St Margaret’s, Herringfleet
Herringfleet was the only church on the Broads that I had yet to visit, as it was under scaffolding and full of builders the last time I was in the area. I’d arranged with the vicar that it would be left open for me, so I walked confidently up to the door at noon, only to find it locked.
My carefully planned schedule for the weekend unfortunately didn’t take into account the possibility that something might go wrong: I should have asked for the keyholder’s phone number. But I didn’t. After trying every phone number I could find on the noticeboard, including the vicar’s, twenty minutes had passed. Finally I decided to ring Sarah, the kind woman at St Margaret’s, Lowestoft, to ask if I could come early to pick up the music and spike holder I’d left at the church the day before. Just as I was getting in my car to drive away, wondering how on earth I’d manage to rejig my schedule to fit this church in later, the keyholder appeared, flustered and apologetic. She’d intended to open the church first thing, but there was a coffee and cake event at Somerleyton church down the road which she’d been busy with. Beneath my relief at being able to access the church now, I noticed an amused disappointment that I had been oblivious to the existence of cake so close by, as well as worry about having to ring Sarah again to put our meeting back to its original time plus 15 minutes to allow for the delay. But I was, on the whole, glad I could now play in Herringfleet as planned.
Aside from its round tower and Norman doorway which I’d already had the opportunity to admire, Herringfleet’s simple, bright interior, old stained glass and lovely acoustic made it well worth the wait and worry. I wanted to savour it, thinking – with some sorrow – that it might well be one of my last solo church visits. It was more than possible every other remaining church would have an audience of some sort, whether one person or twenty. Not, of course, that I didn’t also appreciate playing to an audience. And I could always go back to churches later to play alone.
I spent my time looking at the Mendelssohn sonata which I’d arranged to play through with Andrew, the pianist I’d met at St Mary at the Elms in Ipswich. It wasn’t as hard as I thought – unless taken at break-neck speed, which I had no intention of doing. It was Andrew who would have his work cut out, but he seemed up for it and I had no doubt he was more than equal to the task.
In playing pauses, I looked at a 1772 memorial to Hill Mussenden on the wall to my left, thinking its inscription was the best compliment that could be paid to anyone, and what a pleasant contrast it made to the usual over-the-top inscriptions which really tell you nothing about the person in question. Here was someone described in simple and loving language as, ‘a Generous Friend. and an honest Man.’ A human being I could imagine in the flesh, and would like to meet.
I left for Lowestoft at 1.30pm knowing I was cutting it fine for my 2pm appointment at Pakefield, but extra glad and grateful to have got into Herringfleet after all.
All Saints’ and St Margaret’s, Pakefield
I arrived a couple of minutes after 2pm at Pakefield church, somewhat relieved that although the vicar of Kirkley and churchwarden were waiting for me outside, there were only two women waiting for me inside. It was a double-width church, the south nave – where I set up to play – seeming to be the original, judging by the roof and details in the west wall. While I set up, I chatted with the two women sitting at the front, pleased to discover that they were both cello players; the older lady had been a cello teacher, and the younger, one of her pupils, whom she had bumped into in a supermarket a few years earlier, leading to their arranging to meet up to play together. I loved the story and was happy, though somewhat more nervous, to be playing the Bach G major suite to people who had themselves played it. But the acoustic made it easy – as easy as it could be in an under-practised state, anyway.
I enjoyed my tour round the churchyard just as much as my experience inside the church: I think Pakefield has one of the best porches in the county. And it is without a doubt the Suffolk church closest to the sea: it is practically on the dunes (see header photo), and I wondered how long it would be before the church disappeared. I was sorry not to have quite enough time to wander over to the sea to take a look at it from a different perspective, so decided to try and return the following day.
On my way back to the car, I met three women with a picnic looking for an outdoor rehearsal or performance of the Pakefield Singers which was due to take place on the Green, wherever that was. I couldn’t enlighten them as to the location, but as I was expecting to see the group’s director, Vetta, at Kirkley half an hour later, I was able to inform them fairly confidently that the rehearsal must have been cancelled. I was touched by their offer of a cake – which, having had no lunch (and missed cake at Somerleyton), I was grateful to accept, before taking shelter from the drizzle and heading for Kirkley church unusually early for my next appointment.
St Peter’s and St John’s, Kirkley
It was good to arrive early, as I knew this would be an actual concert – in terms of audience size, though I had taken the same pains as I had at St Margaret’s to insist it would be informal and that I wasn’t in the swing of performing. I paused at the gigantic cherry tree in the churchyard and sampled its fruit, half expecting them to be horribly sour, as they weren’t yet at their ripest. Or rather, the ripest had probably already been picked off by birds. But though they weren’t very sweet, neither were they sour. And they certainly distracted my attention from the concrete path to the church – which, along with tarmac, I’m afraid is my top undesirable churchyard path surface.
I also wasn’t at all expecting what I found when I walked through the door. I’d not seen anything like it in Suffolk. It was a cavernous space which reminded me somewhat of the circle line platforms at Paddington station. Not much of a compliment, perhaps, but it did arouse my curiosity. I could see it must be a Victorian rebuild, and perhaps one precipitated by industrial expansion, though it couldn’t have been more different from Leiston – on the inside, at least. I rather liked its metal rood screen, and had no doubt that this would be a rewarding acoustic to play in, and much easier than many other large churches.
This was my more enjoyable performance of the day, perhaps because I was better warmed up, if with achier tendons. I was touched to see some of the same people I’d met already that weekend, including one of the cello players from Pakefield, all smiling and grateful to hear live music again. Afterwards John, the vicar’s husband, kindly allowed me to leave my cello at the rectory to enjoy a walk along the beach. A lovely, almost deserted beach it was too – the first wholly sandy Suffolk beach I had seen – and I walked southwards to the dunes at Pakefield, where I was sorry to find my phone refused to stay on long enough for me to take a photo of the church from the beach. But that wasn’t really important. What was more important was that, once again, a maligned Suffolk town I’d never visited before now occupied a happy and positive space in my head. And I now also knew Benjamin Britten was born in Kirkley.
The sun came out for the duration of my walk, before departing on the drive back to my accommodation in Loddon and being replaced by heavy rain for the rest of the evening.
Header photo: View from Pakefield churchyard