St Margaret’s, Lowestoft
I’d arranged a full weekend of church visits in and around Lowestoft, with the result that I was giving at least two concerts, if not more, in two days. I’d slightly lost track of which ones were concerts and which weren’t. I took pains to stress they would be very informal: I was out of solo performance practice and my stamina wasn’t up to a full recital. But I knew that if there were more than a handful of people attending, they would feel like concerts anyway.
I arrived at St Margaret’s only half an hour beforehand – something I would never ordinarily do for a concert following a drive little short of an hour and a half – but I’d been warned there would be people staying on after the morning service, leaving little opportunity to practise, so I was happy to wing it on this occasion.
I entered a gigantic church whose interior reminded me of Southwold. I knew the size would make it harder to play, but the acoustic was surprisingly resonant – again, much like Southwold. I was even more surprised when an audience member sent me a few video clips afterwards: it sounded positively boomy. It would be fun to be able to divide yourself in two occasionally and listen to yourself play from the back of the church: I think the sound experience would be completely different.
After introducing my church tour, I played the whole Bach G major suite, followed by three Irish Airs, to perhaps 20 people: definitely a concert audience. The lady who’d help arrange a few of my Lowestoft visits afterwards asked me if this had been an example of my cello almost ‘playing itself’, as I had described the transformative experience of playing at a friend’s funeral which had given me the idea of my church tour. I was flattered at the same time as slightly shocked: no, this performance had been strictly mediocre, as far as I was concerned. I think I had only experienced such magic twice that I could remember: the first time at the funeral in 2017, and the second at a concert in Dalham church in 2018. I never went into a concert expecting such a thing to happen. But my answer to her was shorter and more grateful, I hope: it was hard work today, but ok, and thankfully went better than I might have expected on so little preparation. Everyone seemed overjoyed to be hearing live music once more, and I was glad.
Afterwards I wandered around, admiring the roof, the many brasses and once-brasses on the floor, and the gravestones outside which had been placed in long rows to line the footpaths. I wondered where they had all been moved from: the churchyard was pretty full of them too – though it is now ‘closed’ to new burials, I was told. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a gigantic churchyard. I’ve certainly never seen so many gravestones.
St Michael’s, Oulton
Arriving at Oulton church, it dawned on me that perhaps St Margaret’s was the only true ‘town church’ of Lowestoft: the other names should have given me a clue, as they were all village names. I suppose I did know that they’d been swallowed up by Lowestoft, but I still hadn’t put two and two together to realise that it meant the churches themselves would probably feel like village churches rather than town churches, which also meant I would probably like them more. There would be only one exception to this generalisation, I would discover over the course of the weekend.
Oulton was well and truly a village church, regardless of the suburbs I drove through to reach it. The exterior was beautiful and patchy, and it had obviously once been a cruciform church, as its tower was in the ‘middle’; but it no longer had any transepts. I loved the exterior walls, and this turned out to be my favourite aspect of the church: its interior was plain and carpeted and altogether less beautiful, although it possessed a lovely font, Norman arch and pleasant acoustic, despite the carpet. My relief at being in a small church again, after the sheer size of St Margaret’s, was so great as to take me by surprise. Because it wasn’t simply a matter of aesthetic preference, it was a physical, mental and emotional sense of comfort and relaxation. A feeling of being at home.
As I set up to play, I realised I’d left one of my spike holders at St Mary’s. And then I realised I’d left my music there too. I guess the fact this was the first such mishap in 468 churches is an achievement; but it was also a nuisance. I thought I might try and play by memory to the few people who had come to listen, but then I decided it would be too stressful, and I would make do with the other music I had in my bag: Irish sacred music, Frank Bridge and Francoeur. It was good enough – this visit definitely wasn’t billed as a concert.
Afterwards I was given a tour of the church, and then taken outside to see the view to the west (header photo). We were essentially on a hill, or high ground at least, looking over into Norfolk and the low-lying Broads. I enjoyed my circuit of the churchyard afterwards, in particular a lopsided window infill – I couldn’t make head or tail of it, so stopped trying and just admired it instead.
On my rounds, I chatted with two ladies in the churchyard with dogs, who’d caught the end of my playing but hadn’t brought their masks so thought they’d better not come in. They invited me for a cup of tea across the road, and I would gladly have accepted. I was aware that all my reasons for not doing so – including my worry about the music I was sure I must have left at St Margaret’s, though I couldn’t for the life of me think where – were really not very good ones and perhaps I should have gone anyway. Now, any opportunity to chat with or accept the kindness of strangers seems to me a gift not to be turned down, after so many wonderful experiences during my last four years of visiting churches. What a change, I thought, from when I was younger, when having to talk to someone I didn’t know was a nerve-racking experience, an awkward duty I’d gladly avoid or escape from as quickly as possible. I couldn’t feel more differently now.
As I left Oulton, I had a strong sense of not having spent enough time there, and who knew if I’d ever go back? I don’t know why I felt this way, as I’d spent as long there as I had at most churches, and certainly didn’t hurry my time in the churchyard. Perhaps it was simply that I’d spent much of my time chatting, paying attention to people rather than place. Or perhaps it was simply an indication of how special a place it is.