St Clement’s, Ipswich
St Clement’s was to be my last Ipswich church, and it was galling that despite my improved familiarity with the town centre – largely a positive state of affairs – I didn’t manage to round off my Ipswich church tour with a stress-free driving or parking experience. I’d left plenty of extra time to get there, and still I was a little late. I may like Ipswich far better now than I did, and have improved my navigation skills greatly, but I suppose I will never feel truly comfortable in large towns – and never feel at all comfortable driving in them.
But my arrival at the church set all that stress to one side: there was an unexpected gathering of smiling people waiting for me inside who were unconcerned about my arrival time. Peter, the representative of the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust with whom I had corresponded, had explained to me that the church was about to undergo building works so that it would be in a fit state to be leased out and hopefully used as an arts venue.
As I was getting my cello out, I saw two words written in the dust low down on the side of the pulpit: HELP NEEDED. Yes. I can identify with that, I thought. Peter told me it was from when two people were trying to move something heavy, but I preferred the more mysterious and existential possibilities of such a message.
The acoustic was glorious, as I would have expected of a nearly empty, high-roofed church. I played Bach and Irish airs, and afterwards was given a tour up to the bell stage where I could admire the roof at closer quarters. Walking around the nave, I found a plaque, reading ‘dead is not good’ and chuckling to myself before stopping to read the rest of the sentence above it, wondering what on earth the inscription meant1. I was doing well for strange messages today.
On my tour round the churchyard, I encountered two jovial men drinking beer, and two others smoking pot – certainly a novelty for me on my church tour, if not a novelty for Suffolk’s churches. I wondered if such things would continue once St Clement’s new life began…
All Saints’, Sudbury
After several failed attempts at fixing a time to visit All Saints’, I turned up on a drizzly Sunday morning to play at a church service. I found the church tucked in the corner of a residential street, off the main road near the river. I’d never seen it before, as far as I could remember. My first brief exterior impressions were of a beautiful though slightly cramped church, but my first duties lay indoors, where I found a rather lovely high roof and some interesting areas of floor, but otherwise a somewhat ordinary looking interior, with blue carpet. I started to wonder why most churches have either red or blue carpet. Neither is very flattering; but when I try to think of a preferable colour, nothing comes to mind. Really, churches are far better off in every way without any carpet.
My playing was required beforehand, during communion, and at the end, so it wasn’t necessary for me to follow the service – for which I was glad, as both the sermon and the service went on too long. I confess I heard not one word of the sermon. Boredom was not a danger, however: I was granted some precious time to be still and rest.
The best part of my experience of the church was, on this occasion, not the playing but my tour of the churchyard afterwards. The church exterior was beautiful: intricate, ancient and patchworked, possibly with Roman tiles or bricks, and possessing the largest collection of mismatched and interesting doorways I’d ever seen together in one church. I also enjoyed the unusual rectangular windows on the north side of the chancel, which looked as though they might have been fitted into older window openings.
The drizzle hadn’t let up by the time I left. I made my way home, thinking how odd it felt to be going from the Essex to the Norfolk border in the space of just a few hours.
All Saints’, Knettishall
I had to resort to good old Ordnance Survey to find my way to Knettishall church: my satnav seemed to be experiencing a brain malfunction and wouldn’t register the village as a destination. Having to stop every couple of minutes to consult a map – even just for the last few miles – does have the tendency to slow you down, and so instead of arriving in good time to warm up and set up, I arrived on the dot at 2pm, when we were due to play.
Here was yet another contrasting church conversion: on the outside, it was the one that looked most like a house, with its dormer windows and pretty little tower. The reason for this soon became clear: it was in a ruinous state and had no roof when the current owners, Nick and Beccy, bought it forty years ago. I imagine they therefore didn’t have to jump through as many hoops as you usually would to restore a church. I liked it though. Indoors, Steve and I were led through to the chancel end of the church – without exception, the chosen location for the sitting room in the converted churches I’d visited so far. The walls were exposed and beautiful, and there were collections of swords, guitars and even a helmet of some sort. There was one Norman window left, and the room was full height, up to the roof.
Nick and Beccy had invited some local friends over for music and a splendid-looking selection of cheese and crackers, and we were also joined by their two alsatians, one of whom made me burst out laughing, cocking his head intently when I started to tune, and then coming right up close, with the intention, it seemed, of licking the bridge of my cello. Thankfully he thought better of it at the last moment. I wasn’t sure if the dogs liked the music, but Nick and Beccy said they did, and since they behaved pretty well – only once knocking the music off my stand with an enthusiastic tail wag – and didn’t seem to want to leave the room, I can only assume they didn’t object.
Steve and I joined in with the cheese and crackers after a short concert of the same folk music arrangements we played at Rishangles, and enjoyed chatting with our audience. It was hard to believe it was August, it was so dreary outside, but our outing certainly cheered up my day, as I hope it did our listeners’.