I was quite pleased with my arrangements for the following day. There were three churches in the vicinity of Rushford that I hadn’t yet visited; one was apparently open every day, and the other two I succeeded in arranging access to. I had been avoiding Redgrave for a long time after a somewhat unpleasant phone conversation with a keyholder: he was polite, but only just. His manner resembled that of a suspicious bouncer more than a welcoming keyholder – even though I had been put in touch with him by the Churches Conservation Trust, which is responsible for the church. I hoped I might find the details for another keyholder online, therefore bypassing the necessity of contacting this man again, but it had taken me 18 months to get round to it. Thankfully, I did find another keyholder, and this time I emailed rather than phoned. The prompt response I got couldn’t have been more of a contrast, friendly and enthusiastic, and my attitude to the church changed accordingly. By the end of our communications, I couldn’t wait to visit Redgrave.
St Mary’s, Coney Weston
It was a freezing, sleeting morning when I arrived at Coney Weston and found a man dismantling the noticeboard by the churchyard gate in order to put up a new one. He didn’t seem too bothered by the weather, but I didn’t envy him. We greeted each other before I went up to the church, confident of its being open. But it wasn’t. A notice on the door informed me that in winter it was only open on weekends. The man at the gate wanted to help, but, he explained, he only had the key to Hepworth church.
‘Ah, I played in a concert there in the spring!’ I said.
‘With… Kirbye Voices, is that right?’ he replied. ‘I thought I recognised your face!’
We chatted a moment longer, and I went to get my phone from the car to try a keyholder. Thankfully, I got an immediate and friendly response, and went back to the village to collect the key. It was perhaps a two-mile round trip, but I calculated that I still had enough time to fit in three churches.
When I got back, I put Fluffy chicken in the porch to have her breakfast. The man didn’t notice, and a dog walker stopped to chat to him; so before I went inside, I said, ‘just so you know, there’s a chicken in the porch!’ I told him partly so as to save him a surprise, as there was no outer door on the porch, but also so that he could warn any other dog owners came into the churchyard. He reacted as though it was the most normal thing in the world, however, and told me he had one chicken at home – she was the last one left. I wondered why he didn’t get her some friends, but perhaps that internal query originated from my personal view that chickens are an indispensable part of daily life.
‘Why don’t you take her in with you? We take dogs in there, why not a chicken?’ he said. I refrained from explaining that she wasn’t house trained – if such a thing is possible. The real reason I’d taken her inside at Worlington was that the glazed Victorian floor tiles inside the church were easier to clean than the bricks in the porch, should that be necessary. Here, the floor was not so smooth and shiny. But I managed to find a suitable spot for her next to me in the chancel, and was pleased to have her close by so that I could keep an ear and eye on the progress of her breakfast, without stopping my practice every few minutes.
It wasn’t until after my visit that I took a proper look at the church from outside: I had kept my head down and my hood up on my way in, so unpleasant was the weather. But now I saw a pretty little thatched church up a hill beside the road, and thought that I’d like to come back on a more hospitable day.
St Mary’s, Market Weston
It was a day of friendly keyholders. A thoroughly lovely man called Richard was waiting for me at Market Weston church when I arrived. It turned out we’d been in concerts together: he was in the Bury Bach Choir and had sung in concerts in which I’d played in the orchestra. I think – I hope – I remembered to invite him to stay and listen, but after we had chatted for a while, he left me alone to practise.
Apart from its remote setting in open fields, the church didn’t appeal to me greatly – though the weather could have been partly to blame. If the nave had been filled with sunshine, perhaps I would have felt it less austere-looking with its high roof, dark wood and red carpet. There is something severe about the combination of dark brown and bright red, and the beige walls didn’t help. But no matter what a church is like in character, it always retains a spark for me when I have a friendly encounter: I will always like this church and its village because of the person who let me in. I was happy just practising peacefully, and Richard’s warm welcome took the edge off the cold air. The most interesting feature was a piece of carved oak dating from the 15th century, possibly part of a rood loft, that had been found over the doorway of the old post office when it was being repaired after bomb damage. The sign informed me that it wasn’t known for certain if it came from this church, but the evidence suggested it was likely.
Before leaving Market Weston, I phoned Julian, the Redgrave keyholder, to tell him I was on my way. He was already at the church, his wife told me, and I felt bad not knowing how long he had been waiting there for me. Perhaps I hadn’t answered his email clearly enough.
St Mary’s, Redgrave
For some reason I thought the church was in the centre of Redgrave. Perhaps because I knew Redgrave was a ‘proper’ village, and I knew St Mary’s was a big church, so I assumed they would naturally live together. But I was wrong, and my dithering caused me further worry: by the time I had gone the wrong way, turned around, consulted my map and finally realised that I was on the right road in the first place and needed to continue out of the village, my arrival time was later than I’d hoped. At least I got a look at Redgrave though: it seemed a nice place. Yes, a proper village, but a rural-feeling, spacious one with a green and nothing too much like a pavement or village centre. Unless I didn’t pass it, of course.
I needn’t have worried about Julian. I was met with a warm hand shake and a big smile when I opened the door to the huge church. He said he had some things to do here anyway, so it was no inconvenience to him to arrive early. I think it was one of the warmest welcomes I have received. As well as a chair at the front of the chancel, he’d placed an electric heater either side of the chair, attached to an extension cord. I assured him it wasn’t necessary, but I didn’t protest for long: I was feeling the cold and was grateful for some heat. We chatted for a few minutes about the church, and Julian told me of the musicals and concerts that had taken place here, and the recent repairs to the tower and bells. Then I sat down to play. Before long, he offered me a cup of tea. ‘We don’t have milk though,’ he added. I didn’t mind at all: the idea of any hot liquid was extremely appealing by now.
After playing a few movements of Bach and stopping for tea, Julian gave me a tour of the church. It possessed many historical details, such as wall paintings, medieval glass fragments, monuments and brasses. Particularly interesting was the discovery of vaults under the church floor, of which he showed me some photos. Then there was the table covered in graffiti which had come from the school at Botesdale, and a chest that they were taking care of for another church.
The next stage of my tour was to be taken up the tower to see the work done to restore and rehang the bells. At the bell stage, the wall bricks were all covered in graffiti. I loved this unofficial history of a church’s bell ringers. Then we went up further, to see the bells. We stood precariously perched on some beams, holding on to other beams, with the gale blowing through the tower. It was fun: I had only been up two other church towers in Suffolk, Hitcham and Stoke by Nayland.
When the tour was over, Julian helped me carry my equipment back to the car. There was one more introduction to be made outdoors. The church wasn’t quite out on its own in the fields: opposite, down a farm track, was a newly opened – and good, so Julian told me – café. Or more precisely, bakery and brewery. I liked the unusual combination. Although they do have yeast in common, so perhaps they should go together more often. It was definitely one to add to my ‘tea room map of Suffolk’: I will have to go back.
Header photo: Market Weston church