St Mary’s, Mildenhall
The following morning I woke up a full three hours earlier than the previous day. I was glad, as I was determined to fit in 3 church visits and a walk before I ran out of daylight. My 4th church – Brandon – would be at 7.30 that evening.
I was impressed when I discovered that all three churches I planned to visit in the vicinity of Mildenhall were kept open. Simon Knott (Suffolk Churches website) has little good to say about Mildenhall as a town, or the surrounding area for that matter; but, as my morning’s outing proved to me, it only takes a sunny day and an open, welcoming church to give a positive initial impression. In fact, the open, welcoming church alone is usually enough for me.
My friend Penny had told me Mildenhall church was special, and knowing it was kept open meant that I wasn’t dreading going there. Neither was I dreading going to Brandon that evening, another town I have heard little good about. It’s only the large towns I dread, and perhaps this is as much due to driving and parking nervousness as anything else. Mildenhall did cause me some parking problems, but in the end I used a ‘reduced mobility’ parking spot outside the church, since there was no one about, and left a note in the windscreen.
The first thing that hit me as I entered the church was the smell of Christmas trees. I can never remember which species has – or have – this aroma that takes me instantly back to childhood, but it is a wonderful smell. The church was full of decorated Christmas trees, for a Christmas tree festival. I don’t, personally, make a huge fuss about Christmas, but it did look lovely; colourful and cheery.
The church was as beautiful as Penny had promised. It was large and felt ancient, with many historical details. The angel roof and even more stunning roof carvings and decorations in the north aisle were the highlights. The church had the feel of being the centre of a community, and I hoped this wasn’t simply because of the Christmas trees. I read afterwards that Mildenhall was the largest church in Suffolk1. Can this really be true? I have not yet found any other information corroborating this statement, and I am highly sceptical. It certainly didn’t strike me as being larger than Lavenham, Long Melford, St Mary’s Bury St Edmunds, St Edmundsbury Cathedral or Blythburgh… to name just a few.
I treated my practice here as a warm-up: I didn’t want to leave my car for too long, and I still prefer playing in small village churches, no matter how beautiful large town ones are…
All Saints’, Worlington
I hardly felt like I’d left Mildenhall before I arrived in Worlington: there were only a few meadows and sheep between them. I had played there about five years ago, in a Kirbye Voices concert – my friend Penny’s choir. But I didn’t recognise the approach to the church, probably because I arrived from the other side of the churchyard on the previous occasion, from the house of a choir member.
It was a lovely sunny morning, a complete contrast from the day before, so I took out Fluffy Chicken for some grass and sunshine outside the church porch. I quickly realised, however, how many dog walkers passed through the churchyard, so I couldn’t leave her there. The only thing to do was to take her in the church with me. The advantage of this was undisturbed practice: I could hear her pecking at her food – which continued nearly the whole time I was practising, when she wasn’t drinking water instead – and so didn’t feel the need to go and check on her regularly.
I didn’t remember the interior of the church at all from my previous visit, nor its wonderful acoustic. The roof was plain and beautiful, of an unusual style that I hadn’t seen before. There was graffiti everywhere. My practice was productive and enjoyable, and I was pleased with Fluff’s eating session, so I felt we both left the church contented.
Just as I opened the church door with Fluff in my arms, a woman was approaching with her dog. Imagining her surprise, and what might be going through her head, I grinned. I waited for her to pass, thinking she must be baffled, as, apart from returning a smile, she said nothing. But I couldn’t let this bizarre moment pass without acknowledging it, so I said, laughing, ‘not your usual sight!’ ‘No!’ she replied. ‘I’ll leave you to that one I think…’ But which I assume she meant, ‘I won’t ask!’ She didn’t seem to know quite what to say. I giggled to myself all the way to Freckenham, imagining what possible reasons there could be, in her head, for someone leaving a church carrying a chicken.
St Andrew’s, Freckenham
Only a few minutes from Worlington, I arrived at Freckenham – a far cry from the scattered parishes a little further north. I left Fluff in the car this time, feeling she’d had enough excitement and enough food for the morning. Admittedly, she did slow me down, but I loved having a creature companion on my travels.
The church was lit up in the afternoon sun and there was a lovely view at the far end of the church, downhill across someone’s driveway and several horse meadows. The church interior was unmemorable in comparison to the two previous ones, but I enjoyed the bench ends and some graffiti. Practice was productive: I had practised one movement of the Haydn concerto in each church, which meant I had now got through all of it. By 2.15, I packed up to head home, pleased that I had finally managed to leave myself enough time for a sunny walk.
St Peter’s, Brandon
Before I had to gather myself together to go out again around 7pm, I received another message from my correspondent at Brandon church. ‘I have just read your article in the Church Times, how wonderful. I have a request too, would you allow me to photograph you whilst you play?’
I am not keen on being photographed, but I have got used to it. And, besides, there was something more important to me in this message: whoever was meeting me at the church was no longer doing so reluctantly. Knowing this helped me to go out again in the cold and dark, and I was glad to reciprocate.
As I approached the church door, I heard singing. I was momentarily confused: was there a choir rehearsal underway? But when I went inside, it stopped instantly, and a man wearing a dog collar appeared. It was a recording: the church was filled with what looked like high-tech sound equipment. Also apparently high-tech was his photography equipment. I was surprised on all counts. The guess I had made that my correspondent was a woman and a churchwarden was completely wrong. He was the curate, married to the vicar, and was from Liverpool, judging by his accent. We greeted each other and I thanked him for his time and coming to meet me at the church.
He had set up a chair for me in front of the altar; clearly that was his chosen photo shoot location, so I didn’t object. Beside the altar was a crochet Christmas tree: probably my favourite feature of the church. The other amusing detail was a toy carrot with arms and legs hanging from the rood screen. I did enquire as to the reason for its presence, but received only a laugh in reply.
My hands were freezing. I kept all my layers on, only substituting fingerless mittens for gloves. I played a few movements of Bach: long enough, I hoped, for his photographs; short enough, I hoped, not to inconvenience him. My playing was mediocre due to the cold, but I judged that the circumstances made this small fact unimportant. He told me there were people who would have been sorry to miss my playing, so the photographs would be welcome. I offered to come back to give a concert – formal or informal – if he thought there were enough people who would be keen to listen. He sounded cautiously interested, adding, ‘I don’t think we’ve ever had a classical concert here’.
After that visit to Brandon, I concluded I prefer seeing churches in daylight. They feel more friendly, somehow. That seems odd, as darkness can bring cosiness. Perhaps it depends on the type of church, too. This was a large, Victorianised church which reminded me somewhat of Elmswell, perhaps because of its evangelical feel. That was another church I visited in the dark.
Both this and the issue of not being able to take outdoor photos were, however, inadvertently resolved when I realised the following day that I’d left my notebook at Brandon. Inconvenient, but in fact convenient: I arranged to go back that weekend, visiting Elveden church on the way – the only one in the area I hadn’t got round to – and I was able to see the church in beautiful afternoon sunlight, and to photograph the exterior.
Header photo: Mildenhall church roof