St John’s, Denham
The most up-to-date information I could find on Denham church – the Denham near Eye rather than Bury St Edmunds – was from 2007. The Suffolk Churches website informed me that it used to be kept locked without a keyholder; ‘now’ there was a keyholder. I was hopeful that the passage of time, and movement in a positive direction, might mean that it was now kept open. At the very least, I had a chance of finding a keyholder.
I pulled up on the verge opposite the churchyard gate, where I saw a car parked and a man in overalls clearing out leaves from the ditch outside. I said hello and asked, ‘are you connected to the church?’ He looked up but didn’t answer, perhaps not knowing exactly what I meant; so I added, ‘do you happen to know if the church is kept open?’ Then he did answer, in the affirmative, so I took my things out of the car. At this point, seeing my cello, he stopped his work and came over to talk, walking with me up the path and round the back of the church to the open door. The church had no tower, which gave the impression from across the road that it was small. But walking up to it, I began to realise how large it actually was.
The silent beginning of our acquaintance misled me into thinking that this was a reserved man, not given to chat with strangers, so I was surprised when he started telling me that his brother cut the grass in the graveyard, that his parents were both buried here and that he had lived in the area all his life. Our conversation continued a while inside the church before he went back to his work and I set up to play.
The church interior felt even bigger. It was a lovely, light church with a wonderful acoustic. After I’d been playing 20 minutes or so, I jumped when I heard the door latch turn. It was the same man, whose name I later learnt was Philip. He asked if he could listen, and I finished playing the first movement of the Haydn, and continued with the second. When I packed up, we talked some more: he lived in Stradbroke; his sister had died before Christmas but wasn’t buried here, as she wanted to be buried in Diss with her husband. During our chat, I was surprised to hear him say ‘Brome’ as it is spelled, rather than ‘Broom’, which I had learnt to be the correct pronunciation. Perhaps the reality is that village name pronunciation in Suffolk is more fluid than some people might have you believe…
I guessed he was around late sixties or early seventies; he had a white beard and a lovely smile. He was quiet, but not in the sense of being reluctant to talk; rather, quiet in the sense of having a gentle voice and exuding calm. He asked about my church tour, and whether I was fundraising for any charity. He said, ‘my wallet’s in the car, but I’d like to give you something for it’. I suggested he give the money directly to Denham church, since my fundraising for church building charities was only in lieu of fundraising for every village church in the county, which was impossible. But he wanted to give the money to ‘my’ cause, it seemed.
He handed me a £20 note on his return. I couldn’t believe it. I asked which charity he would like it to go to, and he said he didn’t mind. I thanked him profusely, and he shook my hand, saying it was a pleasure to meet me and that the music had made his day. I was moved nearly to tears – by his words, his gesture, and simply by his manner and smile. When a friend asked me later in the day, ‘why was he so lovely?’ – after I described briefly our encounter, which clearly was not as self-explanatory as I assumed it would be – I could only answer, ‘I don’t know. He was just one of those people’. Because of him I will never forget my visit to Denham church.
After he left, I found myself in a dilemma. He had wanted the money to go to one of my chosen charities; but he had heard me play at Denham church. In the end, to-ing and fro-ing in my mind, I felt the only right thing to do, and the most efficient use of the money, was to put it in the church donation box. I felt relatively sure he wouldn’t mind; he probably just wanted me to make the decision. I wrote an additional note in the visitors’ book, explaining that the £20 came from Philip and my reasons for donating it to the church.
I left knowing that this was one of my most special encounters with a stranger in a church. What serendipity it was that I had come here today.
St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Eye
My intended schedule after being delayed at Stuston was sent further off course by my visit to Denham. But I didn’t mind; it was worth it. I would just have make my visit to Eye brief. I didn’t know how easy it would be to park there, so I was pleasantly surprised when the sight of a large tower met me on my way into the town from Denham: I had never approached from this direction before, and didn’t realise the church was on the edge of the town. I was able to park on this side of the churchyard. I quickly became confused, however: I was joined all of a sudden by several more cars. One had already parked ahead of me before I pulled in. Worried that I might not get in after all, I went over to speak to the driver in front of me.
‘Is there an event on in the church?’ I asked.
‘No, it’s the end of school, I’ve come to pick up the kids,’ he replied, gesturing towards the church. I was still a little confused.
‘Where is the school?’
‘Next to the church, just over there,’ he replied.
Reassured, I thanked him, but thought it prudent nevertheless to check I could get in. The church entrance, it turned out, was at the opposite end of the churchyard. There, it was even busier: some cars were waiting inside the wide churchyard gates. The primary school was just outside the churchyard. Despite the distance, and the necessity of negotiating a narrow kissing gate, I thought it would be easier and quicker to leave my car where it was, due to the inconvenient timing of my arrival. So, after lifting my cello and music stand over the railings, and following after it with my bag, I eventually reached my destination. A lovely one it was too. The beautiful south porch, which I had first mistaken for the entrance, was unusual in its construction and impressive in its scale. The interior, also majestic, had a beautiful roof and ancient rood screen, with brightly painted figures. If they had been restored, it had been done convincingly. The upper parts of the rood frame must have been Victorian, however; they were too bright and pristine to be medieval.
I thought the church would have a good acoustic. I’m not sure why, as often large churches are hard to play in. Perhaps it was something to do with the shape of the church; perhaps, though I can’t rationalise it, something about seeing and experiencing the shapes and features of so many different churches has sunk into my subconscious, allowing me to guess on first viewing how they will sound. More often than not, my guess is correct, though I couldn’t tell you precisely what it was based on; it feels more like an instinct than a hypothesis.
It was correct, in this instance, and I played through the last movement of the concerto. After a little extra slow practice, it was time to stop. It was getting dark inside, and I couldn’t find any light switches. Taking photographs was out of the question, which was actually for the best as I would already be late getting home to shut in the chickens. The south porch, it turned out, housed a fairtrade shop, which was closed until 5th February. I wanted to come back to see it, and the photographs provided a convenient excuse. What I failed to note, however, was the opening times; so on my return a month later, I found I was an hour too late. A third visit will have to be arranged, hopefully incorporating a wander around the town which I know so little, and a visit to the castle ruins which I saw ahead of me beyond the churchyard path.
Header photo: Rood canopy, Eye church