Everything I heard on the radio on the morning of 29th February told me that this was the day for doing something unusual. Visiting churches was nothing unusual for me, but visiting Ipswich was. It was also a duty – to be repeated several times in order to find all 12 medieval churches in the town centre – which would have been undertaken extremely reluctantly if I didn’t have Steve as my driver, tour guide and musical companion. I had no inkling at all of just how unique our afternoon would turn out to be…
St Mary’s at Stoke
Steve knew a sneaky parking spot near the centre of town which didn’t involve paying for a car park – something he told me he couldn’t bear doing. His aversion to paying for parking was much more extreme than mine, it turned out. It was obviously nothing to do with the money; he’d happily do anything else with the few coins required for the purpose, including give them away to a stranger, I suspect. It was simply the principle of paying to park your car. After a good giggle about Steve’s unexpected strength of indignation on the matter, and expressing my surprise that there was anywhere without parking restrictions so close to the town centre, we walked up to the main road, from where we could see no fewer than three churches. Steve suggested we first go to the one directly ahead of us, on the same side of the river and up a hill. This turned out to be St Mary at Stoke.
As we were walking up the hill, I complained about Steve’s customary speedy walking pace (which he usually blames on his dog pulling on the lead, but I am sceptical). I told him I couldn’t walk that fast uphill with a cello, to which he replied that he thought his bassoon was probably heavier – at least with a music stand in the front pocket. We stopped and swapped instruments. He was right. It was at least as heavy, probably heavier: difficult to say for sure, as the weight distribution was so different. I was surprised. ‘It’s all that metal!’ Steve said.
St Mary’s was open, as I’d hoped – I’d heard most Ipswich churches were kept open. At least the ones that were still in use as churches. Though extended, this looked to me like a village church, and I thought Stoke must have once been a separate village, despite being so close to the town centre. In hindsight, I regret not having read anything about the church beforehand, because it turns out that the part we played in and that I took photos of was Victorian, and the medieval part now formed the north aisle. Its construction was similar to Elveden: a bulky, slightly awkward-looking church where the Victorian extension had become the main part of the building.
Our aim for the day was to find some new music for a concert at the end of March, so we chose some pieces to play through. Steve got out his fingerless mittens that I’d bought him in Clare church in the summer, but I was disappointed when he took them off soon after, saying that the right hand one got in the way. He explained why, so that I could edit the glove to make it more comfortable for bassoon playing.
Wandering around the churchyard afterwards, we paused on the north side to look at the view from our hilltop location. The River Gipping was a sorry sight. I didn’t particularly like what I saw beyond it either, ugly tower blocks and modern buildings; but I lingered at the churchyard wall thinking what a very different churchyard view this was from what I was used to…
St Lawrence’s, Ipswich
We walked down the hill towards the centre of town, passing three churches on our right, at least two of which were redundant: one Steve knew was locked, one I knew was locked (and anyway I had a concert booked there in the summer), and a third tucked away behind both. I fancied getting away from the docks area and into town, so we headed towards two other church towers we could see in front of us.
The first one we went into was St Stephen’s: the Tourist Information Centre. I was stunned. I had no idea churches were used for such purposes, in Ipswich or anywhere else, and I wondered what the chances were of being able to play there. We went up to one of the desks to ask. The girl went to the office at the back of the church to ask her manager, who came out and said she’d be delighted if we played for them. She then asked if we’d been to the other churches in the town centre. The one next door, she said, was a café that employed vulnerable people, such as those with learning disabilities. They might be happy for us to play for them too, she thought. We asked what time the café closed and she said 4pm. It was 3.20. So we decided go there first and come back afterwards, as the Tourist Information Centre didn’t close till 5pm. This was a bonus: we were getting unexpected help with planning our church visits.
So we walked a couple of minutes further up the attractive, pedestrianised street lined with timber-framed buildings towards St Lawrence’s church, and went inside the huge café to ask, again, if they wouldn’t mind if we played for a few minutes. Again, the girl at the till went to ask her manager, while we waited nervously at the bottom of the spiral staircase. ‘Of course!’ was the reply, ‘you’re welcome!’ I was relieved and delighted in equal measure.
We returned to the corner near the entrance, beside a group of sofas, where we wouldn’t have to move any tables out of the way. Being so near to closing time, there was only one table occupied and another small group of elderly ladies standing up to leave. ‘You should have come at lunchtime, the whole place was full!’ they said to us on their way out. We explained that we’d only just found out about the café, and were lucky to get here before closing time. I think a large café full of people might have proved a little too much of a challenge to my confidence anyway. I would have no trouble if it was arranged and expected, but arriving unannounced was a different matter. After all, no one had consulted the customers about whether they minded hearing some classical music played by a slightly strange combination of cello and bassoon, and even with only a few people there I felt somewhat self-conscious.
I don’t know how Steve felt about it; I suspect he was just thinking about the prospect of tea and cake afterwards. But we played a couple of duets first before settling on the sofa for a shared slice of apple cake and gazing at our unusual surroundings. We were, of course, the last to leave, and spent a few minutes admiring the top of the church tower lit up in the afternoon light before walking down the road to St Stephen’s.
It wasn’t until after my visit that I read the history of this redundant church which was so nearly left to go to ruin1. It makes me extremely grateful, not only that it is still standing and put to wonderful use, but that I was able to visit, and play in, a building with such a positive spirit.
St Stephen’s, Ipswich
Returning to the Tourist Information Centre carried the pleasant novelty of not having to explain why we were there. Two chairs were fetched for us from the office and we were ready to go. We sat in the empty chancel to play, and chose Mozart aria arrangements as an uplifting way to end the day.
I enjoyed playing here; more so than in the café. It was a cosier church than St Lawrence’s, smaller and with a lower roof, easier to admire without chandeliers in the way. There was something pleasant about people wandering in and out, and I felt no awkwardness about imposing music on people here. Not that there were many people to impose music on in St Lawrence’s, but neither is an empty café quite the right setting for duets. This church also had a chequered and uncertain history after it was made redundant in the 1970s, I read afterwards. Amazingly, it has served its current purpose as Tourist Information Centre since 1994, and has seen a great change for the better in its surroundings, since old buildings were pulled down and new ones erected, and the landscaping changed to allow more space around the church2. I didn’t mind seeing a shopping centre opposite: at least it was the mark of a thriving modern town centre, and people were obviously making use of it.
Steve and I left St Stephen’s in high spirits, filled with Mozart and our surprisingly varied afternoon out. I hadn’t expected to like Ipswich so much, and I hadn’t expected to see so many medieval timber-framed buildings still standing in the town centre. As long as there were timber-framed buildings, I knew I was still in Suffolk.
It was definitely a 29th February to remember, sealed by a full rainbow as we walked back over the River Gipping to the car.