St Mary’s, Depden
I attempted to resume church visits in the last week of June. I hoped that playing the cello, and visiting churches, might help me psychologically. James, my accompanist, had died two weeks earlier, and for a while I had been struggling with a worsening nerve problem in my left elbow. I had rested it for ten days or so, and the pins and needles in my fingers had gone. Although I knew that wasn’t the end of the story – the nerve was still uncomfortable, sometimes painful, if I used my hands too much – I felt it was time to resume gentle playing, for the sake of my mental health more than anything.
Churches were now open for ‘private prayer’, so I decided to try ruins – no key needed – and churches where I had a contact already. I thought it would avoid the need for lengthy explanations. Depden came to mind: a church in west Suffolk that I had enquired about visiting twice before, in winter, when I was told the path was far too muddy for me not to end up falling over. I would have gone anyway, but the keyholder was adamant. I spoke to the same keyholder again, and she remembered me. I could tell from her voice that she was delighted with the idea of my coming. ‘But I’d better just check, and ring you back,’ she said. After my experience at Honington, I very nearly said, ‘I think cello playing counts as prayer’, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to utter the words. In any case, I was sure she would call back to say yes.
She did, and added that she and another churchwarden would like to come and listen, if that was ok. The thought that went through my head was, ‘I’m not sure that counts as private prayer, then…’ And I wasn’t sure how I felt about having an audience; not because of the virus, but because I hadn’t played for a while and because I was thinking of James and wanted to be alone in that space. But I knew how much it would mean to them, so I simply said, ‘of course’.
I hadn’t got anywhere near Depden when the tears began to flow. Even driving to a church with my cello for the first time in three months, driving to west Suffolk, near James’s village and the scene of so many happy church concerts together, was enough to bring home the fact that he was no longer there, that I would never play with him again.
I dried my eyes and rubbed my face before I got out of the car at Depden, hoping that the smiling women waiting for me at the roadside wouldn’t notice anything was wrong. They introduced themselves; one had heard me play at Rede church – with James – nearby last September. Another internal wince.
We walked the footpath a mile or so to the church, glad of the shade in the heat. Reaching the isolated churchyard, I breathed out, feeling the tension of the past weeks leave my body in these familiar, yet new, surroundings; surroundings in which I felt so at home and so at peace.
The church setting was perfect, and the acoustic more than compensated for my lack of practice. I couldn’t play to them the only things I had been practising since February – two difficult Bach suites and a new commissioned piece my friend Ben had written for me, which I hadn’t yet mastered – so I resorted to the first Bach suite in G major, now so familiar that I was happy to play it in front of an informal audience without practice. Then I played an Irish air that I had happened across recently, thanks, bizarrely, to my friend Mark who had discovered some celtic cello music on Youtube. It was gentle and beautiful, and allowed me to play without worrying about my stiff fingers.
A young couple on a walk came in to listen for a few minutes. I thought this now might easily classify as an illegal gathering, but I said nothing. I knew all of my audience were grateful to hear some music, live, in a beautiful old building. I was grateful to be in a church again.
St Thomas à Becket, Westley
I continued to Penny’s house in Bury St Edmunds for a visit to Westley old church ruins. Westley did have a church listed in Munro Cautley’s book, Suffolk Churches, and it was included in the ‘churches of medieval foundation’. But I had long ago decided I would play in the ruins instead, even though I had only heard about them from my friends, and didn’t know how much of the old church was left. My reasons were, first, that the rebuilt, Victorian, church wasn’t even on the same site as the medieval one. Second, it was made of concrete, and was one of the ugliest village churches I had yet come across in Suffolk. And third, it was kept locked. I needed no more persuasion; I actually had no desire to see inside it.
It was a beautiful evening, and by 6pm had cooled down enough for the half hour walk to the ruins to be comfortable, with my cello protected by its heatproof cover. The start of the path wasn’t particularly beautiful, as was to be expected in the outskirts of a town, but soon we enjoyed pretty views across the fields towards Horringer. Penny and Sam were my guides; I had never walked this route before.
It was a peaceful place. The ruins were in the middle of the old churchyard, invisible beneath ivy, brambles and nettles. On the far side was an idyllic view across the fields, framed by the hedge. All around, fruit trees had been planted, and swallows, swifts and martins flew overhead.
I played the Irish air again. I also tried some of the other airs in the collection, but the first, called Inch Strand, was my favourite. I played for James, I played for his family, and I played for the emotions inside me that I could do nothing else with. I remembered that this was why I started my church tour.
Header photo: Information board at St Thomas’ church ruins