St Mary’s, Bramford
I was particularly excited about this church visit, number 450, as it was the penultimate milestone of my tour – unless of course the total ends up exceeding 500, which isn’t impossible. The arrival of this milestone came more than a year after I anticipated it, but was all the more welcome for the delay.
Bramford, I thought, was one of Suffolk’s more easily pronounceable village names, but on meeting the vicar, Eric, I discovered I was wrong: it is Brahm-ford rather than Bramford. It still sounds wrong to me – far too posh for the outskirts of Ipswich. But it didn’t feel like the outskirts of Ipswich, and perhaps it isn’t too posh for the church itself, which was a good deal more beautiful and ancient-feeling than I (in my prejudice) had expected. It is apparently in possession of Suffolk’s only medieval stone rood screen*; I found a phenomenal quantity of graffiti – the crowning contribution a carved inscription above a donation box, both dating to 1591 – and it had a lovely acoustic for an aisled church. Its only shortcomings, as far as I could see, were its bright red south door, painted to match the school next door, and its mown churchyard: no churchyard should be wholly clipped in May, as far as I am concerned. They should be exuberant and wild, at least in places where it is practical to leave them so.
Between my chats with Eric, I played a few Irish Airs. We’d met at Akenham, he told me, but my memory failed me. My 450th church milestone was perhaps not as memorable as I might have chosen, usually preferring to invite friends along to make a celebration of it, but in the context of my recent limited social and musical ambitions, it was perfectly memorable enough. It was enough to know that my visits had resumed, that I was getting closer to the end of my project, and that churches were still surprising me with their treasures. The carved inscription alone would have made my day, but there was Little Blakenham to come – and the sun, contrary to the forecast, was still shining.
St Mary’s, Little Blakenham
On arrival at Little Blakenham, Eric apologised for the overgrown state of the hilly churchyard. Strangely, it was not the first time such a thing would be said to me that week. I protested as well as I could that I preferred them that way and that it was looking wonderful, but I’m not sure my words made any impression. It occurs to me now that perhaps this is how some visitors feel when I apologise for my overgrown garden: my participation in ‘no-mow May’ has inadvertently continued into July – although I have recently made a half-hearted attempt to turn the rear lawns back into lawns. The bee orchids are my convenient excuse for not mowing the roadside lawns yet, though the true reason is that I have no B&B guests this year and my small supplies of energy and motivation seem, currently, to be entirely restricted to cello, church visits and writing.
What stood within the churchyard, up the hill, was a sight equally as delightful as the cow parsley surrounding it: a tiny, sweet little church. My favourite kind. Its interior was also my favourite kind, and in my greed I’d have liked to have guzzled it alone; but of course I was grateful for Eric’s interest and kindness in giving his time to allow me to play. The acoustic, as expected, matched the rest of it. I spotted a pigeon in the beautiful painting around the north chancel window, which I’m sure was actually dove, but every type of pigeon is now a cousin of Winnie’s, as far as I am concerned.
My visit to Little Blakenham was cheered further by something altogether unexpected: I received a message confirming I would be able to play in Hengrave church that Sunday. Having the day before managed also to make contact with Wangford St Denys church in northwest Suffolk, I was over the moon: they were the only two churches in Suffolk that I thought I might never get into. Being able to finish my church tour before the end of the summer suddenly felt like a reality, and that lovely place combined with a tiny but significant reduction in uncertainty surrounding one important aspect of my life, amidst all its other uncertainties, lifted my spirits higher than they’d been in several months.
I could, in fact, have stayed on at the church alone, after Eric showed me where the key belonged, but my high spirits couldn’t quite override my bodily limitations, and the rain that had held off most of the morning was now hovering ominously overhead. I just managed to finish taking photos before dashing to the car to take shelter from the downpour.
Rickinghall Inferior (revisited)
Having tried to visit in September and been locked out by some over-enthusiastic parishioner, I very nearly got locked out a second time by the organist, who had come to practise and wondered why he’d found the church open. But thankfully we just overlapped, leading to a pleasant chat as well as access to the church.
I had companions today, George and Susan, who wanted a tour of Suffolk churchyards for the book George was writing on churchyard wildlife. Rickinghall Inferior was on his list, and he was keen to hear me play in a church, so both our duties and desires would be conveniently and pleasurably executed in one visit.
Nearly all of May was gone, and it felt as though spring had barely started; but, finally, it was a beautiful morning. Though the warmth couldn’t make it indoors so quickly, it was doing its best. The acoustic in the church didn’t have the miraculous effect on my C string resonance that its porch did, but it was blissful nevertheless and I carried on for longer than I usually would with listeners, feeling they were enjoying it as much as I was. After several Irish airs, some Francoeur and Bridge, I decided to try and make my peace with Bach. It wasn’t that I’d stopped loving it; it was simply that it was too painful a reminder of the losses of the last year, and the physical limitations that continued to make full-intensity concerts and my planned CD recording impossible. In this way, perhaps, I was grateful that Covid had taken the pressure off; but I was beginning to feel again the lack of the things I wanted to do, and should now be able to, but still couldn’t. This was a joyful visit, however, and with friends there, I felt it was the right situation in which to address my difficult emotions in the hope of creating new, positive associations. E flat major was the obvious choice: one of the harder Sarabandes – so not obvious from that point of view – but the key with which I had such a close emotional relationship that I felt it could hold the pain as well as the beauty and the peace-making: all of the conflicting emotions that I needed it to hold.
George and Susan enjoyed our visit as much as I did. It was good to look around the church interior after nearly 9 months of anticipation. I’d forgotten this was the village of Basil Brown, the excavator of Sutton Hoo, of whom I’d not have heard if I hadn’t seen the recent film, The Dig. But my favourite feature was an artwork of the church. It wasn’t a painting; I suppose it was a collage, as it seemed to be made up of paper stuck onto paper.
We rounded off our visit with a churchyard flower search, admiring the large quantities of meadow saxifrage, whose name I’d only learnt that week, from George. Then we went on to Burgate, Mellis, Thornham Parva and Wickham Skeith. It was wonderful to revisit all these churches which, with the exception of Thornham Parva, I’d last been to four years previously, at the beginning of my tour.
Header photo: Bramford roof detail