The Suffolk Historic Churches Trust’s ‘Ride and Stride’ event on 12th September was going ahead, but my concert in Lowestoft remained cancelled, apparently due to having to leave the church locked for 72 hours before the Sunday service. I have since learnt that the fundraising total for the SHCT event far outstripped last year’s: perhaps more people than usual were desperate to get out on their bikes, and awareness of the increased financial pressure on village churches in 2020 was widespread.
Buoyed up by my concert in Trimley St Mary, I decided to make the most of open churches – as I did with Aspall in 2019 – making successful contact with several in the area around Clare where I had a few left to visit. Not expecting to fit in more than two or three before I had to get back home for the arrival of B&B guests, I set off on a sunny morning conducive to feelings of hopefulness. For the first time since March, I was managing a satisfying number of church visits. I thought it might be my last chance for a while: I was shortly going on holiday, and the virus restrictions were already starting to move upwards again.
St Mary’s, Poslingford
I received a warm welcome in Poslingford from one of the churchwardens who met me on the road as I tried to park in a tight space in my usual clumsy fashion. But there was no one manning the church and I was glad to have it to myself for a while. I didn’t expect this to last, but it wasn’t until I was packing up that another churchwarden arrived with a camera, followed by Don, with whom I’d been in contact, and Jean, his wife, clutching takeaway coffees from goodness knows where – Clare, most likely. They seemed to be settling for a little concert and so I duly took out my cello again and played them my favourite Irish air.
Afterwards I couldn’t help broaching the subject of access: Poslingford is one of very few Suffolk churches kept locked without a keyholder notice, and the warm welcome I received together with the beauty of the church made it difficult to reconcile this contradiction. There is no one willing to be phoned up for a key, I was told, and it is barely a church in its own right any more: the parish is called ‘Clare with Poslingford’. And yet contact details are available online, so why not pin them up at the church too? It is a small action to take, but makes such a very big difference to visitors and their first impression of a village. It has also become apparent to me that many of those who keep churches locked are under the mistaken impression that few people go out visiting churches these days. It is convenient to believe this, I suppose, and there is certainly an easy way to make it true for your church: by making it inaccessible.
Still, my visit to Poslingford was delightful: the acoustic was glorious, the people friendly, and the asymmetrical Norman doorway decorations pleasingly mysterious (see header photo). My hosts thought they might have been made for another doorway, but the patterning itself wasn’t symmetrical either, putting that theory in doubt. That wasn’t the church’s only treasure: I admired its Norman font, Tudor brick porch, and particularly the gravestones cemented to the north wall of the church. At first I wasn’t even sure they were gravestones, as the writing was barely visible. But nature had performed her usual miracles, and turned three pieces of stone into an abstract painting. Or was it abstract? My friend Rachel later spotted a pink rabbit in my photo…
As I was leaving the church, the latest person to join the party caught up with me outside the porch: it was Simon Hill, the rector of Rede and nearby churches, who was looking after Poslingford while it had no vicar of its own. We chatted briefly and after making my usual offer to go back to give any concerts his parishes might like to arrange, I walked back through the churchyard to the car, feeling content in the warm sunshine.
St Leonard’s, Wixoe
My next stop was the curiously named Wixoe, on the Essex border: I remembered the village sign on the right before the humpback bridge on my dad’s preferred scenic route to London when I reached it, but this was the first time I’d turned off the main road into the village.
I pulled up at a tiny church with a bell turret and a pretty Norman doorway squeezed inside its small wooden porch. I was surprised to find a small audience waiting for me: my correspondence with the churchwarden had only covered the postcode and whether the church would be open all day; no mention had been made of an audience, although he did enquire what time I would arrive, so perhaps I might have guessed. Thankfully, my aversion to playing in front of an audience had subsided with the week’s practice and concert, so I wasn’t alarmed. Arm pain permitting, I could happily carry on playing gentle Irish Airs all morning to anyone who cared to listen, especially in such an acoustic as Wixoe’s.
I stopped after twenty minutes or so, and found several of my audience had questions for me, beginning with the usual one: why was I playing my cello in all of Suffolk’s churches? I answered briefly but without leaving out the emotional aspects, as I was sometimes tempted to do, and I could tell from the murmurs that my explanation was appreciated. There was a comforting sense of understanding and shared experience; a sense that music could give to listeners some of what it gave to me while playing it. One lady came to speak to me afterwards, saying she’d heard just that morning of the death of a friend, and the music was a solace to her.
St John’s, Stoke by Clare
I just had time to stop off at Stoke by Clare: it was such a beautiful day that I didn’t really want to go home, but it had taken all my organisational powers to allow myself even a morning’s outing. Stoke is spread out around a large village green, more similar in character to Cavendish than to its immediate neighbour, Clare. They all have large churches, however, and Stoke’s church interior was the plainest of them, its only adornments being rather subtle ones most easily noticed and appreciated at close quarters: wall paintings and graffiti. I hope the fact that the wall painting was only discovered in the 1940s explains the organ being positioned directly in front of it, as it is a great shame not to be able to view it properly. There was a third item to add to this list of adornments, which I was sorry to discover afterwards I had missed: medieval glass, including a particularly lovely windmill.
I met no one at Stoke bar a couple who came into the church briefly and left again. Perhaps this was just as well, or I might have felt obliged to continue playing, and my arm was giving me clear signals to stop. But I went home happy with my morning’s church visiting and music sharing, now such hugely important parts of my life.
Header photo: Poslingford doorway