Suffolk churches 188: Ipswich – St Peter’s by the Waterfront, St Helen’s, St Mary at the Elms and St Mary-le-Tower (July 2021)

St Peter’s by the Waterfront, Ipswich
Ipswich St PeterBy some miracle, I managed to find a parking spot without too much difficulty. The fact it was limited to 3 hours made the afternoon’s logistics a bit more complicated, however: I would have to move my car before going on to my next church, St Helen’s. Walking over the bridge to St Peter’s, I suddenly felt daunted by the prospect of visiting four churches in a day, and wondered how my stamina would hold out. Not my cello-playing stamina so much as my bodily stamina: I was, as usual, feeling unwell in multiple ways, and it had been a while since I’d visited so many churches in a day. Ipswich St Peter fontAnd this was Ipswich, not the countryside – with accompanying navigation, car-parking and cello-carrying difficulties.

I forgot my worries as soon as I entered the church – another big, empty, beautiful space, this one used as an Arts and Heritage Centre. Two men were sitting along one wall, one reading a book and the other reading a newspaper. I enquired of Andrew, the manager, if they knew I was going to play. He replied in the affirmative, explaining they were volunteers. They didn’t say hello or even look up. Feeling a little awkward, I got on with setting up and playing, my awkwardness vanishing quickly in that delightful acoustic. A few people came and went, admiring – as I did afterwards – the remarkable and rare Tournai marble font, the Ipswich Charter hangings (framed fabric depictions of Ipswich’s history), and the Saxon coffin on display at the back of the nave.

Ipswich St Peter interior Ipswich St Peter interior 2

Ipswich St Peter quiltsMy visit was rounded off with the cheering sight of poppies in the compact churchyard. Going back inside to retrieve my cello, the newspaper reader finally spoke to me, in an animated fashion I would never have expected given the lack of reaction any time earlier in my visit: he wasn’t into classical music, he said, but really enjoyed the sound of the cello, which is usually difficult to hear in an orchestra. It was clear his enthusiasm was genuine, and I left the church feeling glad I’d been the unwitting agent of a conversion. Not to mention a conversation.

Ipswich St Peter churchyard

St Helen’s, Ipswich
Ipswich St HelenIpswich St Helen interiorI knew I would be playing at St Helen’s during a pop-up shop, where residents in need could pay £2 for a bag to fill with groceries; but, never having attended such an event – though I’d heard of the phenomenon several times lately – I had no idea of the scale of it, or the number of volunteers involved. I passed a queue of people on my way into the church, where I found myself in front of tables piled high with tins and packets, and numerous volunteers busying themselves around the church. I did wonder for a moment if St Helen’s was still in use as a church, so good an impression did it give of a village hall, but quickly realised this was simply on account of its green carpet and lack of pews. All of the chairs had been stacked to one side.

Of the choices of where to sit, I opted for the gallery, where I would be out of the way of moving parts and feel slightly less conspicuous – in sight if not sound. I knew I would be playing for longer than usual here, as the shop would last the best part of an hour, so I was dismayed when I noticed the nerve pain in my elbows worsening the longer I played. I’d had some ‘time off’ this particular nuisance, and it caused me some worry about what might happen with a summer full of cello playing. I did what I could to keep it at bay, taking a break halfway through to look at the exterior of the church, where I found that the only part accessible to nosy people like me was the south side.

As I returned to play for the last people waiting for their groceries, I started to wonder where all the food came from and who paid for it. I should have asked while I was there, as the only definition of a pop-up shop I can find online is the one I originally assumed it to be: a temporary rather than permanent shop.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the music, and I was touched to be presented (as were all the volunteers) with a bunch of roses at the end. But I wasn’t oblivious to the slight jarring between the playing of classical music and those who didn’t have enough money to buy sufficient groceries for the week. In the end, however, aside from heightened gratitude for food and shelter and awareness of my privilege, I decided my feelings on the matter were irrelevant, because there was no contradiction involved: music is common to humanity. It doesn’t matter what kind of music and it doesn’t matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.

St Mary at the Elms, Ipswich
Ipswich St Mary ElmsSt Mary at the Elms was a beautiful surprise, just off the unattractive inner ring road around the town centre. I’d driven along this road a number of times without any suspicion of the treasure nearby. I found a small church with a brick tower and Norman doorway, which felt more like a village than a town church, and I could tell straightaway it would be my favourite church of the day. Father Nicholas, wearing a cassock, met me at the door. It was a title that made me curious: I thought Father was used only in the Catholic church, instead of Reverend. His title, attire and the interior of the church – smelling of incense, with a shrine and a statue of the Virgin Mary – made me therefore doubt my knowledge that there was no other (current) medieval Catholic church in the county apart from Hengrave, and I couldn’t help asking Father Nicholas if St Mary’s was Catholic. ‘High Anglican,’ he replied. My friend Penny’s diagnosis later in the day – ‘It’s more Catholic than Catholic!’ – made me laugh.

About ten people were indoors waiting to listen, including David, whom I’d met at Melton Old Church and had put me in touch with St Mary’s. Before I even started playing, the ironwork on the open nave door attracted my attention: it looked ancient. It was ancient – the third oldest door in the country, I was informed, most likely the original Norman door with original ironwork. I couldn’t wait to inspect it close to.

Ipswich St Mary Elms 2 Ipswich St Mary Elms door
Ipswich St Mary Elms interior Ipswich St Mary Elms interior 2

After introducing my project at Father Nicholas’ request, I played the Bach G major Sarabande and two Irish airs, followed by the C major Sarabande when David requested more music. Afterwards we chatted with another member of the audience, Andrew, who was the organist. It wasn’t until he’d left that I thought to ask his surname, and realised this was the Andrew Steve had mentioned to me: a wonderful pianist, musician and person. His name had been floating around in my head for over a year, but I hadn’t got round to taking any action to instigate contact, unsure of my physical cello playing capacity, and ambivalent about the idea of playing with piano since James’ death. But here was serendipity which couldn’t be ignored.

I liked Father Nicholas, and we chatted some more while I inspected the beautiful door. He told me St Mary’s was the only town centre church open all day every day; and I admitted I’d become increasingly opinionated on the subject of locked churches over the course of my church tour. I couldn’t interpret his reaction to that admission, but it was clear he was proud of St Mary’s state of openness or I would never have dared say such a thing.

I was thrilled to become acquainted with this lovely church and its people. Ipswich is lucky to have them.

St Mary-le-Tower, Ipswich
Ipswich St Mary le TowerChris, the Director of Music, was waiting for me in the car park across the road from St Mary-le-Tower, despite my early arrival. I didn’t know it was him, until he came to speak to me; and then I had a vague sense of having met him somewhere before. It took me until we were inside the church to place the memory: he’d conducted some of the freezing 2019 Christmas concert I’d played in at the Royal Hospital School. That strange time in the past when life was ‘normal’. Another pianist friend had put me in touch with him, and it felt good to be meeting new people and making contact with other musicians, especially at a time when concerts had barely resumed and I still wasn’t running my B&B – which I’d feared might have the effect of making me feel a little isolated when everyone else’s lives were resuming after lockdown. I could see now there was no danger of this, particularly while I still had church visits to arrange. After chatting over a cup of tea, Chris went to get on with work in the office while I played.

The acoustic was surprisingly boomy for such a large church. I suspected this had to do with the narrow central aisle and its extremely high roof. It wasn’t so good for the choir in the chancel, though, Chris said. I played through the whole of the Bach G major suite, realising that I apparently had to give several ‘concerts’ in Lowestoft the following weekend and hadn’t even decided what to play yet. It didn’t go too badly, and I was relieved to feel my stamina was up to the job.

Ipswich St Mary le Tower interior Ipswich St Mary le Tower interior 2
Ipswich St Mary le Tower font Ipswich St Mary le tower bench end Ipswich St Mary le tower bench end 2

I enjoyed the musical bench ends in the chancel afterwards – including one resembling a cello player, though the instrument was undoubtedly a viol – and I left St Mary-le-Tower with an invitation to give a recital there in December. Amazingly, I’d had no town driving or parking disasters that day, and left Ipswich with vastly greater geographical understanding of both the town and the position of its churches in relation to each other. As always, I was grateful for my new and improved perspective on this much-maligned county town, a perspective determined in no small part by its churches and its people. To top off my wonderful day out, Chris gave me Andrew’s email address, and within a week, to my extraordinary delight, he had agreed to accompany me in December and we’d fixed a time to play through some music together.

Header photo: Font detail, St Peter’s by the Waterfront

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