Suffolk churches 186: Willisham and Leiston (June 2021)

St Mary’s, Willisham
WillishamIt was an idyllic morning when I arrived at Willisham church to play at a Sunday service (though clouded over by the time I took this photo!). It was finally time to meet the cello-playing vicar I’d heard rumours of three years previously, made even more intriguing by the fact his cello – our email correspondence revealed – was made by Joseph Hill senior, the father of the maker of my own cello.

The extent of my acquaintance with the church was that I’d walked past it once, nearly a decade ago, but found it locked. It is essentially a Victorian church, but such are its charms and setting that I was glad to have arrived early to enjoy the view across the valley (see header photo) and its beautiful acoustic for a few minutes before anyone arrived. Playing alone in a church never loses its magic, no matter how often I do it, and no matter how glad I am to share music with others – particularly at a time when singing is not allowed, and so little live music has been enjoyed.

Willisham interior Willisham interior 2

Willisham fontDan, the vicar, had planned the service around music and the concept of listening. I had four music slots, in which I planned to play Irish airs and movements by Walton, Francoeur and Bach: the E flat major Sarabande. I was asked to introduce my project, and – feeling encouraged by the theme of the service – I decided to be brave and mention the significance for me of E flat major, and how, through Covid, I had come to regard cello playing as a version of private prayer, despite being unreligious.

I had reason to be glad of my honesty, as Dan then admitted that when he first went to theological college and was required to use words to pray, he realised he’d always used his cello for this purpose. His admission of course aroused my curiosity, leading to further chat after the service. By the time I left for home, I felt thoroughly glad we’d met, and was sure that this had been the most enjoyable church service I’d ever played at – or, in fact, attended.

St Margaret’s, Leiston
LeistonI made life harder for myself than I intended by managing to arrive late at Leiston church, when I knew people would be coming to listen. But the small audience was kind and forgiving, and once I’d got over my fluster, I got on with introducing my project and then playing a selection of Frank Bridge, Bach and Irish airs. I’d briefly been inside Leiston church before, when I first tried to visit in late November 2019 and found a Christmas fair underway. That time, I’d registered its vastness, but not much else. I didn’t realise this was essentially a 19th century replacement of a much smaller medieval church, precipitated by a huge increase in population – a conversion from village to town – when the Garrett engineering works opened here.

Leiston interior Leiston interior 2

Leiston fontUnder my ear, the acoustic wasn’t anything special, which didn’t surprise me given the shape of the church and its carpet. But, unusually, I could sense that from the back of the church, it might sound perfectly clear: an optimal audience’s acoustic, rather than player’s acoustic. I answered some questions from the audience at the end, and – for the first time in a church – rounded off proceedings by playing Happy Birthday to one of the audience members.

The church roof was undoubtedly the most attention-grabbing aspect of the church; but my favourite feature, and far older, was the font. The stained glass windows were proudly pointed out to me as being designed and made by women; and, in fact, the east window was comprised solely of women saints. This must indeed be unusual, if not unique, and I was glad to know it. But unfortunately my capacity for appreciating 19th and early- to mid-twentieth century stained glass was not greatly enhanced by this knowledge. Perhaps such a capacity will be granted to me as a reward for completing my visits of all of Suffolk’s churches…

Leiston roofAfter everyone had left, I enjoyed trying to make my way round the large and wild churchyard, where the grass and cow parsley reached up to my waist. It was warm and sunny, and I was feeling cheered by my day out and the prospect of fish and chips on the beach followed by a walk with a friend in Aldeburgh. Church visiting and the Suffolk landscape are really the best kind of medicine for me.

Header photo: View from Willisham churchyard

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