St Mary’s and St Botolph’s, Whitton
I arranged to visit Whitton church on bank holiday Monday, when the vicar, Mary, thought to leave the church open for people to come and listen. But confusion over Covid rules for church use, distinguishing public worship from other uses of the building, meant that it wasn’t allowed after all; so, Mary told me, it would be livestreamed only.
Once a village, Whitton is now firmly a suburb of Ipswich, consumed by housing estates – though as I drove the last stretch of unpaved track there was still a hint that its church really should be out in the sticks. It was a sweet little church: the outside looked Victorian because of the spire – which, indeed, it is. The inside of the church was welcoming and cosy, with a medieval chancel roof (so Mary informed me) and a better acoustic than I would have imagined.
Steve, after mistakenly ending up at Akenham church where we’d played once before, finally turned up at the right church to play duets with me: I didn’t fancy the prospect of doing a livestream on my own, and duet music is usually more entertaining than solo cello. We played a Boismortier sonata and Bartok duets, with two Irish airs for solo cello sandwiched in between, to give Steve’s unpractised bassoon lip a chance to recover. It was my first experience of a livestreamed church visit, and despite the time lag between audio and video, I was impressed with the technology a small parish church is able to make use of in the wake of Covid.
A chat with Mary afterwards gave me a better understanding the poverty of the parish: she told me about the pop-up shop they ran weekly, where people paid a small amount of money for a bag which they could fill with food for the week, and how there would be a queue outside the church from two hours before it opened. I was a little shocked, truth be told. I knew much of Suffolk’s poverty was to be found in the suburbs of towns, but I didn’t know the extent of it.
I left for home feeling even more grateful than when I arrived for such a joyful, non-weather-dependent outing on a cold, windy May bank holiday.
St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Felixstowe
My visit to Felixstowe church involved some pleasing coincidences. Finding online that it was open on Mondays and Thursdays, my friend Penny, working in Felixstowe on a Thursday, went to double-check: the idea we had was for me to join her there one week on her lunch break. She found there was a pop-up shop – much the same arrangement as at Whitton – and that the organist played there on Thursdays. She also vaguely knew the vicar. It later transpired that the organist was in fact a cellist I know called Hattie, who emailed me to ask if I wanted to play with her and perhaps make a little video for Music in Felixstowe, which she runs.
We arranged a date, and I turned up at one of the very sweetest little capped towers, whose patchwork materials included septaria, a strange mud stone from the estuary, and reminded me very much of the style of repair at Kirton church not far away. Perhaps they had been carried out by the same builders at a similar time. Before arriving at the church, I’d thought the description of ‘Old Felixstowe’ might indicate it was in an old part of town, but this didn’t seem to be the case. Rather, the name seems to apply to the location of the old fishing village – which is no longer in existence, as far as I could tell. I didn’t even remember that Felixstowe used to be a fishing village until the Victorians discovered it as a bathing destination.
The tower was really the best view of the old part of the church: the rest was well hidden beneath extensions and rebuildings, now vaguely cruciform in shape, so nowhere else outside could I find any more than a glimpse of old walls. Still, the modern brick on the south side surprised me with its attractiveness: the colour variation and way they had been laid appealed to me greatly. Inside, the church was simple and lovely, with what looked like a stage at the front of the chancel, perfect – along with the acoustic – for concerts.
For a whole year I’d been avoiding playing any music I associated most strongly with James. It didn’t require much avoidance, with a combination of Covid and the difficulty of most the music – beyond the skill of many accompanists, even had I been inclined to play with piano since James’ death; and also largely beyond my own current capabilities, due to temporary (I hope) physical limitations. But Hattie had suggested organ accompaniment suited baroque music best, and so I took along the Bach Viola da Gamba sonatas and the Francoeur sonata, both of which I’d last played with James. I thought it was time to brave it. Particularly as it was James’ birthday, so it seemed fitting to play some music that reminded me of him. We played two of the easier movements of the Bach G major Viola da Gamba sonata – I’d forgotten how uplifting it was – and the first movement of the Francoeur sonata. I thought it was beautiful, but I knew that James was sceptical about the merits of the piece as a whole, seeing it as something of a fraudulent work, written by the brother of the person it was credited to (Louis rather than François), and edited to the point of oblivion, in parts, by an early twentieth century cellist and composer called Arnold Trowell.
We attempted a video of the Francoeur and were pleased with the result, after we’d finally figured out how to avoid the large time lag between organ and cello, caused by the physical distance between us and the fact the cello was inaudible to Hattie above the sound of the organ.
After Hattie left, I played my two favourite Irish Airs for Penny and another friend, Rosy, who’d also come along, and we went to Felixstowe beach to have our lunch. The weather was overcast and windy, but since it was my first beach visit since Christmas Day, this seemed an unimportant detail.
St Peter’s and St Mary’s, Stowmarket
I’d tried contacting Stowmarket church about visiting on a couple of occasions, with no response, so I thought the easiest thing to do would be to turn up at a time it was open for private prayer. After my dubious experience of doing so at Needham Market, it wasn’t without nervousness that I entered the church and spoke to the two ladies manning the desk at the entrance. I still don’t quite understand this arrangement in the context of a church being open for private prayer – it would certainly put me off – but perhaps some churches deem it necessary for Covid safety reasons. In any case, although I wasn’t given permission to play then and there, they were friendly and enthusiastic and suggested I ring the vicar. Several phone calls later, I’d arranged to go back the following Sunday to play at a service.
On my first visit, I was almost conned into thinking I’d encountered my first swifts of the year, before realising – only because I’d been told about this at a previous church – that it was a recording I could hear, an effort to encourage the swifts to nest at the church. A touching effort, especially as I don’t think anyone would be doing the same for bats inside a church – even if such a thing were possible. However wonderful it is to have creatures in and around buildings, there is no doubt that their presence indoors does create problems, as I have found in my own house. Luckily, though, my feeling of being cheated was short-lived, as I spotted my first swifts on a walk that very afternoon.
Michael, the vicar, was enthusiastic and welcoming. I confess I thoroughly deserved the teasing I got when a gentleman sitting near the front expressed his hope that I would play Bach, and I replied, ‘Ah, not today, I’m sorry – I thought I’d play some music more suitable for a church service: some Irish sacred music.’ Michael’s joking response, along the lines of how horrified Bach would be to hear that, made me realise immediately what a silly thing I’d said. Then I thought of the Bach E flat major suite, and my conviction that E flat major was the ‘divine key, the key of devotion and intimate conversation with God’. I would do better next time.
I would have preferred the service not be livestreamed: I hadn’t warmed up and my playing was only averagely competent, if that. But I knew, in the context of Covid and the recent lack of live music, that this was hardly an important consideration. The acoustic was pleasant, and the church interior more interesting than I’d expected. As always, my visit to Stowmarket’s church changed my attitude to the town itself. Enjoying the novelty of warmth, sunshine and open doors, I crossed the road afterwards to enjoy coffee and cake outside a café.
If Stowmarket’s church changed my attitude to the town for the better, I’m afraid the café’s Victoria sponge did not. Major improvement required.
Header photo: Felixstowe church tower detail