St Mary of Grace, Aspall
I was due in Brundish for an evening concert. It was the day of the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust bike ride, so I decided to take advantage of the fact that usually inaccessible churches would be open on this day. Aspall church was at the top of my list: the Aspall of cider fame, and – for me – church notoriety. I had found my last attempted visit thoroughly depressing: there was nowhere obvious to park, no sign of the church being in use, and no keyholder notice. My depression was lifted only by the flock of chickens in the churchyard, and, a little, on emailing the vicar afterwards, who assured me that if I contacted her before my next visit, she would make sure it was open for me. For one reason or another, I hadn’t made it back there yet. But today it lay near my route to Brundish, and I was excited by the prospect of overwriting this memory.
I left my car at the churchyard gate and went inside to speak to whoever was manning the church for the arrival of cyclists. I said hello, explained my intentions, and said how lovely it was to be able to see inside the church today. It was only as I was getting my cello out that it became apparent my appearance wasn’t entirely unexpected.
‘It was you, I think, who contacted the vicar after you tried to visit and found the church locked?’
I answered in the affirmative.
‘Since then it’s been open all the time.’
‘Every day, you mean?’
‘No, I mean it’s open all the time – it’s never locked now’.
I was astonished. What a U-turn, to change from locked with no keyholder notice, to leaving it permanently open! The gentleman, Andrew, explained the varying opinions on the change in policy; he himself didn’t sound quite convinced. But I was over the moon enough for both of us. It sounded as though my communications with the vicar had played a small, if not large, part in the change of heart, and I was glad that I had summoned the courage to suggest tentatively that they might at least put up a keyholder notice. It hardly qualified as activism; but if I had played a tiny part in just one additional Suffolk church being kept open, it would feel like a significant achievement.
Andrew seemed to enjoy listening to me play. He was sorry there weren’t more people to listen, he said, but I was more than happy with an audience of one, especially as it seemed to have brightened up his afternoon: not a single cyclist appeared during my visit. He said this year he’d had 6 cyclists visit during his 3 hour shift at the church, which was many more than last year.
The church interior was Victorian, but I enjoyed the bench ends and the tour of the churchyard afterwards. The greater part of the church’s attractiveness was outdoors, but this was increased greatly by the knowledge that the church was alive and open. On my previous visit, it had seemed a neglected, sad shell of a place. Not today.
Andrew came outside with me and showed me two gravestones of interest: one belonged to a film director and screenwriter, Emeric Pressburger (see header photo), a Star of David indicating he was Jewish. I was surprised to see this in a churchyard. ‘He wanted to be buried here,’ Andrew explained. ‘He lived in Aspall for many years and was a lovely man’. The second was to a doctor, well known in his field.
I left Aspall feeling elated. And knowing that I would arrive late for my rehearsal at Brundish church.
St Lawrence’s, Brundish
I was excited about my visit to Brundish. It would be my 350th church – a milestone that really made me feel as though I was on the home straight. I was happy with the achievement, although ambivalent about the prospect of finishing my journey, much as one would be ambivalent about coming to the end of an engrossing book. I didn’t really want it to end, even though I was excited about completing what had, at the beginning, seemed a daunting and almost unachievable challenge. But I didn’t need to worry too much just yet: it would still take me a year or more to visit the remaining churches.
The other reason I was excited was because the concert would include proper chamber music for the first time, with musicians I had only recently got to know, and really liked: Claire on clarinet, and Christopher on piano. Musically speaking, chamber music had always been my real love, and so far my concerts had only included duets and on occasion trio sonatas from the baroque period, which really are not the same as a passionate piece of Beethoven or Brahms, or a divine piece of Mozart. We were going to perform a trio by Beethoven.
I was, as anticipated, late for the rehearsal, but I wasn’t too worried as I knew Claire had some solo pieces to rehearse with Christopher. I was delighted by the sight of the church as I entered: it was old, simple and spacious, and I knew the acoustic would be a treat.
It turned out, however, that playing chamber music requires a slightly different acoustic to solo playing: it wasn’t so easy to hear the clarinet and piano clearly here. We soon got accustomed to it, however, after changing our configuration so that the clarinet was facing the piano and I was in between. I didn’t envy Christopher his instrument though: despite being a grand piano, it sounded difficult and uneven to play. But I knew he would cope. Claire’s and my greatest challenge was finding somewhere to place our chairs where they would not wobble, due to the old and wonky floor.
Once all the hurdles were adequately dealt with, we proceeded with our rehearsal, and our excitement about the concert increased. It felt like a real celebration of having reached 350 churches, and a perfect church, and perfect company, in which to celebrate.
The audience was relatively small, and the box pews gave an odd feeling of being cut off, as we could only see the tops of their heads; but it was an appreciative audience, and we enjoyed it as much as we hoped they did. Afterwards we all enjoyed a convivial cup of tea and biscuits, and went home tired and happy, resolving to play together again soon.
Header photo: Gravestone of Emeric Pressburger, Aspall churchyard