St Andrew’s, Melton
This church visit, my first of 2021, was as special as the occasion demanded. On the last day of March we were blessed with sun and warmth, spring blossom and birdsong. I was expecting a little audience – which might have been worrying given the many months that had passed since I last played in public – but having started practising for a concert with my friend Rachel, I felt comfortable with the prospect, especially as I knew how long it had been since anyone heard live music. The audience would be at a distance, anyway: I’d be in the church, and they’d be outside the open tower door.
It’s a little confusing that both the churches in Melton are dedicated to St Andrew; but the medieval one outside the village is usually referred to as Melton Old Church. St Andrew’s, in the village, is Victorian, built when the village migrated towards the railway. But since the medieval font from the old church was also moved here – not just any old medieval font, but one of Suffolk’s 13 Seven Sacrament fonts – I feel obliged to pay it a visit before the end of my church tour.
The approach to the large tower gave a misleading impression of the church’s size. It hid behind it a small building; smaller than the original medieval church would have been (see drawing, right). It had no chancel and was clear of chairs, with only two rows of pews lining the walls. As a consequence the acoustic was as blissful as every other aspect of my visit: the church, the people, the spring and the sunshine. It wasn’t even as cold as I expected indoors, perhaps due to the small space and open door. I played two short Frank Bridge pieces, tuneful enough to be enjoyable without their piano accompaniment, followed by two Irish Airs that are usually a favourite with listeners.
There was tea and cake afterwards in the churchyard: a kitchen was hidden at the east end of the church behind the altar, and the cake was left over from a volunteer ‘church tidy up’ day. We chatted in the sunshine and I offered to return when audiences were allowed inside the church. After my visit I thought it an even greater pity this delightful church is kept locked, but there is no denying the love and dedication of those who look after it.
St Mary’s, Creeting St Mary
A little over two weeks later, I arrived early at Creeting St Mary after a failed visit to Needham Market church: I’d taken a chance and turned up during opening hours, which I soon regretted as the only thing it gained me was an encounter with a somewhat grumpy vicar. At Creeting, I thought I would look around and take photos until the keyholder arrived, but, surprised and seduced by its pretty hilltop setting, I lay on a south-facing bench, trusting in the sunshine and the spring to work their magic. I shouldn’t have risked turning up at Needham Market without checking first: in my current emotional state, any unfriendliness would have been, and was, too much to bear. I didn’t manage to utter those words that had been on the tip of my tongue increasingly often in recent months: ‘playing the cello is my version of private prayer.’ It wouldn’t do to antagonise the vicar if I wanted to return, even if I did feel open-mindedness was a little wanting.
I had no such problem at Creeting St Mary: Hazel, the keyholder, was smiley, friendly and welcoming. I couldn’t have felt less of an inconvenience. We went inside to a slightly cold and dark interior, but it was a lovely little church and my joy at being inside to play music was great, especially after what had preceded. I played the same pieces as I had at Melton Old Church, and afterwards Hazel told me it had made her day. It had greatly improved mine too, not only because of the music but the people: it was good to be reminded warm friendliness was the norm, not the exception. As I was packing up, another woman arrived to pick up the key from Hazel, so I took my cello out again and played her a short piece. We talking about my returning to give a concert, when restrictions allowed, and I went outside to explore the churchyard. I was surprised on two counts: first, that the south doorway was Norman, and second, that there had once been another church in the same churchyard. None of it remained, I was informed, though some of the stones had been used in the restoration of St Mary’s.
I left Creeting St Mary’s in far better spirits than I arrived, wondering how on earth I didn’t know there was such a pretty little place so close to Stowmarket. But I never drive the section of the A14 between Stowmarket and Needham Market, my house being located in such a position that I would only ever drive along it northwest from Stowmarket and southeast from Needham Market. Otherwise I’d have seen it long ago.
St Andrew’s, Great Cornard
How grateful I was to discover Great Cornard church was open every day: I needed to practise, I needed to get out of the house, and I needed not to have to make any phonecalls to arrange a church visit. It distracted me and it cheered me up. I felt as I did when I visited Little Waldingfield church – and not once, that I remembered, in the intervening four years: an undefined need to get out of the house, without quite knowing where, to escape a feeling of unease and vague loneliness. Its resurgence was no mystery: life had been extremely stressful of late.
It took me a while to find the church, attempting a back route and ending up somewhere other than I intended to be. But it was worth the trouble: the church was more interesting than I expected, with a Tudor brick porch, and that most hopeful and welcoming of signs outside which had recently been so rare: ‘Church open’. It was with only a tiny pang of reluctance that I went indoors to a dark-ish, cool interior on such a sunny day, so grateful was I to be inside a church. The wonky wall near the back of the nave was perhaps my favourite detail; and it was fun to play being watched by a large tiger sitting in the gallery. I practised thoroughly for my concert with Rachel a week later – the first time in a while I’d managed to cover all the concert music in one session, so long intended but never quite achieved – and left feeling both satisfied with my efforts and uplifted by my excursion.
That evening, on seeing my photograph of Great Cornard’s porch, my friend Rebecca commented, ‘I don’t usually associate Great Cornard with anything aesthetically pleasing.’ I don’t feel entirely placed to judge, as I don’t know the village – rather, suburb of Sudbury – well; but she does. I replied, as I have so often felt since the start of my tour, ‘Churches are good for that sort of thing.’ They certainly bring beauty to even the most ordinary of neighbourhoods.
Header photo: Creeting St Mary churchyard