With a busy start to June, and my challenging recital only two weeks away (the idea was still rather alarming to me), cello practice rather than church visiting was my priority. So, when I had time to leave the house to practise, I had no ambitions to visit more than one church, and looked for one near home or on my way to or from somewhere, and unlikely to be full of visitors. Bildeston was an obvious first choice.
St Mary’s, Bildeston
I realised only quite recently, on a full moon evening walk at New Year, that St Mary’s church is visible from the end of my garden: it sits on the next hilltop a little under 3 miles south of my house, and was floodlit that night.
I have always loved the location of St Mary’s. It is at least half a mile from Bildeston village, up the hill at the end of a lane, with views over the countryside. A newer, sunny graveyard across the lane seems a happy place to be laid to rest. This was my third attempt to visit the church: the first time it was locked, and the second there was an event, perhaps a wedding. This time I was glad to find it open and empty. A barn next to the church was being rebuilt or converted, and a very charming Liverpudlian builder greeted me as I was unloading the car. He seemed excited by the idea of taking an instrument to play in such wonderful buildings, and said he would try to stop the machines long enough to hear it.
I had forgotten how beautiful the 15th century entrance door was. It more than made up for – as well as showed up – the ugliness of the other external wooden construction: the church’s new ‘tower’. Although the church interior was grand, sadly the acoustic was not as exciting as the builder, and I, had imagined, and coupled with the fact I seemed to be having an ‘off day’ as far as playing the cello was concerned, it was hard to persevere for long. I was saved by the arrival of a visitor, and so took the opportunity to look at the information, photos and newspaper clippings about the church’s tower: the old one that fell down in 1975, and the new one that replaced it in 1999.
I had read about it briefly in one of Ronald Blythe’s books – he was phoned in the immediate aftermath for advice on what to do. What does one do when a church tower falls down? Gape in disbelief for a good while, I should think. Builders were working on the tower at the time, and thankfully had enough warning from the noises they heard to get off the scaffolding just in time. It is remarkable that no one was killed or even hurt: the tower fell down 3 hours after the Ascension Day church service, in European Architectural Heritage year. You might almost suspect the universe (or God) of having a black sense of humour.
Amongst the papers in the folder were details about the proposed designs and recontruction of the tower. A huge amount of money was raised to replace the tower, and it was many years in the planning; and yet, sadly, it is a stumpy, unpleasant thing. Despite being made of wood, which is usually a redeeming factor for even the ugliest of constructions, it looks entirely out of place on a historical building. It is disappointing to think that this was the best that could be got for their hard-raised funds.
One of the newspaper clippings mentioned that Bildeston church is remote from its village due to the Black Death. It reminded me that I had not yet made much progress on finding evidence for or against the theory that the Black Death was responsible for the remoteness of many village churches. The internet has yielded little information, and I suspect a library visit (or many visits) may be the only solution. I found the most mentions of it on the Suffolk churches site. Although Simon Knott is not a denier of the Black Death theory, neither does he confirm it, except perhaps in one case: he names Timworth as the only convincing example in Suffolk of such a village church. In the case of Bildeston, however, he does deny it. Apparently the migration of the village away from the church, starting in the 13th century, is well documented, and happened most likely for trade reasons: a migration into the the valley, towards the main trade route between Stowmarket and Hadleigh, which is now the location of Bildeston’s market place.1
St Andrew’s, Hasketon
A few days later I had to go back to the violin shop at Woodbridge, because no sooner had I got one buzz fixed, than another appeared in a different place on my cello, caused by seams or mended cracks coming unstuck, often caused by changes in temperature and humidity. I suspected that I would never be rid of them, having once before had the same buzz fixed twice in quick succession; however, I decided to have one last try before my recital the following week.
The work was finished in time for me to fit in one church visit on the way home: I looked for a remote church or small village, to increase my chances of being able to practise undisturbed, and not too far off my route. Hasketon fit the bill.
There was an impressive copper beech by the gate. For the first time I wondered why they are called copper beeches: this one was deep plum, almost aubergine. I stood there absorbing the rich and beautiful colour for a while, before entering the ox-eye daisy-filled churchyard, where the church’s round tower came fully into view – my first since Wortham. Only the lower part was round; the top was octagonal, and it looked very tall for the size of the church, from some angles almost more like a giant chimney than a tower.
The interior of the church seemed largely Victorian, and nothing particularly unusual caught my attention, apart from the roof which reminded me of a spider’s web. It was a light and well cared for church with a friendly acoustic; resonant enough to be encouraging, not so resonant as to make my practice too easy. Although I had met a lady in the churchyard attending to some newly planted beech trees, she didn’t come in while I was playing, and I had no other visitors.
The church guide stated that the absence of stone in the area was the reason for its round tower. This was the third explanation of round towers that I had come across. The first was that round towers were a matter of fashion; the second, that square towers were more expensive to build. If the latter theory was correct, the octagonal part of the tower was certainly trying to compensate for the round part in expense (although of course they were not built at the same time).
Having read up a little more on the subject, and finding to my surprise that all but five of England’s approximately 185 round church towers are to be found in East Anglia (the remaining five are in Sussex and Berkshire)2, I find the theory of the local availability of building materials the most convincing explanation. If flint is the material you have to hand, flint is the material you use, and if you can’t build a square tower with flint alone, then you build a round one. Of course, the added expense of buying and transporting stone for a square tower would also be a relevant factor.
St Peter’s, Milden
The next day was one of the few days in spring responsible for most of our season’s rainfall. I felt unwell to the extent that I would have gone straight back to bed if my cleaner hadn’t been coming to make up the guest bedrooms; however, I was still under the illusion that I would soon feel well enough to go to my pottery class as usual, and there was no question of having a day off from practising the cello, so it felt easier to go in search of a church on my way to pottery and hope that after a while I would start to feel better. I would also reach a milestone: 50 churches. Perhaps that in itself would give me a lift.
I contacted a friend in Milden to ask what time the church opened, and to my amazement was told it was never locked. I had no idea there were any such churches in Suffolk, and it gave me a new, uncomplimentary perspective on the few that were always kept locked. I was starting to understand why Simon Knott had so little patience with such places.
A gale was blowing, and when I arrived at the remote and tiny church, the rain was too fierce to leave the car with all my equipment. I waited, realising by now that I wouldn’t be going to pottery, so there was no rush. The rain eventually eased off enough for me to make a dash for it, and I was grateful for the unusual laburnum avenue leading up to the church entrance which provided me with a degree of shelter from the wild weather.
My church visits were finally starting to pay off: I could now recognise a Norman doorway – Milden church boasts a very lovely one – and a Norman font near the entrance. There were fragments of medieval wall paintings, and, though it may not have been very old, the floor of the chancel was beautiful. It was a wonderful refuge: small from the outside, but wide, spacious and simple inside. I found it greatly comforting , despite the cold breeze entering through the open windows. I shut them hurriedly.
I thought I had already encountered most variations of church acoustics on my journey so far, but I was wrong: it was an entirely new experience to play in a space with an echo. Perhaps it would not be a good venue for a concert, as the audience would not be able to hear clearly; but on a wild day, feeling unfit as I was to be doing anything, it was an awe-inspiring and uplifting experience. There was nothing strikingly different about the shape or character of the building that I felt could account for such a different sound, but I did wonder whether the sloping Norman walls might be a contributing factor. Again, however, this was something I thought I had already encountered in plenty of other churches without such an effect.
During breaks in my practice, I read the church guide – where I was amused to discover the name Milden originates from the word ‘melde’, a weed we now call ‘fat hen’ – and looked around the church, noticing a memorial to the two men of the village who fell in the First World War, one of whom was a Rupert Mowles. I wondered if he was related to Ron Mowles of Hitcham.
I was also delighted by the mistakes on the floor memorial to Thomas Canham’s eldest daughter Mary, who died in 1699. There were also places where the engraver ran out of space and had to add a letter above the word. I had not really considered before that mistakes sometimes do not detract from the finished work, but add to it: it gives me a much more direct line of contact with the person who engraved it than if it was perfectly executed. I can imagine the human being engraving ‘fefty’ and having to change it to ‘fifty’ much more easily than I can imagine the person engraving a perfect memorial. Perhaps if it was made today, tomorrow a mistake-free stone might be the only acceptable result: the family members of the deceased would be happy, and the engraver’s pride would not be disappointed. But in 500 years’ time, the imperfect version might hold more interest to the onlooker.
To my great astonishment, I managed to practise for nearly two hours – and after an hour and a half felt warm enough to take off my jacket. I felt a great deal better afterwards, and had the church entirely to thank for two hours’ extra practice that week. Milden, I decided, was definitely a contender for my list of favourite Suffolk churches. It was not a day for outdoor photography or exploring the churchyard, so I had an excuse to return today, on a warm August evening. This time, with prior warning, I noticed the engraved churchwarden’s bench (dated 24th August 1685) and enjoyed the surprise of an unusual August display: several clumps of pretty pink cyclamen growing in the churchyard.
Header photo: Milden wall painting fragment