St Mary’s, Santon Downham
I overslept the next morning. But officially this was a holiday, so I was glad of the extra sleep. By the time I had looked up churches, and fed and watered Fluffy Chicken, it was well after 11am. Her christened name is Knicker, from my trio of Brahma chickens, Knicker, Bocker and Glory, named triumphantly by my friend Jo; but she always ends up being called variations on Fluff, for more than one obvious reason… I always hesitate, then laugh, then try to explain, when booking a vet appointment and the receptionist asks me her name. When the vet comes out and calls for ‘Knicker’, I just have to hope there aren’t too many people in the waiting area paying attention…
I didn’t reach Santon Downham until nearly 12, and realised I’d probably only fit in two churches as a consequence, or I wouldn’t manage a walk before dark. I chose Santon Downham and Lakenheath because they were relatively close to each other and I knew I would almost certainly find them open. I needed to group churches strategically on this trip to minimise driving: the parishes in this northwest corner of the county are uncharacteristically spread out, and my accommodation wasn’t that close to any of them. I was also worried that most of these churches would be kept locked. Not entirely true, it turned out; but some of them are, and I decided it wasn’t worth wasting time turning up at a church without checking first. I was in the area for a few days, and could do the necessary research in advance.
Santon Downham was the furthest north. The village name sounded to me more like a Norfolk name than a Suffolk one, and was more or less located in a clearing in Thetford forest. There was no one around, and the churchyard was enclosed, so I took out Fluff, along with her food and water, and put her outside the church porch to continue her late breakfast. It was a blustery, showery day, however, and she didn’t look too pleased, so I moved her into the porch. Then I took my own equipment into the church, which was so dark I had to set up to practise in the only place I could find light switches: in the chancel. The churchyard only had trees on two sides, and they were not close up against the church; neither was the church oppressed by much heavy stained glass. It was simply that the sky was so grey. It was almost too dark inside at midday to take photographs.
I was surprised that my hands weren’t in the least bit cold, and this made a huge difference: the first half hour of playing didn’t have to be spent just trying to defrost my fingers. As I was practising, planes from Lakenheath passed overhead. It was deafening; the whole church shook. I wouldn’t last a week in this area of Suffolk, I thought. It reminded me of when I was a child: planes from Wattisham airbase near my house used to sound like this. But that had stopped long ago, thank goodness. I never knew what had changed, until shortly after my visit to Santon Downham, when I mentioned it to the keyholder at Redgrave. He told me that the Wattisham airbase had changed hands: it used to be an RAF airbase, and now it was an army one. Mainly helicopters flew from there now, and only the very occasional plane.
Most of my interest was focussed on the exterior of the church, and this wasn’t only due to the lack of light to see the interior properly. Outside I discovered filled in archways, patched walls, Norman doorways, moss-decorated symbols at the base of the tower, and a stone carving. These are the moments in which I wish my historical understanding of such things was greater. How old was this picture of a dog or wolf with what looked like flowers and foliage around it? As old as the door? I suspected so, but didn’t dare hope. But, reading about it afterwards, this seemed to be the case. 11th century, most likely. It was beautiful.
Fluff and I packed up, tried not to get too wet on the way to the car, and headed for Lakenheath.
St Mary’s, Lakenheath
On my way to Lakenheath, I was misled by a church sign directing me along a track towards the airfield. I assumed this must be Lakenheath church, not pausing my thoughts long enough to remember that it was in the village. I drove to the end of the track, where I found another sign, and another track: ‘New Beginnings International Church’. That couldn’t be it, surely. I turned around and continued towards Lakenheath. On my left as I drove along the road, I saw a church across a field: the church I had been heading for. It definitely looked old. I pulled over to look up photos of Lakenheath church online, to make sure this wasn’t it. It wasn’t. None of my OS Explorer maps covered this corner of Suffolk – an awkward borderland spanning at least 3 maps – so the detective work would have to wait.
Lakenheath was a larger village than I expected. Half way down the high street, doubt set in so I stopped to ask a lady where the church was. I had almost reached it. It was a delightful surprise: old and beautiful, with a Norman chancel arch, medieval bench ends, wall paintings, an ancient floor and an angel roof. I didn’t even realise the font was Norman until I read about it afterwards: I have never seen such an ornate font dating from that period.
My practice was somewhat distracted by a reply from Brandon church: I had contacted them to ask about access. ‘I’m afraid we don’t do private bookings of the church’, the reply said. I was put out. Had I written my email in too much of a hurry and not explained myself clearly enough for someone to whom my request to play in their church might seem entirely random? Or had I not been polite enough? I looked back over my message. No, it was fine. That was a relief at least. Perhaps there were one or two corners I could have taken more time over, from an explanation point of view, but it was perfectly polite, and not particularly obscure, as far as I could see. My mind was already racing ahead as to how I might get round the problem. But I needed to slow it down, and attempt to address the misunderstanding. I had to assume it was a misunderstanding. I would need to try and sweet-talk them into changing their mind. It made it more difficult that I didn’t know who I was actually corresponding with. I assumed it was a churchwarden; most likely a woman.
‘It’s not really a private booking…’ I answered. ‘I’d like to see inside the church too, is that allowed? I’d only play my cello for a few minutes while I was there… I’ve played in nearly 400 of Suffolk’s medieval churches already, and it would be a great shame to leave out Brandon. ’
Now I just had to wait. The reply came back a few minutes later. ‘Ah, I see. I could do tomorrow evening or Thursday…’
What a relief. Maybe not overly friendly, but nevertheless I had obtained the desired outcome. The evening wasn’t ideal – I wouldn’t be able to see or photograph the exterior of the church, and it would be another forty or fifty minute round trip from my accommodation, when I’d rather be indoors in the warm, writing. But I was so pleased to have received a favourable answer that I would do whatever was necessary; and it was certainly less of a journey from Rushford than it would be from home. We fixed a time for the following evening.
I was glad that the problem was sorted out so easily, but I had long ago lost concentration and it seemed already to be getting dark, so I packed up to go home. The exterior of the church was just as lovely as the interior, and I found another patch of that strange stone-but-not-stone, septaria, in the south wall. I wondered why it had ended up in this corner of the county, so far from the estuaries where it is usually present.
North of Thetford, the traffic stopped, and showed no signs of moving again. Whatever was going on was too far ahead to see. I’d only eaten a banana for lunch, having had breakfast late and been expecting to get back by 3pm for a walk, so my patience was at a low ebb. It was now 4pm. I turned around and drove back through Santon Downham, my journey taking more than double the time it should have. I could have got all the way home in that time, I thought. But also doubled was the pleasure of finally getting into the warm and light where food and hot tea awaited.
Header photo: Wall detail, Santon Downham church