St Peter’s, Athelington
Athelington was to be an unusual church visit: Mike, a sound artist and friend of Steve’s, was joining me to make a recording for BBC Radio Suffolk. My first, and no doubt only, radio broadcast church visit. It was the hottest day of the year so far – 27°C – and it was odd to think that just a month ago I was playing in Felixstowe church in a scarf and fingerless mittens.
We’d decided to make a video rather than just audio, and it was the video element I was more nervous about. If audio recording makes me feel self-conscious, video has this effect times a hundred. Still, I was glad finally to be meeting Mike, and knew it would be fun once I’d got over my apprehension.
I was looking forward to seeing inside Athelington – I’d tried several times to gain access – although I was worried it might be devoid of atmosphere, having read it was comprehensively restored by the Victorians. But it was tiny enough to satisfy even me, smelled just as old churches should, and boasted a handsome set of medieval bench ends; so I knew as soon as I entered that this visit would certainly be representative of my project as a whole, and that the acoustic would be conducive to happy recording.
After my initial indecision over how best to tackle the task, nervous about what I should say and whether I’d end up stumbling over words and notes, it went smoothly and enjoyably. I played three short pieces, two Irish airs and the Bach C major Sarabande, and we stopped for a lengthy chat halfway through. I hoped it wouldn’t be the last occasion Mike and I would work together. I was fairly confident it wouldn’t be.
St Martin’s, Tuddenham St Martin
Holding one’s nerve when ignoring repeated ‘ROAD AHEAD CLOSED’ signs – possibly the world’s most unhelpful road sign – never gets any easier, even though I’ve had many more experiences of regretting a detour (the road closure could be just about anywhere) than regretting continuing past the sign. On this occasion, as on most, I managed to get to my destination without having to turn around, and therefore arrived roughly on time at this pretty church on top of a hill with a view across the valley (header photo). Its village was also attractive and friendly-feeling, despite the drizzle: I imagine it would be at the top of anyone’s list who needed to be within a stone’s throw of Ipswich without wanting to live in the town.
I was met by Charlotte – the youngest vicar I have yet encountered in Suffolk, I should think – and a handful of church attendees who’d stayed behind after morning prayer to hear me play. The acoustic was more resonant than I expected given the church was full to the brim with pews, and I greatly enjoyed playing there, my balance only mildly disturbed by the uphill slope I was facing.
Taking a closer look at the pews afterwards, I was amused by the bench ends at the back of the nave, which I was reliably informed were seals but were fairly unrecognisable as such. Not so the chicken, which must be one of my favourites. On my circuit of the churchyard I found a beautiful Norman doorway, before the drizzle resumed and I headed to Brightwell in gleeful possession of some homemade gooseberry jam and marmalade.
St John’s, Brightwell
Brightwell church was also up a hill, a steeper one than Tuddenham, but on this occasion I didn’t have to walk up it: the keyholder was already waiting for me by the road to direct me to the car park beside the church, despite my timing miscalculation which meant I was almost fifteen minutes early. It wasn’t until we were in the church, however, that we both worked out we’d spoken on the previous occasion when I’d tried to access the church: church number 300, it would have been, I told Sandie. Now I was on 461. Sandie’s sister had come to listen too – she was nearly 90. I would never have guessed, but I am a poor judge of age.
The church interior and its acoustic were lovely. Sandie told me the pamments in the porch had been stolen, in not one but two trips. For that reason they had to keep the church locked, she said, or all the inside ones would have been taken too. This was the first time I’d heard of floor tiles being stolen, and the first adequate excuse I’d heard for keeping a church locked. I was quite shocked that anyone would do such a terrible thing. But those who would do it have little respect for anything or anyone, it seems to me, so perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising.
I played Sandie and her sister three Irish airs and the Bach C major Sarabande. They seemed pleased with their private concert, and I was more than pleased with my visit to Brightwell. Although it would have made a worthy 300th milestone, I was glad, in hindsight, that it was Kesgrave instead of Brightwell: this was far too special a little place to have rushed my visit.
St Mary at the Quay, Ipswich
Without my Ipswich guide, Steve, I found driving into town and finding parking as stressful as I expected: you simply need to know where you’re going when you’re in a town, and although I knew roughly where the church was, that wasn’t adequate in the context of one-way systems, car parks and a string of churches located along the quay.
By some miracle, I made it on time to where Adrian, the keyholder, was waiting for me. We entered through a modern extension to a huge empty space: having been leased out for some time by the Churches Conservation Trust, there was no seating set out, and one aisle had been turned into rooms or offices, with a first floor. The church, I thought, looked small from the outside and huge on the inside. Would it have looked big in a village? I suspected so; but here it was dwarfed by tall buildings, roads, derelict land and building sites. It is certainly a neighbourhood in need of attention.
The roof and chancel were beautiful and several other interesting old features had been preserved: memorials, tombs, wall plaques, and – my favourite – the font, which had unfortunately been relegated to the far northwest corner, stuck down the side of the glassed-off entrance. It was odd: there was a plug socket just beyond the font, but apparently no way of getting to it, without climbing over the font.
The acoustic was wonderful, as I expected, and after Adrian went elsewhere to get some work done, I switched from the usual pieces I had lately been playing to any listeners to practising the Schubert string quintet. I had just managed to organise it for my final concert in Orford church, and it is a piece which, despite practising only the second cello part, has the ability to engross me to the point of noticing neither my surroundings nor the time passing.
I did occasionally check the time, however, to make sure I wasn’t keeping Adrian too long, and afterwards I took a small detour to the quay itself on my way back to the car park. It was attractive and apparently redeveloped, unlike the area immediately surrounding the church, and I thought how I’d like to sit by the water for a while at one of the cafés. But I had cello lessons to give that afternoon, and so made a compromise with myself that when I returned the following week to visit four churches in a day, I would make time for a lunch break there.
Header photo: View from Tuddenham St Martin churchyard
Total churches to end June: 462 + 3 chapels