St Mary’s, Mendlesham
It was my dad’s birthday, a recital was approaching fast, and I had little desire to practise at home: perfect excuses for a church excursion. I had also finally had an idea of how to start the book I intended to write about my church project, so a cafe stop on the way would provide an opportunity free of home distractions to turn my thoughts into writing.
I thought about cafés, and about churches I hadn’t yet visited within a thirty to forty minute drive, and came up with Mendlesham. Inexplicably, although I had passed it many times on my way elsewhere, I hadn’t yet stopped there. Conveniently, it was less than five minutes away from a place called the Chilli Farm Deli and Café, in a converted barn, which I had enjoyed greatly once before despite its proximity to the A140.
When I arrived, I discovered it was no longer the Chilli Farm Deli and Café, but thankfully there was still a café there – apparently owned by the same people, though lacking some of the interest and atmosphere of its previous incarnation. There was nowhere else to go nearby anyway, so I stayed for coffee, and made a better start on the book than I had dared hope. It was thrilling to feel ready to embark on the next stage of my church journey.
I went on to Mendlesham church, fairly confident that I would find it open. But it took me a few minutes to discover it was the north, not south, door by which I could enter: the huge churchyard on the south side had misled me. The north door arch was oddly cut off on its right hand side and I was puzzled as to how and why this had come about. Also puzzling was the font on this side of the door: I had never seen a font in a porch before. It was a rather lovely one, more lovely than the indoor font. I read afterwards that it had been brought here from Rishangles church when the latter was made redundant.
Mendlesham was a large church, and far more interesting than I anticipated. For some reason I never expect much of large churches, even though experience should have taught me by now how special many of them are. Its floor was perhaps my favourite feature, made up of multi-coloured bricks and pamments. But there were plenty of others: medieval stained glass, brasses, graffiti, bench ends and a large, old, wooden mechanism whose use I couldn’t fathom. Perhaps it was something to do with bells, I thought, or a clock.
The acoustic was no less impressive than the rest of the church, and I enjoyed my practice. I wouldn’t fit in another church this afternoon without rushing, so I stayed until I had had my fill. The afternoon light in the churchyard was a beautiful end to a satisfying afternoon, and I felt I had celebrated appropriately on behalf of my father. I knew he would have enjoyed my afternoon out as much as I had.
St Mary’s, Bedingfield
My friend Will was giving a ‘practice’ cello duet concert in his house two days later – before the real thing in Westhall church the following evening. I planned to go, and had a free afternoon, so took my cello along with me to practise in a church on the way and break up the drive, which was over an hour. I checked which churches were open, and aimed for Southolt. But I passed Bedingfield on the way, and found it open, so I stopped there instead.
When I saw the notice in the timber-framed porch informing me that it had been built in 1371 by Peter de Bedingfield, I wondered, not for the first time, if villages took their names from people, or people took their names from villages. I knew the likely answer, especially because of the inclusion of the word ‘de’ in this instance, and probably the learned answer lay buried somewhere at the back of my mind; but still I had to look it up to satisfy my uncertainty. Reading that surnames did not exist until medieval times, I satisfied not only my uncertainty, but also my suspicion that the scale of my ignorance was really quite as impressive as I suspected.
The interior of the church felt cosy for a showery afternoon. Before sitting down to practise, I admired the double hammerbeam roof, font, chest, defaced medieval bench ends and graffiti. I didn’t have as long there as I intended: I think I had taken more of a detour than I realised, judging by the length of time my satnav informed me it would take to get to Westhall from Bedingfield. But it was enough time to be productive.
All the way to Westhall I enjoyed a beautiful sky and a rainbow. We’d had a lot of them lately, a gift provided by the changeable weather. Following my satnav, I was also treated to a tour of lanes I didn’t know, passing through Stradbroke for the first time and seeing the church which my friend Penny had mentioned to me more than once. I would have to go there soon. Getting to know new pockets of the county is always a thrill, especially as these unknown pockets are gradually diminishing the more churches I visit.
St Mary’s, Gosbeck
If there’s anything better than finding new pockets of Suffolk on my travels, it’s finding a church not far from home that I didn’t even know existed. Gosbeck was one such church. I’m not sure how I had missed it, but I finally spotted it on my church map and managed to locate it on my Ordnance Survey map just north of Coddenham.
It was Saturday, and I had a recital in Rushmere St Andrew the following afternoon. There was no getting round the fact I had to practise, but I had no desire to. I did fancy an excursion, however. So Gosbeck was a godsend: close enough to make the prospect of going out to practise in just one church appealing, but far enough away to provide a little adventure and a pleasant change of scene.
Gosbeck was just what I would have hoped of a church that had managed to conceal itself from me for two and a half years: tiny, delightful, tucked away on a rural lane, and – crucially – open. The acoustic was good, and practice was productive and enjoyable. Not for the first time, a chore had been turned into joyful adventure.
Header photo: Mendlesham churchyard
Total churches to the end of September: 353 + 3 chapels