Suffolk churches 184: Wangford St Denys, Barnardiston and Haverhill (May 2021)

The photographic aspect of this blog is proving a problem in keeping up with my church accounts as it is so time consuming – so I will reduce the number included from now on (only slightly in this post), until I have finished the remaining churches. Then I will gradually add in the rest!

Wangford St Denys
Wangford St DenysWangford St Denys signI’d expected Wangford to be one of two possibly insuperable obstacles in my path to playing all of Suffolk’s medieval churches: it is not used by the Church of England, but leased to an American Baptist church, and the curate at Brandon church gave the impression I’d be hard-pressed even to make contact – he himself could give me no information about it. I could find nothing but a postal address when I searched online, and nothing about the church on the RAF Lakenheath website, to whom I assumed the church had been leased.

All was not lost, however, thanks to some photos of the church posted online. Outside the church was a sign saying New Beginnings International and listing services times and the name of Pastor Jake Jacobs. This church, I discovered, had a Facebook page, with email address and phone number. Phoning out of the blue was a little beyond my courage limits, so I sent an email, not very hopeful of a response. But, to my astonishment, the following day I received a friendly and encouraging reply from Bishop Jake Jacobs, and a day after that I was making my way to Wangford.

There is another Wangford in the east of the county. This one is in The Brecks in the northwest, a sandy, seemingly remote area with few churches spread out over great distances, unlike any other area of Suffolk. The explanation for this lack of churches appears to be the unsuitability of the land for farming, leading to sparse settlement by the Anglo-Saxons. Spelled variously St Denis or St Denys, this church is as strange as the land it exists in: the edge of the Lakenheath airfield, a no-man’s-land, reached along a potholed track past high fences and No Entry and Private Road signs (see header photo). I felt like I’d departed the country – the planet, even – when I turned up at the church under a heavy sky. Outside was an old pick-up truck, which somehow seemed fitting. Unsure whether this meant Bishop (or Pastor?) Jake had already arrived – there was no obvious owner of this truck to be seen – I phoned to let him know I was here. He was running late, he said, which gave me time to walk round the church, finding the south side smelling of pigs, who inhabited the adjacent field, and the north side smelling of camomile. On the southwest corner of the tower, I saw an engraving in the stone which I assumed was a scratch dial, but now I’m not so sure: I recognise the symbol, but can’t remember its meaning.

Wangford St Denys symbol Wangford St Denys door Wangford St Denys Pastor Jake

Pastor Jake, from Compton, California, arrived a little while later in another, much more modern, pick-up truck, and what I thought was military uniform but he told me were just his normal clothes. The building had been leased to New Beginnings International since the 1980s, he said, and wasn’t a military church. I imagine the majority of those who attend it must be in the US Airforce, however, Lakenheath being owned but not used by the RAF. The interior was downright bizarre: a shell built inside the church, it resembled nothing more than a conference room, without any windows at all. The floor was covered in thick purple carpet, and the stone around the doors was painted gold. I suppose the fact it is a shell is the only reason such a thing would have been allowed in a historic building – although the gold paint might be pushing it a bit.

Wangford St Denys interiorWangford St Denys interior 2
The acoustic wasn’t as awful as I imagined it would be; in fact it was more than passable. I played some Irish sacred music, on Pastor Jake’s request: he wanted me to come back to play in a live-stream service, and gospel music was a little outside my sphere. I was happy to play some, I assured him, but would need the music, and I suppose that isn’t really how most gospel music works. In any case, my Irish songs and hymns were deemed suitable, so perhaps the start of my new career in gospel music will have to be postponed.

The music was interspersed with chat, during which I learned Pastor Jake played the French horn and trumpet. He used to be in the military, and had lived in Suffolk for many years. After making provisional arrangements for my return in July, I thanked him and returned to Planet Earth down the potholed track, thinking I most definitely I hadn’t expected this experience when I decided to play in all of Suffolk’s medieval churches.

All Saints’, Barnardiston
Barnardiston 2Two days before the end of the month, May decided to arrive. Sunshine, warmth and cow parsley: all the ingredients needed for a blissful Saturday afternoon of church visits. I’d finally managed to arrange access to the two remaining churches in the Haverhill corner of Suffolk, Barnardiston and Haverhill itself. Max, who’d been curate at St Mary’s, Newmarket when I’d given concerts there, had now moved to Haverhill, I discovered. Even at this late stage of my project, I was grateful for every worry- and explanation-free contact, and the sure knowledge of a welcoming response was enough to make me favourably disposed towards the place.

For once, I decided to trust my satnav so that I could enjoy the journey, with the unexpected result that I was taken through Denston and Hawkedon instead of Clare. But it was a pleasant route of small country lanes and pretty churches I hadn’t seen in a while. My destination, Barnardiston, was just as pleasing. Peggy, the churchwarden, met me on arrival, and as we approached the church I saw a nuthatch climbing up the wall. The church had a stunning, open porch with high arch, probably the highest I’d seen. Everything about the church was perfect: it was ancient, simple, comforting. The embodiment of Suffolk and its history; a space I’d be happy to spend time in every day for the rest of my life.

Barnardiston porch Barnardiston door
Barnardiston interior Barnardiston interior 2

I played Peggy two Irish airs, the first movement of the Francoeur sonata and two pieces by Frank Bridge. When she left, assuring me she’d be back, I rectified my unforgivable mistake at Stowmarket and played the Bach E flat major Sarabande. The vicar’s comment there had reminded me that this music was the cello’s prayer. Entirely appropriate for a church service; entirely compatible with a church open for private prayer. Entirely suited to this beautiful, ancient place, and the emotions it produced in me.

Barnardiston porch detail Barnardiston graffiti 3 Barnardiston window

Barnardiston churchyardPeggy returned with a £5 note, asking to donate it to my fundraising efforts. I suggested she give it to her own church, explaining as I had done on a few previous occasions that she’d heard me play at Barnardiston, so Barnardiston was the church I was fundraising for. She was finally persuaded, repeating several times how sad she was that no one else was there to hear the music. And I repeated how happy I would be to come back and play for whoever wanted to listen.

The churchyard was no less delightful than the church, full of flowers, trees, birds, sunshine and shade. There is nothing more heavenly than such a May afternoon.

Barnardiston

St Mary’s, Haverhill
HaverhillAlthough I was sorry to leave Barnardiston, I was determined to feel hopeful about my visit to Haverhill, since, so far, my experience of all of Suffolk’s maligned towns had been positive ones, thanks mostly to their churches. I had more cause to be hopeful today, knowing the friendly face I would be met by on arrival.

There was nevertheless the obligatory town navigation and one-way system trouble to overcome first: whichever way I went, I seemed to meet only no entry and dead end signs. I had to phone Max for instructions, before eventually managing to end up at the church entirely by accident on my attempt to return to the high street.

The church was the best feature of the marketplace, although the concrete loo block beside it, with the half-hearted effort to make it look of a piece with the church by covering only the west side with knapped flint, didn’t flatter it. Still, late spring sunshine is effective in making most places look more attractive than they are, and though I might not have been inclined to extend my stay with a visit to a café or pub – especially as the marketplace seemed almost deserted by the time I went outside to take photos – I was happy to be there, not least because it was my very last church in the southwest corner of Suffolk. And because, Max informed me, you don’t after all have to pronounce the name ‘Haver’ll’. Haver-hill is perfectly acceptable, even amongst locals.

Haverhill interior Haverhill interior 2

The interior of the church was divided, with the west end of the nave enclosed behind glass, an ‘interior roof’ design which I rather liked, and the open part of the nave therefore almost wider than it was long. It was nothing to compare with Mildenhall’s church – a town which somehow inhabited the same mental category for me – but the acoustic was good, and I felt it a friendly and well-used building. The welcome I felt from Max, who busied himself with jobs in the vestry, was no small contributing factor in my feelings towards the place.

Haverhill roof Haverhill aisle
Haverhill font Haverhill wall plaque Haverhill porch

My attempt to leave the town was as hazard-ridden as my attempt to get into the town, the signposts abandoning Clare, and therefore me, in favour of Sturmer and Halstead after only the second roundabout. The only possible way to round off the day properly, therefore, was to stop for fish and chips at a pub in Lavenham on my way home, sitting outdoors to enjoying the evening sunshine with a view of the majestic church.

Header photo: Approach to Wangford St Denys church

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