Suffolk churches 196: Stratford St Andrew, Walton and Braiseworth old church (August 2021)

St Andrew’s, Stratford St Andrew
Stratford St AndrewI’d last tried to visit Stratford St Andrew some three or four years previously, not remembering it was no longer a church. Luckily, I wasn’t arrested for attempted break-in. Stuart came out to meet me in the driveway – parked legally this time – and I was surprised when he said he thought he might have seen me before, since he used to live in Bildeston, a neighbouring village to mine. I deduced from our conversation that he was probably still living there at the time of my last visit.

Stratford St Andrew interiorI was invited into a modern and comfortable kitchen-dining room, where Stuart and Michelle, their daughter and her boyfriend, and the local vicar (who lived in the rectory across the drive) were waiting, armed with drinks and jollity for a very strange concert. They were as amused by the situation as I was, remarking on it more than once. I deemed the most suitable location for playing to be at the far end of the dining room table, and played the shortened version of my usual offerings of Bach and Irish airs, while the cat stopped to investigate my cello case and then listen attentively for a minute or two before leaving by the front door.

Afterwards I was given the full guided tour by Stuart and his daughter, Christie, who had, she confessed, turned into an architectural history geek since her parents bought this church. She even showed me some old photos she’d found. Despite being the very last Suffolk church to be converted into a house less than twenty years ago, this was, in effect, its second conversion. They had taken out a ridiculous number of walls and bits of walls after they moved in, they told me, in an attempt to restore the church to some semblance of its old identity while giving it a lighter, more comfortable and spacious feel. The upstairs, with both east and west windows visible from the central bedroom, was luxurious.

Stratford St Andrew blocked window Stratford St Andrew OS

Outside, I was almost overcome – not by horror but by hilarity – on seeing garden paths and even a whole ‘irreverent patio’ (so they had named it) made of gravestones. I suppose such a thing might elicit either extreme reaction, but I don’t see why this should be any more offensive than digging up and moving human bones and removing headstones, as routinely happens in the lifespan of a churchyard. At least they were being put to good use, and if it was me, I wouldn’t mind. I learnt something new that evening, too: you only get your grave for 100 years. That seems an awfully short time.

Stratford St Andrew path Stratford St Andrew patio Stratford St Andrew path 2

After some amusing stories about people turning up to eat sandwiches in their front garden, not realising it was no longer a church (despite the new ‘private’ sign), I left my second wonderful house-church experience in high spirits to visit a friend who was holidaying with her family not ten minutes down the road at Campsea Ashe.

St Mary’s, Walton
WaltonDespite my good intentions to arrive early at Walton, I managed to get myself in a fluster before leaving home, and – not for the first time on an unfamiliar route – lose my nerve as well as all trust in my satnav and turn off the main road too early. I paid for my mistake, and arrived close to ten minutes late at the church, where I was met by a somewhat spikey churchwarden. Whether it was due to my lateness, or whether this was her general manner, I was unable to determine during my stay: her emails had seemed friendly enough, but despite my apology and efforts to soften her up, I made little progress, nor could I detect any interest in the music I was going to play. So I decided to use the time to practise the Mendelssohn sonata I was due to run through with piano that afternoon.

I worried as soon as I got inside that I’d made a mistake in thinking this was a medieval church: the interior was so thoroughly Victorian, if not 20th century, that there was nothing old to be seen aside from the font. But I’d seen what looked like the remains of one old buttress standing alone near the porch, so, I thought, perhaps that was it. The nave was covered in carpet, but surprisingly this wasn’t to the detriment of the acoustic, which was really rather good.

Walton interior Walton interior 2

My renewed attempts to engage in chat afterwards were reciprocated a little. The keyholder gave me a church guide and told me what little she knew about the building. Finding no visitors’ book to write in on my way out, I’m not sure if it was mischief which prompted me to say to her before I left, ‘This was church number 487, in case you’re interested.’ In any case, I got the response I more or less expected: a blank look. It was with some relief that I left the church after thanking her profusely for her time in allowing me to come and play, looking forward all the more to my stop-off in Ipswich for a run through of the Mendelssohn sonata with Andrew (from St Mary at the Elms).

Walton font Walton wall Walton wall 2

By far the most rewarding part of my visit was my walk around the churchyard. At the east end of the church, I discovered I’d not only made no mistake in including Walton in my tour, but here was some of the most unique historic beauty. It was perhaps the largest area of septaria – a strange mudstone from the estuary – I’d ever seen in a church. Its crumbly nature meant that its appeal was enhanced by a patchwork of brick and stone, and on the south side of the chancel was one of the loveliest blocked Norman doorways I’d ever seen, with a cloud of pretty flowers at its feet.

Walton buttress Walton doorway

St Mary’s, Braiseworth (old church)
Braiseworth 2As well as converted churches, ruins were another job I’d left till last. They, too, required detective work and written notes to owners, since the vast majority were on private land. There was a ‘new’ Braiseworth church, built on a different site, but this Victorian church is converted into a house. I always prefer to visit the medieval site, if ruins still remain.

After fixing a time to visit with Pete, the owner, I arrived at the farm and started walking along a track towards the ruin – only a bricked-off chancel – which I could see beyond the pond. Within a minute, however, Pete pulled up in his truck, pointed at a gate and explained I needed to enter the churchyard that way. I was somewhat disappointed by this development, because a glance at the chest-high nettles around the gate made me regret not wearing walking boots. I’m not really sure why I didn’t. Perhaps I’d formed a mental picture of a ruin surrounded by nettles and brambles, and everything beyond that kept mown back, as at Fornham St Genevieve. But Pete didn’t seem the least bit concerned, assuring me it would be fine beyond the gate. He also implied that the building was open, saying it was used for sheep sometimes, but I would soon find the reality to be different on both counts.

Braiseworth door Braiseworth interior Braiseworth small

Braiseworth churchyardStill, the nettle situation wasn’t quite as bad as it looked from the gate: I was fairly well stung, but before long, the ground rose and I was mostly wading through long grass. Finding the building locked, I considered going back to the house to ask about getting in, but the nettles persuaded me against that additional effort. Instead I peered though the only accessible window to see a large amount of clutter inside, and then looked for a stable place to sit on my cello case in the flattened long grass. It was a bit bouncy, not terribly stable, my cello spike sank into the earth and the end of my bow kept hitting a hemlock stem. Irish airs somehow felt the right kind of music to play outdoors in such a neglected but picturesque setting, with a view of the farmhouse in the distance.

I found an easier way out of the churchyard, stepping over the fence on higher ground beside a water trough, just before the nettle bog. It was a shame the sheep were absent, I thought, both from the point of view of the overgrown foliage, and my enjoyment of the churchyard.

Braiseworth

Header photo: Lichen on a windowsill, Stratford St Andrew

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