Suffolk churches 199: Shipmeadow, Little Livermere (ruin) and Thorpe (ruin) (August 2021)

St Bartholomew’s, Shipmeadow
ShipmeadowBefore my appointment at Shipmeadow, I had a date with the ruins at Covehithe and Walberswick: I had intended to play outdoors there ever since I gave a concert in Covehithe church in March 2019. Time was running out, summer weather was in short supply, and I couldn’t possibly finish my church tour without fulfilling that particular desire. On arrival at Covehithe, I still (after nearly 500 churches) found it strangely difficult to just get my cello out and start playing while there were people wandering around. I was a bit surprised there was such a steady flow of people, actually; but I soon realised it was because the lane up to the church was being used as a parking spot for the beach, and everyone was popping into the church on their way down. Playing at Walberswick was easier: there were fewer visitors and I had company in the form of a new friendly acquaintance from Yoxford, Richard, who’d photographed me playing in Blythburgh church a few weeks earlier. I don’t know why being with someone should give me more confidence to do peculiar things. But it does.

Shipmeadow 2Shipmeadow was different, again, to the other converted churches I’d visited: this one was open plan from end to end, with a raised floor. Apart from one bedroom – down some steps from the chancel in the old vestry – which I spotted when I went to use the loo, I didn’t manage to figure out where the rest must have been – assuming there was more than one bedroom, which I took for granted given the size of the place. This was my favourite conversion, I decided. Of course, it was probably impossible to keep warm in the winter, but open plan has always been my preference, and in this case it retained more of the character of the original building.

Shipmeadow celloEntering the north door, I saw directly ahead of me a black shiny cello on display: Nick, one of the owners, had bought it in a charity shop for £100. I’d forgotten he’d told me he played the cello. Of course, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a go on my first ever shiny black cello, and to my surprise, it did actually sound like a cello. After some chat with Nick and his wife and their two friends from North Cove, Mark and Vanessa,  who’d come to listen and were kindly hosting us for supper afterwards, I played the Bach G major suite and my usual two Irish airs. The acoustic wasn’t as resonant as I expected for such a space, but I wondered if there was something strange going on with me or my cello: I couldn’t get the bow to connect properly with the string, and it generally didn’t feel quite right. Shipmeadow roofI concluded it was likely due to my sore little finger. Until it was at half capacity, I’d not realised it was quite such a crucial component of bow control. It is amazing what you can learn even after nearly four decades of playing an instrument…

When Mark and Vanessa went home to prepare supper, I was shown up the tower, where there was a wonderful view over the Broads on the north side (see header photo), and of alpacas and other livestock on the south side. After ushering out a butterfly which drifted in through the window, we descended the many steps and made our way to North Cove, where I discovered (only now) I was amongst lawyers. For someone who is used to feeling like an oddball, I felt very peculiar indeed – although I suspect in rural Suffolk it is really the lawyers who are the oddities. One Malaysian film maker in the gathering helped balance the scales a little, and it certainly made for yet another entertaining and eccentric experience amongst my converted church visits…

St Peter’s and St Paul’s, Little Livermere (ruin)
Little LivermereThe following day at noon, several hours earlier than originally planned due to the poor forecast, I turned up at the ruins of Little Livermere church where I was met by Alex, the farm leaseholder, Nick and Bec from Knettishall, and Tony, one of the clergy of the Blackbourne benefice. I hadn’t seen him since early in my tour, when he’d kindly helped arrange access to a few churches. It was a beautiful setting: a wide open space stretched out to the south of the church ruin, and between the horse meadows there was a mere full of geese and ducks. I hadn’t noticed it when I’d looked up the church on my OS map.

Little Livermere towerThere was quite a lot of this church left – the tower and the walls – though the whole of it was fenced off and covered in nettles, so we sat in the well-mown churchyard on the south side. I found a relatively stable spot to place my chair amongst the ant mounds, and was glad that the Bach, at least, Nick and Bec hadn’t heard before.

It was a special experience to play with the view in front of me and the sound of birds all around me: chickens at the farm, geese on the mere, swallows and martins circling above… it was certainly the loudest environment I’d yet played in, and I’d struggled to tune my cello with that level of background noise. But everyone could hear perfectly, so they told me.

I’d forgotten Tony was a semi-retired historic buildings consultant, and we were pleased to be given a guided tour of the church afterwards. The owner of the estate, Ben, who’d given me permission to play and put me in touch with Alex, turned up just as we were walking round the ruins. I was sorry he’d missed the music, but the next best thing was to round off the visit with some jovial chat.

Little Livermere wall Little Livermere window

Little Livermere 2
St Peter’s, Thorpe (ruin)
ThorpeIt was getting the near to the end of August, and there was only one card I hadn’t received a reply to, of the many I’d sent to ask for permission to play at converted churches and ruins: it was to the owners of Thorpe Hall, in whose garden the ruined round tower of Thorpe church stands. After being warned off any attempt to make contact by knocking on their door, which had been my back-up plan, I decided to give up and go and play on the public footpath instead. It was only a few metres away from the ruin, and – officially speaking – no one could object.

Following my enquiries about the precise location of the ruin, Robert, the churchwarden from Ashfield church down the road, asked to come with me. I was grateful: despite the fact I’d be doing nothing illegal, I still felt reassured by the prospect of having moral support; more so than usual. As it happened, I needed his practical help too, as the footpath sign had been removed (not a surprise, I was told), and there was nowhere easy to park. After following his instructions, we walked up the footpath (the driveway to Thorpe Hall), past two napping cows and up to the ruin, where I took out my cello, and sat on my cello case.

Our first nervous encounter was at a distance: a girl was walking a dog. But she simply called out, ‘I thought you had a bow and arrow!’ and then went on her way, leaving us more baffled than she appeared to be. The rest of my playing proceeded uneventfully. After the second Irish air, I looked up, and there in front of me were the two cows who had both woken up and bothered to wander quite a long way up the field to listen to me play. They seemed to be concentrating very hard, and I was honoured to have played to my first bovine audience without realising. I remembered an article someone had sent me about concerts on a dairy farm, where the cows really seemed to appreciate the music. I wouldn’t mind making a habit of this, I thought, and my mind turned to the herd of cows in Wiltshire with whom I had made friends two years previously while visiting a friend. I’m sure they would appreciate a concert.

Thorpe cowsI packed up and we started walking back down the footpath, feeling somewhat relieved not to have had any closer encounters with the owners of Thorpe Hall, when a large car turned up the drive.

‘Leave this to me,’ Robert said, ‘I’ll do the talking.’

Which he did, but after he’d offered an explanation of what we were doing, the woman inside the car addressed me instead of Robert, saying, ‘Are you the person who wrote to me about coming to play at the ruin?’ And then, ‘I was going to reply and suggest the week of 5th September, as we’ll be away then.’ I thanked her, and explained that as my project was due to finish on 4th September, I’d decided to just come and play on the footpath instead.

That was the end of our conversation: friendly enough, in the end, and not very scary. Still, we were relieved to get back to the safety of the road.

Header photo: North view from Shipmeadow church tower

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