St Mary’s, Ickworth
Still enjoying the novelty of being within a day trip of each other following her move from south London to Hertford, I arranged to meet my friend Rachel at the National Trust’s Ickworth Park to play in the church there in the run-up to Christmas. There was an additional motive in this meeting: Rachel had recently confessed to me that she couldn’t bring herself to play the oboe in her local church, even though she’d been to sit there a few times and no one had ever come in. She felt it would be presumptuous, and that the oboe has the potential to offend more than the cello does. I tried to persuade her that if no one was there, there was no one to offend; and besides, if an instrument is played well, it never offends. More importantly, she would be doing the building a service by filling it with music. This wasn’t only my opinion, after having played in 437 Suffolk churches; it was also the opinion of most of the people I had spoken to along the way, whether religious, unreligious or anti-religious. But I couldn’t convince her with words alone, so I decided she needed breaking in gently, in Suffolk churches instead of Hertford ones. Perhaps after that, I thought, she might feel differently enough for me to accompany her to her local church with my cello.
Steve, deciding it was the Christmas holidays because his work had temporarily dried up, joined us with his bassoon, so I arrived at the National Trust booth armed with my cello in the front passenger seat and the three tickets I’d printed off at home. I offered one to the attendant to be scanned, explaining that my friends were arriving separately.
‘I don’t need to scan them – I trust you,’ he said, then added, ‘Because you play the cello!’
I laughed, thinking that a very dangerous logic, and remembering the story a friend had told me about a borderline criminal – or perhaps unambiguously criminal – cellist, of whom no one would believe anything bad because she played the cello. Plus, I thought, if he knew what I was planning, he might realise his mistake.
But Ickworth church doesn’t belong to the National Trust, so I wasn’t too worried. It belongs to a charity, the Ickworth Church Conservation Trust. I’d paid my National Trust entrance fee, and they would have very little authority to prevent my playing music there. Still, I felt naughty, and the lurking fear of being told off surfaced when, soon after setting off down the path to the church, a young woman in a bright red National Trust fleece came running after us, calling, ‘Excuse me!’ All she wanted, in fact, was to tell us that she didn’t think the volunteer had been yet to open the church, if that’s where we were going, and that if we could wait, she would go and fetch it for us.
We arrived at the church before she did – along with a couple of visitors wanting to see inside – and found it open. The church interior was more interesting than I remembered from my previous visit, when I took part in a concert there in the summer of 2014. Performing in a small church full of people isn’t the easiest context in which to appreciate a church, and I had little to compare it to in those days. It was simple and peaceful, with plenty of wall and floor memorials and a gallery – inaccessible on this occasion, but I remembered going up there before the concert. I liked the squint, though I was puzzled by it: squints are usually from an aisle to the altar; this one was a window straight onto the churchyard. I wondered if the church once had an aisle, long since taken down. Subsequent enquiries suggested this was one person’s theory; but the generally accepted one was that the squint was for beggars and lepers (for want of a more politically correct term) to view church services from outside the church.
After Steve had tinkered with Rachel’s malfunctioning oboe key, we decided carols were the only thing to play. I’d brought some, but Steve was a step ahead, with three copies of one edition, making life a lot more straightforward. First I distributed fingerless mittens, happy to discover that my edits of the pair I’d bought for Steve nearly 18 months previously – their last attempted use, shockingly, in February 2020 – were acceptable, and we started to play, feeling marginally less cold than we would have without them.
The acoustic was glorious. We discovered some new carols – new to me, anyway, although they really shouldn’t have been – my favourite of which was Infant Holy. The temperature of the church wasn’t conducive to playing in tune, but it didn’t really matter: we were having fun, the couple who’d arrived with us stopped to listen a while, and a few other visitors who came in and out seemed to appreciate the music and perhaps a small leaning towards festiveness in an otherwise not very festive season.
Infant Holy at Ickworth church with Rachel and Steve.
We got carried away and our plan for a walk around the grounds had to be aborted; I went on my own instead, after Steve and Rachel had left. I’m not sure what the people I passed made of me walking around a country estate with a cello on my back.
All Saints’, Hundon
Nearly a week after my visit to Ickworth, wanting to make the most of our soon-to-be-curtailed freedom by visiting another couple of churches before Christmas, I headed westwards towards Hundon one morning. I happened to meet Margaret, the keyholder I’d contacted to check the church would be open, on the street as I was working out where to park, and she accompanied me into a spacious, bright interior with a few chairs dotted about in the nave.
It was a joy to play in such a light and acoustic. Margaret stayed to listen to some Irish hymns and carols, and when her husband arrived a little while later, we discussed putting on a concert once such things were possible again. Churches had suffered financially from closure this year, she told me, as they couldn’t put on their normal fundraising activities. And it is hard enough in a good year for a village to raise the required funds to keep up their church.
After they left, I continued playing for a while, thinking how glad I was to have met them, and about a conversation I’d had at Barham church almost exactly a year earlier, which I’d forgotten all about until the previous week when I came across my account of it while working on the first draft of my book. A woman there had remarked that my project sounded a very lonely thing to do. I was surprised, but able to answer her with ease: the answer was no, it was the opposite of lonely, for so many reasons. But there was one answer that didn’t occur to me at the time, probably because it was so long since I’d experienced loneliness I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. I was feeling lonely now, however, probably as a result of a looming solitary Christmas, the inevitability of another lockdown and some ‘people problems’ I was struggling to understand. It was only a year since I’d begun not to dread Christmas, and I suppose it was too early in the recovery process for the year’s accumulation of difficulties not to set me back.
This feeling of loneliness reminded me of something: that having a compelling project I could engage with on my own, to get out and see places, not to depend on the company of others to have excursions and interesting adventures in my life, actually combatted loneliness in and of itself – regardless of who I might meet on the way, and regardless of the transformative effect beauty, music and a focus also undoubtedly have on me. I hoped this bout of loneliness wouldn’t last; but while it did, it felt like a positive thing to be reminded of some of the early motivations I might have had for embarking on any adventure or project, if only to be grateful that those motivations had been forgotten for so long, and therefore to hold on to the hope they might be forgotten once more.
All Saints’, Little Bealings
The following day I headed in the opposite direction, towards Little Bealings, near Woodbridge. I’d tried to visit the previous February when it was closed for repairs; this time I’d seen online that it was open for private prayer on Wednesday mornings. This lovely little church is perched on a hilltop amongst narrow, winding lanes: you’d never guess Ipswich is only a stone’s throw away.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found one man inside an empty church – no pews, no chairs set out – with a mask on, hoovering. He stopped when I asked if he would mind some music and moved to a desk in the north aisle where he had a laptop out. I guessed he was on duty, and if I had come here for private prayer I think I might have found that offputting. Luckily I hadn’t, though. My devotions were musical and, today at least, I felt them to be entirely compatible with someone sitting at a laptop. I also felt them – finally – to be compatible with a church open for prayer, especially since my acquistion of Irish sacred music. So I went back down the hill to fetch my cello.
When I entered the church again I could swear it was a few degrees warmer: some amazingly effective fan heaters had been turned on. But the church also had central heating, I was informed, which must have been on already before I arrived. In the aisle I saw the most modern – or perhaps the only modern – wood-burning stove I have ever encountered in a church. There was something rather lovely about it, despite the fact it wasn’t of a style I would have chosen for anything but the most modern house. It gave the church a feel of being designed for use, for gathering, for welcome, for warmth. It wasn’t lit, but this was still the warmest church I’d been in for a few months.
I couldn’t tell whether the pews had been temporarily removed for the repairs or permanently disposed of. Chairs were stacked to one side, and a few pews were lined up against the wall. Looking back at Simon Knott’s photos when the pews were all in situ, I think I like the spacious feel better – though that might depend on the feel the chairs gave once they were set out, because my preference in general is for pews over chairs. As it was, it was a lovely little church interior and my companion seemed to enjoy the music I played.
It was satisfying to reach 440 churches before Tier 4 reached Suffolk. To think, by my original reckoning I would have finished my tour at this number. I was glad I had sixty extra churches to look forward to in 2021.
Header photo: view from Ickworth church
Total churches to end of 2020: 440 + 3 chapels