St Mary’s, Preston St Mary
I hadn’t been inside Preston church for perhaps five or six years. As I had become accustomed to in such instances, I could remember the general size and layout of the interior, but none of the details. As I approached the door, I could hear the organ, and feared once again that my 400th church plan for two days later would be thwarted. But I went inside anyway to find out how long the organist planned to stay.
Before I could say anything, a tall gentleman standing beside the woman who was playing the organ turned around and said, ‘Hello, Yalda!’ The lady then stopped and turned around, adding her greeting to his. I recognised them – the man more clearly than the woman – but couldn’t place them, though I assumed they lived in the village. ‘I’m Keith, we met at Sylvia’s party in Kettlebaston. You did some playing and I did some singing!’ His memory was better than mine for a garden full of people two and a half years ago. But someone holding – or playing – a cello is perhaps easier to remember. Still, I was glad that at least I remembered his face. Sometimes my inability to place and name people I have met worries me; but I suppose when one gives a lot of concerts in different places, or meets new people at a party or event, it is impossible to remember them all. And I have met a huge number of people in the last few years; more than any time in the past.
I explained why I was there and asked how long they were likely to stay. ‘Oh, we’ve finished now, we have a ballroom dancing class in the village hall in ten minutes. We were just checking the hymns for someone’s funeral next week’, they replied. We chatted and they stayed to listen for a few minutes. The church – or I – felt warm, so I had no problem starting to play straight away from the beginning of the Haydn concerto. The concert was the next day, and I felt the best thing I could do now was to get used to playing it all the way through, for the benefit of my muscles. The notes were pretty much as secure as they could get, and the parallels with training for a run – whether a short or a long one – had never been far from my mind. It was my arms rather than my legs in question, but it has occurred to me that I might do well to read the basics of how to train for a long-distance run. I am sure the same principles could be applied to learning to play a stamina-demanding piece like this.
After packing away, I was interested to read about the Royal Arms dated to the late 1500s, and take a look at the impressive porch on my tour round the churchyard. Apparently the church was struck by lightning in the 19th Century and the porch and nave walls were the only survivals1. My favourite feature of the church, however, was the unusually ornate Norman font.
St Nicholas’ Wattisham
I managed to find a contact for Wattisham church only through the Charity Commission website: it is now in the care of the St Nicholas Trust, set up by the village to look after its redundant church. In fact, on reflection, I think it was already in the care of this trust the first time I played there at the age of 13.
Despite the proximity of Wattisham village to my house, I hardly ever go there. This is because there is no reason to pass through it to get anywhere. The only time it is necessary is when the main road through Bildeston is closed – frustratingly often – and I don’t realise before arriving at the road block. When I know in advance, it is more convenient to go through Kettlebaston rather than Wattisham. So, every time I go to the village, I feel as though I am in the middle of nowhere, a mysterious, unknown backwater. This is despite the fame of the army airbase that takes its name: it is located some distance from the village.
I went back to visit the church perhaps five years ago on a bike ride, and found it open. But I had been led to believe that these days it was always kept locked, so I arranged my visit in advance. Not sure what reception I would receive, I was glad to receive a friendly reply from the chairman. I mentioned I had played there many years ago, but didn’t mention that I wanted to play there again. I hoped it wouldn’t be a problem.
I parked in the adjacent farmyard and phoned his wife, Helen, as directed. She appeared a few moments later with a friendly little dog called Tansy with a sweet, puppy-like face. She was barely bigger than my rabbits, although her size involved more body mass and less fluff. Helen led me across the muddy green, through a gap in the hedge. ‘There’s been no official footpath to the church, until recently’, she explained. ‘There was one from the road, but it’s officially only for villagers and vicars. It’s now blocked off but we finally have a proper one on the other side of the churchyard’.
What a very strange rule for a footpath, I thought, and said. It’s not as though you can police a footpath like that. The vicar issue might be slightly easier, I supposed, if they wore dog collars.
The door had beautiful ironwork – original, perhaps. Unusually, I did remember the interior of this church fairly well from my last visit, but there was not much to remember. It had the feel of a village hall. It was small, with stacks of chairs to one side, and the same unattractive – though undoubtedly practical – vinyl flooring as I remembered. Actually, my main objection to it was not its appearance so much as the plastic creaking underfoot as you walked over it. I suppose it hadn’t been stuck down to whatever floor lay underneath – which might be normal for soft vinyl, but this was a harder, creakier version.
The difference in the church’s appearance this time was that the chancel had been turned into a bar. I was amused. Helen explained that the church was now used as a community space, a kind of village hall for events such as pub nights, clubs or dances. We talked about the controversy of such uses. My view on the matter is that churches were intended for community use. We conveniently forget the fact that churches, and particularly their porches, were always used for meetings and village business. If it is a choice between a church going to ruin because it is no longer being used for religious purposes, and a community caring for it and putting it to other, joyful, sociable uses, I know which I would opt for. I would go so far as to say it is the Christian thing to do. In fact, I’d opt for the latter even if it was still also in religious use: the building embodies the history of a community, after all.
Helen stopped to listen until Tansy got restless, and then said she’d return in ten or fifteen minutes to lock up after I explained I wouldn’t stay long, as I had a concert the following day and was feeling too cold to practise properly here.
It was a strange and wonderful experience to play in Wattisham church again, on the same cello, after 27 years: the church which marked the start of my musical relationship with Suffolk churches. A serendipitous thing happened recently. I had no photos of our concert in Wattisham church. Then, a few months ago, the granddaughter of my old next-door neighbours was going through her mother’s photos after her death, and sent me some she thought I would like. Amongst them was one from the Wattisham concert. It is a strange feeling to see physical evidence of something that has existed only in your memory for so many years.
The acoustic was beautiful, and I realised the church was exactly the right size for the Schubert quintet, which we played on that first occasion: just wide enough for the players to fit comfortably, and just the right size for the music to fill it. For a moment, I wondered whether perhaps I should choose this church for my planned CD recording in the summer. But it didn’t feel exactly like a church any more, and I wanted my recording location to be representative of my project. So I dismissed the idea – for the time being, anyway.
Afterwards I pondered over the stone sticking out of the chancel wall at waist height: I am still making enquiries to find out its identity. I forgot to ask Helen about it when she returned. I also enjoyed the faces on the wall: the first was almost certainly a cow, despite its resemblance to a pig; the second was harder to recognise.
Helen came back and we chatted while she locked up and I took photos. I asked about the cracked wall of the vestry on the north side of the church: it looked in danger of falling away from the church. She told me that was their next repair project.
I was so pleased to have returned to Wattisham – somehow more so at this late stage in my church tour – and happy that I had received such a warm welcome. She offered for me to come and play any time I wanted, and we said goodbye.
St Mary’s, Lidgate
Despite the church-visiting obstacles during the week, I made it: Lidgate would be my 400th church. It felt like a celebration not only of this milestone, but of my concerto performance the night before. I knew that I would be wiped out the next day from the adrenalin, perhaps for most of the week, but it was worth it. I had thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and was happy to have so many friends and acquaintances in the audience – particularly my sister-in-law, Susie, who had driven up from Sussex to come and hear it.
We arranged to meet at noon; Susie had to leave by 2pm. Of course, after my teasing insistence that Mark and his co-travellers should try to arrive on time, it was Susie and I who arrived late, as we went through Bury to pick up her car which we had left at my friend Penny’s house the night before. But no one minded. We were met at the church by Polly, a musical acquaintance, and her dog – I had mentioned our plan to her at the concert, and she lived in a nearby village – a young man called Joe, who happened to be visiting the church; and the two Marks and James who made up the original party.
Joe was curious about my project: it must have been strange for him, stumbling on something like this on a Sunday morning in January. He was lucky he had, in fact, or he would have found the church locked: I had arranged in advance for it to be opened for us. After chatting to him, it was time to take out my cello. It was the last thing I felt like doing after the previous night’s concert, and I hadn’t practised anything other than Haydn for a while. But the excitement of the occasion, and the beautiful, bright morning helped me pull myself together, and I played for fifteen or twenty minutes; first a short theme by Walton, for which a friend of mine was going to write me a set of variations, and then some Bach. Once I’d got going it wasn’t too bad.
For me, the greater excitement was looking around the church afterwards. It had long been marked on my church map as a ‘graffiti church’. I had planned to take Mark along with me, but before I had managed to arrange it, James asked if I had been, and suggested this Sunday to go. He had been reading about the graffiti and wanted to see it. I was delighted to have the visit decided for me, and delighted that I was able to make it coincide with a milestone. There were all sorts of markings, writings and drawings to be found all over the church. My favourite was the person’s head with musical notation next to it. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to indicate he was singing. We also found what we first thought was a cat, and finally decided was a jester: it had an extra ‘ear’ in the middle of its head.
Outside in the churchyard, we found a section of old wall – supposedly castle ruins, but Mark was sceptical. Not in dispute, however, was the fact the church was on a high mound, and the castle had been adjacent. Surrounding the churchyard was a moat, and the land fell away steeply from its boundary. But it wasn’t just a mound: the churchyard was shaped like a bowl on a mound. The land rose to the churchyard wall. It was a strange place. Mark, Selfie (the nickname of the second Mark) and James all said they didn’t like the feel of it; there was something eerie about it. I couldn’t understand why. It was intriguing and slightly mysterious, yes; but otherwise to me it was a beautiful, unusual hilltop location with stunning views and pretty meadows on the village side of the church. Admittedly, the sunshine did make it more cheerful. I can only suppose they are more sensitive to ghosts than I am.
We went for a short walk afterwards, intending to follow a circular route along footpaths, but of course our progress was so slow, with frequent stops to peer down ditches and examine pieces of flint in the field, that we ended up simply walking around the large field nearest the church. Susie had to leave for home soon after. We enjoyed an impromptu picnic on a garden wall, standing in the sun and talking to a little robin that came to sit on a gate. We tried to share our picnic with him, but he flew away. Perhaps he would come back later to clear up.
It was a memorable church visit. When Susie drove off homewards, we drove off towards Dalham, another graffiti church I wanted to show my friends. The cello had done its job for the day, and I could relax.
Total churches to the end of January: 400 + 3 chapels
Header photo: Graffiti in Lidgate church