The Reconciliation, Hengrave
To my very great surprise and delight, no cunning nor sweet talk whatsoever was needed, in the end, to get into Hengrave church – a private Catholic chapel in the ownership of Hengrave Hall, now a wedding venue. It had long been at the back of my mind as a likely stumbling block to completing my tour of Suffolk’s churches, along with Wangford St Denys: I had contacted them once before and received a firm No in reply. But Chris, a cellist acquaintance who is the contact for their advertised wedding quartet for hire simply asked the office staff if I could come along when they were due there for a photo shoot. Perhaps the staff had changed since the time of my enquiry, or perhaps it was another unfortunate case of ‘it’s who you know’. But I wasn’t complaining – I almost couldn’t believe my luck, and coming as it did soon after the reply from Wangford St Denys, I felt for the first time that finishing my project this summer was a real possibility. I could now reschedule the long overdue final concert in Orford church without any fear that I might not manage to make it my last church, and with slightly less fear – for a short while, anyway – that Covid would put a spanner in the works.
I had trouble working out which entrance to Hengrave Hall to use, and so Chris and his quartet were already busy by the time I arrived in a somewhat flustered state. The view of the Hall, as it got larger and larger until I took a right swerve off to the car park (see header photo and above), was so spectacular I couldn’t quite believe where I was. This was nothing, however, compared to the utterly gorgeous, tiny round-towered church I found in a little garden beside it, with pretty flowerbeds and no graves that I could see. It was a warm, sunny morning and I had it all to myself. There was no place I’d rather be.
The interior was an odd shape, which made me wonder about the acoustic. I was surprised so many weddings took place there, since the space was so small it surely couldn’t fit the usual crowds. And it wasn’t very ornate for a Catholic chapel, I thought. I needed to read more about its history. I found the font housed in a little room-like enclosure in the tower with two pretty round stained glass windows. Probably a third of the interior was taken up with elaborate memorials, but the alternative documentation of the church’s history interested me more: there was graffiti everywhere.
The acoustic turned out to be good, and after playing Frank Bridge, I spent some time with the Bach E flat major suite, thinking this might be the place to continue my efforts to make friends with it again. Playing the Sarabande felt like taking a happy variety of medicine, which I took as a sign we would soon be reconciled.
As I was leaving, I stopped and took in my surroundings, thinking, as I had never done before when leaving a Suffolk church, that it might well be the first and last time I saw inside this wonderful building. What a strange feeling that was.
St Nicholas’, Landwade
After a couple of hours sitting in a café in Bury St Edmunds, I headed for Landwade, near Newmarket. I’d arranged to play at an evensong service there without actually being sure if the church was in Suffolk or Cambridgeshire: better to be safe, I reasoned. But it is in Suffolk, the vicar assured me – only since 1994, though, I read afterwards. It is part of the strange Suffolk peninsula of Newmarket and Exning.
It certainly felt out on a limb. Once I’d found Landwade Hall, it was only a short walk across a perfect late-May scene to the church, its small churchyard enclosed in a low brick wall, with a river and brick bridge beside it, and geese lounging in the meadows beyond.
I was glad I had time to play through my pieces before the service, if only because it would have been too short a musical experience otherwise for such a day, setting, building and acoustic. After its setting, the interior rather than exterior of the church was the most attractive: simple and peaceful, containing old stone tombs, medieval glass and plentiful graffiti.
There were no fewer than three vicars involved in the service, which caused me some amusement. I was feeling unwell, as I had become accustomed to in recent months, and accompanying back ache made me wonder how on earth I would stay upright until the end of the service. But adjusting my sitting position helped somewhat; and, not for the first time, playing the cello in a beautiful church and acoustic was a therapeutic experience which did more than any painkiller to make me feel altogether more human.
Afterwards I lingered in the grounds taking photos before making my way to Penny’s house in Bury, thinking what a thoroughly marvellous day I’d had.
Total churches to end May: 456 + 3 chapels
Header photo: Hengrave Hall