More than two weeks passed before I visited another church. But a break can be helpful, and – when I drafted this account, not all that long ago – I was no longer worried about fitting in the remaining churches before September, thinking it would require little more than a few extra bursts of effort, and some additional advance-organising. Now, of course, life looks very different. Who knows when my next church visit will be, let alone whether concerts will be back on the menu by September. It is a pity, but entirely insignificant in the context of the international crisis we find ourselves in. I will simply resume when circumstances allow. In the meantime, I have plenty of churches still to write about, and once I’ve caught up, then perhaps I can get ahead a little on the planned book… Not to mention cello practice. I feel myself even luckier than usual to have these things in my life, as well as a large garden and lots of animals, which between them carry the potential of indefinite mental, physical and companiable occupation.
St Margaret’s, Southolt
I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get into Southolt church, as I had read it was a redundant, locked church in the care of its village. But I was going to be in the area, so I thought I’d try anyway, as the Suffolk Churches website had kindly informed me that almost every house in the vicinity of the church was in possession of a key.
I didn’t even need to go looking. Shortly after I parked my car outside the churchyard gate – in a lovely location set back behind a small green lined with houses – and went up to the church to make sure it wasn’t already open, a lady with her dog approached to greet me. I assume she came out because she saw my car: she was a keyholder, and ‘was in charge of walking round the church every morning to make sure nothing had blown down in the wind and everything was in order’. Her name was Carolyn.
It was good to know the church was well looked after; although once I was inside, I could see absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be kept open all the time. Carolyn told me things had been stolen in the past, but to me it looked as though, first, there was nothing to steal; and second, if there was, it could easily be removed for safe keeping. Still, I said nothing, learning to keep my mouth shut on these matters, unless there is a particular reason to voice my opinion – usually involving provocation, of which there was none on this occasion. When I enquired after a visitors’ book, she told me there wasn’t one because they received few visitors. My suspicion is that it is a vicious circle. If churches are kept open, word slowly gets around and more people will come to visit. If it is kept locked, the same thing happens in reverse. But the village was clearly welcoming to those few visitors it did receive, and I was grateful to have gained access so quickly and easily.
It was a chilly day, but due to the mildness of recent weather, the church itself wasn’t too cold. The interior reminded me a little of Wattisham: a relatively small space with plastic chairs stacked to one side. But Southolt retained the feel of a church more than Wattisham did. The acoustic, too, was like Wattisham’s: a dream. I thoroughly enjoyed playing there.
Carolyn told me they sometimes put on concerts, and always had a good turnout. She offered for me to come back and give a concert, adding, to my surprise, that they would of course pay me a fee. I said that wouldn’t be necessary, and that my concerts were usually for church fundraising; but it was lovely to receive such an offer, nevertheless. She told me that the unusual stained glass in the chancel – with what still look to me like pineapples, even though they are upside down and I know they are grapes – was by William Morris, and then left to walk her dog, giving me instructions for locking up afterwards.
She came back, however, as I was leaving, and we exchanged contact details. I left, happy in the knowledge that my only ‘uncertain access church’ of the day was sorted, and I’d have no trouble with the two remaining churches I intended to visit.
St Ethelbert’s, Tannington
I intended to visit Worlingworth first, but a road closure through the village sent me to Tannington. It was another small, pretty church. After examining with amusement the patterns left by death watch beetles on the porch benches – the holes were too large for woodworm – I stepped inside, where a wonderful smell met me. All old churches smell nice, I think, but only a few of them have that peculiarly comforting smell which transports me immediately back to childhood. For the first time I wondered if it was the smell of old carpets; but I would find this hard to believe: in my experience, old carpet smell is usually stale and unpleasant. I will have to pay attention in future and see if I can find any similarities amongst the churches sharing this smell.
Tannington had many medieval bench ends, though sadly all the figures were decapitated. The other feature that drew my attention was the font, perched on a narrow stem, like a flower. Although both were no doubt exceptionally sturdy, it made me worry for its safety.
My practice here was reassuring. I had left it a little late, I feared, to resurrect two pieces I hadn’t played since the summer: a suite by Bloch, and a solo sonata by Prokofiev. It was a good challenge, and would make me practise, but I would have avoided choosing them for a concert a few days later if there had been any other suitable options. My neighbours’ 11-year-old violinist granddaughter had organised a fundraising concert in Bromeswell church with some of her friends, and asked me to play a solo piece in each half. The combination of no accompaniment and the request to avoid baroque (as there was already plenty of that in the programme) was tricky. In solo cello music, if you skip the Bach suites, you head straight into the twentieth century… and therein lies the problem. These pieces were, on the whole, not unplayable – and I liked the music very much, or I wouldn’t have bothered – but both contained a few corners that were not so much finger twisters as brain twisters. A moment’s failure in eagle-sharp concentration, and the whole thing was in danger of collapsing. Not usually a problem in practice, but even a low level of nerves in a concert could achieve this undesirable end with very little difficulty.
Still… so far, so good. It was a relief to get out of the house, too, after a few days at home engaged in the horrendously dull, frustrating, and occasionally panic-inducing task of searching for a company who would agree to insure my house. There was one moment when I wondered if I would simply have to sell it and move elsewhere. But the story had a happy ending – a better one than I expected, in fact – and now I could forget about it for another year and get on with life, such as that would become in a few weeks’ time.
When I left the church, I experienced a moment of complete disorientation, like when you wake up in the middle of the night away from home and can’t remember where you are. All that fills your mind for those few seconds is a blankness that you have no power to overcome, and panic is quick to fill the empty space. I had no idea where this church and its churchyard were in the context of their surroundings. I could see the path by which I must have entered – there was no other way into the churchyard – but I had no mental image of the road, where I had left my car, or the road by which I had arrived at this church. After what seemed like an age, but was probably no more than a few seconds, recollection returned and I felt a huge sense of relief. This had only happened to me perhaps once before when visiting a church, and it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. I wondered whether it was a small glimpse into what it would feel like to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
After walking round the churchyard, now in the right state of mind to enjoy my wander, I headed for Worlingworth church.
St Mary’s, Worlingworth
Worlingworth church was on an entirely different scale to Tannington. I prefer smaller churches in general, but, though large, Worlingworth had no aisle and there was no denying the fact it was very lovely. Amongst its valuable possessions were a hammerbeam roof, 1630 box pews (see header photo), wall painting remnants, old floor tiles and a fire engine last used in 1927. It looked like a toy, but apparently was surprisingly powerful. This church, unusually, provided some information on graffiti, which even the churches with huge quantities of it rarely do. This information focussed on an E Beck, though I only found a B Beck, dated 1798.
My cello practice was satisfactory if not inspiring, and I was hopeful the pieces would be respectable enough for the concert on Saturday.
I left for home via Eye church to take photos, reflecting on my day’s outing. It felt good to be playing the cello again after a short break: I always forget this when I stop for any length of time, so I am usually glad to be forced to take out my cello again when I don’t feel like it, or have got out of the habit. I am pleased this method works for me, in terms of creating reasons to make me both practise and continue visiting churches. It works the other way round too: my desire to visit churches often gets me back to my cello.
Also in my thoughts was the huge amount of early spring blossom that was now out: blackthorn and plum, and even what I believed were usually March-blossoming cherries: pinker and blousier than the winter-flowering ones. Winter would soon be over.
Header photo: Worlingworth box pews