St Peter’s, Little Thurlow
It was the last day of my church-visiting break, and I thought I had plenty of time to pack and tidy up before meeting the keyholder at Little Thurlow church at 11am. And then suddenly I didn’t. I was ten minutes late arriving at the church, which I knew I should have made more effort to avoid, because of the lady’s brusque, slightly flustered manner on the phone the previous evening. As with Great Thurlow, I don’t think she was the keyholder listed, but either a member of the family, or a farm employee, or both.
She was waiting for me inside. My lateness didn’t improve our interactions: she was polite, but no more. I apologised and did my best to win her round with gratitude, friendliness and smiles, but my efforts were in vain: I would have been an inconvenience even if I had arrived on time. I guess I had interrupted her work. I offered to return the key afterwards, but she replied that she’d have to come back to lock up. Her tone implied quite clearly that I couldn’t possibly be left in charge of the key – despite the fact I knew, from Sue’s investigations the previous day, that there was someone in the village from whose porch I could have simply taken and returned the key, if anyone could have remembered which house it was. So I gave up and simply thanked her again for letting me in.
The church setting was pretty, but inside I didn’t feel a great connection with Little Thurlow; which is interesting, as Simon Knott describes it as ‘far the best church’ of the six ‘Greats and Littles’ in this area along the Cambridgeshire border. I’m not exactly sure of his criteria, but in this instance I don’t agree. It was large and elaborate for a ‘Little’, I thought, and yes, it had impressive memorials and what Simon Knott thinks is an excellent stained glass window – neither of which features I have the capacity to fully appreciate – but it was dark, and didn’t possess the uplifting atmosphere of, say, Great Bradley. ‘Historical features do not a church make’, I think, to thoroughly misquote Aristotle – though I did enjoy the 12th century font and painted rood screen panels.
I played the cello for about half an hour, until I suddenly had a craving to be outdoors again. It was starting to feel stuffy. I am intolerant of being indoors with closed windows during the summer, unless the weather is inclement or it is dark outside. I need to feel the breeze, or I quickly begin to feel unsettled.
My circumnavigation of the churchyard gave me a view of some very odd, round clerestory windows, which made the church look like a ship. I’m not sure how I didn’t notice them when I was indoors…
St Mary’s, Great Wratting
My appointment at Little Thurlow was followed by one at Great Wratting an hour and a half later. I had been looking forward to my visits to Great and Little Wratting, simply because their names amused me: I am a fan of rats, and have been keeping them as pets for more than a decade. But the church didn’t immediately endear itself to me: it was up a hill directly above a bend in the road, and there was nowhere to stop. So I continued along the road and parked on a green in front of a farm.
As I got out of the car, a man walked up the farm drive towards the road, carrying what I thought could only be a church key, so I asked if he was the churchwarden, and introduced myself. Apparently I had forgotten to mention that I wanted to play the cello – though I had a vague memory of having done so in the phone message I had left him the previous evening, if not when we actually spoke – so he was surprised to see me unloading musical equipment, and told me that his seven-year-old grandson had recently started learning the cello. After Little Thurlow, I was glad to meet a smiley keyholder who was happy to chat.
My impressions continued to improve once we were inside. The church smelled nice – of old wood, perhaps. ‘Since I’m here I’m going to correct the church clock!’ Simon, the churchwarden, said, and left me to set up. Once he came down again, he added, ‘the cat’s out of the bag, I’m afraid! My daughter and grandsons are coming over to the church to listen’.
‘Oh great!’ I replied. ‘I didn’t realise they were here in the village, or I’d have suggested it!’
A couple of minutes later, they came in. I have to confess to being rather amused by the name of the younger child: Cosmo. I had never heard the name before; at least, not as a person’s name. His brother, the one learning the cello, was called Hugh. I finished playing the piece I’d started, and then offered to play them a tune they knew. The Grand Old Duke of York was the chosen song, and they marched up the church aisle together in time to the music. Cosmo was rather hyperactive, probably trying to attract attention as high-spirited small children often do; his older brother was calmer and more willing to engage with the cello and the music. The unexpectedness of this informal musical interaction contributed to the pleasure it gave me, and I will never forget my visit to Great Wratting church because of it.
They left after a short while, but I didn’t stay much longer: I wanted to fit in one more church visit before going home.
St Mary’s, Little Wratting
I was just leaving Kedington church – where I had stopped to take photos of the dates on the roof beams, which I’d forgotten to do before – when I received a phone call from the churchwarden of Little Wratting church. I’d left a message but hadn’t heard back, and had decided to leave it for another time. ‘I’m just back from holiday!’ she said, ‘I can let you in whenever you want this afternoon’. I was less than five minutes down the road from Little Wratting, so I told her I’d turn around and come back.
It was a sweet little church, and seemed sweeter now that I knew I could get inside. The setting was picturesque, despite being so close to a main road, and the churchyard pretty. The keyholder assured me she was entirely happy to come down to the church to give me the key, despite only having just arrived home.
We chatted for a little while, and she told me that the churchyard was circular, showing that the site had been used since Saxon times, and many artefacts had been found in the area. The inscription over the doorway was pre-Saxon, she said; the door, Saxon. No one, apparently, had yet been able to decipher the script (see header photo), which I found almost unbelievable. Surely some obsessive would have sat down with it for as long as it took to find out what it meant… It was clear that the stone slab had been reused and recut: part of the writing was cut off at the top. Simon Knott disagrees with these ages, however: the inscription is Saxon, he says, and the door, Norman. Purely from logic and the little I have so far observed, I am inclined towards his conclusion.
I didn’t manage to see the circular boundary of the churchyard; nor could I see it on satellite photos, bar one corner nearest the road, which was slightly curved. Perhaps you need to know what you are looking at…
The interior of the church was very dark, and on the whole I preferred the exterior, although the old pews were lovely. It was an extremely tickly church visit: everywhere I went, I walked through a cobweb or three. No church is immune, but locked ones tend to suffer more. Luckily I am not the sort of person who finds this particularly objectionable – the cobwebs, not the locked churches, I mean.
As well as my cello, I had brought along my father’s clarinet: I had learnt it for a couple of years as a teenager, but with hindsight think its poor condition contributed to my giving up, unable to make a sound that I deemed beautiful or even particularly acceptable, even though my technical abilities advanced fairly quickly in those two years. It was a pre-war instrument, of a slightly different design (though with the same keys) to those more often played today. My friend Steve had recently given it an overhaul, and I thought that with my new-found enjoyment of plodding practice, and considering that (at present) I didn’t need to dedicate so many hours of practice to the cello as I did earlier in the year, perhaps I could spend just fifteen minutes most days on the clarinet and see where it would get me.
I was pleased with the results so far: not only had reading music come back to me quite quickly – transposing instruments can cause problems for people with perfect pitch: the note you hear is not the note you see – but what I had once learnt on the clarinet did too. Now all that was required was for my recently acquired plodding abilities to get me through those obstacles not related to the clarinet’s condition that had been the other contributing factors to my giving up previously. The clarinet was certainly already sounding more acceptable to me than it did twenty years ago.
After practising both instruments, I went outside to take photographs, and found a lady in the churchyard tending a grave. ‘How lovely to hear music playing in the church!’ she said, after we had greeted each other.
My first thought was that I hoped it was the cello she had heard. But I guess even the clarinet would have been muffled enough from her distant position not to embarrass me too much. My next thought was how sad it was that the opportunity for music to be played there was reduced by the church being kept locked. As time goes on, I understand it less and less. It reminds me of people keeping their best crockery for special occasions, with the result that it simply stays in the cupboard for decades getting dusty. I benefitted from one such collection of pottery: a dinner set from my favourite pottery in Kersey, which is now sadly closed. Pottery should be used, and if that means it is occasionally broken, so be it. Buildings are also there to be used, and churches should be kept open. Occasionally perhaps things will be stolen or vandalised if they are not removed, stored or protected adequately; but this risk can be minimised, and certainly not by keeping them locked. It is an awful waste, and terribly sad, to leave them locked and alone.
I left for home, very satisfied to have visited all of the churches closest to the county boundary – more so, because most of them were kept locked. The few remaining churches in this area were a little closer to home and therefore easier to visit in a day trip. Now there were no huge gaps left on my church map; there was no corner of Suffolk that I had completely neglected.
All Saints’, Rede
More than three weeks passed before my next church visit. On the last day of August I had my first of a run of three Saturday concerts in churches I’d never visited: Rede, Tuddenham (near Bury) and Brundish. It was fun to have concerts in new churches; more often I’d already played in them. This one had come about through a churchwarden who had attended my concert in Brockley the previous autumn.
The long season of guests and visitors was finally taking its toll, however, and I wasn’t feeling energetic about performing. Until I received a text from Sarah, a member of Penny’s choir – whom I didn’t know well but had been trying to arrange to meet for coffee – saying that she and Polly, another choir member, were going to come. I had thought Polly wasn’t free, although I knew she was lending us her keyboard for the occasion. They were both warm, smiley people, and I was glad they would be there. All of a sudden, I was looking forward to the concert.
My enthusiasm increased further once I arrived. Rede was a little church of my favourite kind: small, rustic, and with a gorgeous acoustic. Rede itself was charming too: before the concert, I wandered over to the toilet in the village hall, which was opposite the pub. It was a picture-postcard rural pub: thatched, and sitting behind a little green. Immediately I decided I had to go back for a meal there. In the village hall I found a curious old photo of an enclosure full of chickens and rabbits. No explanation was offered, so I was left to imagine… I hope they weren’t all destined for the pot.
Walking back to the church, the tower was beautifully lit up in the evening sun. The concert audience wasn’t huge, but the atmosphere was perfect. I felt entirely comfortable with my cello and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Even the keyboard was a pleasant surprise – to the extent that James decided to invest in this model of keyboard for future concerts in churches with no piano. It might even be better than some church pianos…
It was a joyful evening. In my weariness, I didn’t look forward to the 45-minute drive home in the dark. But I went to bed happy.
Header photo: Inscription over the doorway, Little Wratting church
Total churches to the end of August: 335 + 3 chapels