St James’/All Saints’, Dunwich
As with All Saints’, Newmarket, it wasn’t until I trawled through Munro Cautley’s list of medieval churches that I realised Dunwich must be included. I couldn’t make the list add up to 500; but there seemed to be too few rather than too many, by which I deduced Dunwich had to be one of them. It didn’t make a huge amount of sense to me: all that was left of its numerous medieval churches was part of a buttress of All Saints, which had been rescued (when the church was lost to the sea) and erected in the churchyard of St James. Ah well, I thought: another good excuse to go to the coast and to play outdoors.
I thought I’d have surplus time to visit Dunwich before going on to Benacre. But I miscalculated journey times, and ended up in a rush with only ten minutes to stop. Signs enlightened me to the fact the church possessed a car park, and it was only because I decided to be obedient and use it that I entered the churchyard for the first time from the north instead of the west. And, therefore, instead of arriving directly at the buttress in question, I came upon what I could see at first glance was a Norman ruin. A ruin of what?
It turned out to be the remains of a 12th century leper chapel called St James – from which the Victorian church took its name, I assumed – but the signs said it was probably originally a church. That was good enough for me. I glanced across the churchyard to the buttress, and then looked at the breathtaking work of art in front of me. There was no question which location I would choose; and in any case, strictly speaking I was still playing in the churchyard.
There was a bench inside the iron gate of the chapel, but it was in full sun. After a moment’s hesitation about the practicalities, I decided to leave my case and bags on the opposite side of the chapel, in the shade, and sit on the bench to play – after all, I’d be here only for a few minutes, sad though that prospect now seemed.
As I played The Spalpeen’s Lament – which felt somehow fitting for a leper chapel, imagining that a spalpeen (rascal) must also be one of society’s outcasts – I looked at my surroundings, thinking what a beautiful and unexpected place I’d found, unusually elaborate for such a small Norman building. There were so many arches, it reminded me of something I couldn’t place. Roman ruins, perhaps, or the countless arches in the mosque-cathedral in Córdoba, Spain. Only one dog walker passed through the churchyard while I was playing, stopping at the chapel gate and smiling. For once, I didn’t feel remotely awkward. This place needed music in it.
Afterwards I went to visit the lone buttress, visible from where I played in the chapel. I also couldn’t leave without looking inside the church too, Victorian though it was. In fact it possessed more appeal than many a medieval church rebuild and restoration.
I must come back with more time, I thought. What a wonderful surprise that was.
St Michael’s, Benacre
Benacre church is the only one of the Suffolk churches sold off by the Church of England that, as far as I could see, remains exactly as it was when it was last used for worship. With a little detective work and help from an acquaintance in Covehithe, I managed to track down the owner, Lucinda, who was not only wonderfully enthusiastic and welcoming, but educated me on a point of my father’s history: her father had served with him in the Horse Guards, part of the Household Cavalry, she said. I knew that my dad rode a horse and played the clarinet during his period of National Service, but that was the extent of it. Now I knew a little more.
The church porch looked like a functional Victorian replacement, understated as the rest of the building. There was something calming about the plainness of the interior, however, and it felt spacious despite the high box pews. Its echo was remarkable.
Lucinda thought her mother had heard me play at Covehithe church in 2019, so my request to visit Benacre must not have come entirely as a surprise. She’d been looking forward to listening to me play all day, she said; life had been stressful of late and it was a chance to be still for a short time. I enjoyed playing to her all the more for this knowledge, and I hoped that Bach and Irish airs had the calming effect on her that Benacre church had on me.
Afterwards we chatted about the church and her hopes for its future. Lucinda thought perhaps it could be used for concerts and other arts events, but the box pews were too restrictive, because you could barely see out of them. Getting permission to remove them would be the first hurdle. It was such a delight to meet Lucinda that as I drove away from the church I started to think how many people I’d never met out there in the world, but might in the future have the opportunity for an interesting conversation with. What a huge change in my feelings about talking to strangers that was. Instead of being a daunting prospect, it had become an exciting one. A bit like meeting every new church in Suffolk.
But there was also a lingering sadness. I wondered why this church had to be kept locked. I couldn’t see anything to steal, and it didn’t seem the sort of location to suffer from vandalism. But I was wrong, it seemed: Lucinda told me the water tower nearby was used by youths for smoking unpleasant things. Without volunteers to open and lock up every day, it was impossible to keep the church open for visitors.
St Peter’s, Ubbeston
My second private church visit of the day had an extremely funny beginning – several weeks before I turned up at the church. St Peter’s was the converted church whose owners I hadn’t attempted to contact before the arrival of Covid, since a friend of mine told me they were acquaintances of her parents, and I thought I might wait for a personal introduction. Time now being short, however, I asked my friend if she could find out the owners’ names so that I could write to them, and so I did, opening my card with ‘I hope you don’t mind the slightly odd request…’.
Soon after came an email reply from Jon: ‘Yes, your request to play the cello in Ubbeston Church is slightly odd, as you put it…’ but the remainder of the email was so friendly and welcoming as to make me suspect this comment to be tongue in cheek. I took a chance and responded accordingly.
‘Thank you very much for your quick reply. And thank you for your toleration of oddness!!! (Well, some might think it odd to live in a church, I suppose…!)’
Luckily my teasing didn’t backfire.
‘Actually owned the church for 40 years but been odd for much longer than that!!! We like odd and we admire enthusiasm.’
After laughing a great deal I phoned Jon to discuss arrangements for my visit, and before long we’d fixed a date for early August. My actual visit began in almost as hilarious a fashion, met first by a cockerel keeping guard at the top of the driveway, and then in the immaculate garden by an extremely jolly man – a friend of the owners – who I suspected to be already somewhat tipsy at 5pm, who kept me talking, or rather kept talking, for some time before we eventually made it into the house, past the liberal sprinkling of sunloungers.
Before entering, I had time to admire the view of the treetops across the garden – indicating that the church was positioned on the side of a small valley – as well as the south porch and Norman doorway on my way in to a surprise interior: a room that looked very much like the original church might have (in contrast to the other converted churches I had so far played in), with at least twenty chairs set out. ‘A few friends want to come,’ is all Jon had said to me…
It was such a beautiful evening that I suggested playing a Bach suite indoors followed by Irish airs outdoors, in a terraced area with a small fish pond. Everyone agreed with my proposal – including the cockerel, who came inside to see what was going on and then left again – and the proceedings got underway. Halfway through, I suggested a little girl called Emma at the back might like to move to the front to see better, and she did, an act of bravery I assumed must be a result of being in familiar company. I nearly added, on seeing her swinging her legs enthusiastically in time to the music, that she was welcome to dance, but I didn’t want to put her on the spot a second time.
When we moved outside, Emma herself asked me if she could dance before I had a chance to suggest it. Afterwards someone told me her dance had looked middle eastern; I could only see it out of the corner of my eye, and thought it looked like ballet. After answering a number of questions about my project and engaging in more banter about the oddness of the whole thing, we moved onto the amazing spread of food that Jon and Chris had so kindly laid out for us. When I found out Emma had come with her parents and knew no one else there, I was doubly impressed at her confidence: as a six year old I would barely have been able to open my mouth in the company of strangers.
Perhaps the most bizarre element of the whole evening was when I was taken to see the living-dining room, up the stairs to the east of where I had played. There, the panels of the old pulpit had been reused on the front of a bar, accompanied by changing coloured lights. I could barely believe what I was looking at, and laughed to myself all the way home, once again over the moon at my fortune in meeting such friendly and enthusiastic people in such a weird and wonderful context.