feel a rather random choice. The crucial aspect of this decision, however, was that I was facing the tower arch and little door beside it, and these features reminded me that I was in an old building. [Photo far right: ‘replica of the seal of Butley Priory. Kesgrave was one of 23 churches under the jurisdiction of this Priory, until the Dissolution in 1538, ending 400 years’ association with Butley’.]
The acoustic and atmosphere were nothing to speak of, but the church was warm, which was welcome. I still had very little time to play here, despite having saved myself a considerable number of minutes of driving. Perhaps the greatest disappointment, however, was the lack of visitors’ book in which to record my milestone. What a great shame, and how unusual, not to mention strange, for an open church not to have one!
Still, after all the hurdles, I left Kesgrave happy that I had managed to reach 300 this afternoon, and I decided my visit to Acton church, which I had arranged for the following day, would be my ‘honorary’ 300th church: I knew it would be more representative of my project as a whole, and I had hopes of its being a special church.
After enjoying a tour round the exterior of the church somewhat more than the interior, I left a little late for Steve’s house, for a play-through of some duets, and – though he didn’t yet know it – to celebrate my milestone.
Header photo: View across the estuary from Martlesham churchyard