St Margaret’s, Rishangles
Not long before Covid hit, I’d written to six owners of private churches in Suffolk to ask if I might come along and play to them in their houses. As with the ruins at Flixton, what had once seemed impossible now no longer did. Why rule out churches just because they were in private ownership? Of the 8 redundant churches sold off (most of them in the 1970s, some already ruined), 6 were converted into houses (Rishangles, Knettishall, Ubbeston, Shipmeadow, Debach, and – sometime after the millenium – Stratford St Andrew); 1 was converted into something resembling a house but still used as a church of some description (Mickfield); and 1 remained a church (Benacre).
I’d already visited the delightful Mickfield, and the owner of Ubbeston was an acquaintance of a friend, so I decided to wait for the possibility of a personal introduction. Of the six I contacted, five by post and one by email, I received three positive replies before Covid caused postponement of all operations. The owner of Rishangles, Laura, was the easiest to track down, since this church was listed on Airbnb as a rental property. A year later than planned, therefore, I turned up with Steve to play – by request – folk music including klezmer, ‘eastern European music in the Jewish tradition.’1
I entered through an open Norman door and continued through the hallway to another open door where I could hear voices coming from the garden. Laura came in and led me through a large kitchen to the living room – the old chancel – boasting a fireplace. I liked it. I hadn’t been sure what to expect, and thought a church as a place to live might feel cold, both metaphorically and literally; but once out of the hallway, there was no doubt it was a house. The kitchen I thought particularly attractive, and the living room had, wonderfully, retained a church’s acoustic.
Laura was staying for two weeks over her birthday and she’d invited a couple of friends from London, so we had a select audience of four for an extremely informal concert involving a lot of chat. In spite of my worry that our selection of folk tunes might nevertheless resemble classical music too closely – something Laura wasn’t keen on – it was apparent how much our listeners were enjoying themselves. Steve and I were excited to perform for the first time our make-shift arrangements of klezmer pieces: some months earlier, an acquaintance had put through my letterbox a collection of arrangements for cello and piano, which I thought would be easily enough transferred to cello and bassoon. Shortly after we’d begun rehearsing, however, we stopped and looked at each other, both thinking the same thing: the bass part needed to be on contrabassoon instead of bassoon. An instrument on which Steve barely needs to play a note before I start laughing, it is so low pitched. Although I doubt klezmer music has ever in its history been played on contrabassoon, we decided it sounded just right.
Afterwards I looked around outside to take photos before it got too dark, and enjoyed the graffiti on the Norman doorway. We were then given a tour of the tower, involving a slightly nerve-racking ascent up a ladder-like flight of glass stairs. Steve thought he might have stayed here once before, twenty years ago, but only some of the details corresponded with his memory of it. For myself, I thought how thoroughly excellent it was to be in possession of this bizarre excuse to meet strangers, to see and play music in such a quirky building. Not that I would have agreed with the Church of England’s decision back in the 1970s to sell off redundant churches, but that was nothing to do with me, so I simply enjoyed the weird and wonderful evening granted to me. Who would have thought such unusual adventures were possible within forty minutes’ drive of home?
All Saints’, Little Cornard
Little Cornard is a pretty little church out in the sticks – not as I would have expected, considering its proximity to Sudbury. I was met at the churchyard gate on a warm, sunny morning, and walked round to the beautiful porch through a gigantic churchyard spreading out to the east. A few people were inside waiting to listen. It was a simple and pleasant little church, though I could tell the chancel arch would block the travel of sound somewhat. Perhaps the uneven nave walls also contributed to the church’s relative lack of resonance. But it didn’t matter: it was a pleasure to be there playing Bach and Irish music to a handful of appreciative people, ordinary as it seemed after my unusual experience at Rishangles the previous evening.
I took my time wandering round the church and churchyard afterwards, realising I’d completely lost my bearings and couldn’t remember which side of the churchyard I’d entered from, since I’d been following the churchwarden and chatting rather than paying attention to which direction we were walking in. Eventually I worked out my car was outside the nearest entrance at the northeast corner of the church, and once loaded up, I headed back home in the sunshine feeling happy with my little outing.
St Peter’s, Copdock
Disappointingly, I hadn’t heard anything from the churchwarden at Copdock, but after enough time had passed for me to feel sure he would have received Philip’s, the Sproughton churchwarden’s, email, I felt brave enough to phone. I was starting to feel a mild urgency about getting my remaining church visits in the diary, since the number of free days available was quickly diminishing. Adrian was undemonstrative but friendly enough, and seemed keen for me to come after a Sunday service to allow for the possibility of an audience of late-stayers. So, a few days after our conversation, I pitched up at Copdock feeling some lingering nervousness about returning to the scene of an unpleasant experience.
I walked around the churchyard while I waited for the service to end, enjoying the flint decorations patched with brick low down on the nave wall. The church was relatively full – more than you usually see at a village Sunday service these days – and I wondered how many would stay on to listen. Not many, it turned out, but I enjoyed my brief chat with a friendly Spaniard which really was a novelty for a Suffolk village church. Judging that there was no one really listening – certainly no one close enough to warrant announcing the names of the pieces – I set up and began to play without saying anything further. Despite the carpet, the acoustic was pleasant.
There was little danger, I knew, of bumping into the offending party on my second visit, so my anxiety about visiting was not on that account. It was simply to do with place associations, and because, I was discovering, a bad experience requires the same strength in its opposite to neutralise it. My reception second time round – on the phone and in person – were pleasant enough, but mildly so; not sufficient, it turned out, to completely obliterate the memory of my previous encounter. But my relationship with Copdock was now on its way to being healed, at least, even if there was still some way to go.