Suffolk churches 200: St Peter’s Sudbury and Clare Priory (August 2021)

St Peter’s, Sudbury
Sudbury St PeterOn a warm, sunny late August day – which felt entirely strange and wrong after our cold, rainy summer – I arrived at my last of three Sudbury churches (the first two being St Gregory’s and All Saints’) to give a lunchtime concert, more than a year later than originally planned. Like Ipswich St Clement’s, St Peter’s was large and empty, and also due to close for building works – for two years – so I felt lucky to have got in just in time. It hadn’t occurred to me that any church might be inaccessible for such a length of time, and it could easily have disrupted my plans to finish my tour. Perhaps having to contact every church in advance since Covid had done me a favour in that respect. At this late stage, I suspect I would have found it near impossible to make the decision to leave them out simply because it was inconvenient to wait so long…

Sudbury St Peter marketplace Sudbury St Peter flowerbed

I don’t know Sudbury well, as Bury is the only town I really go to (for pleasure or necessity), but it felt like a pleasant place to be on this warm morning. I wondered how I’d get through the concert, I’d been feeling so awful since I got up – a combination of antibiotics and seriously overdoing things in recent days. But luckily Steve was joining me, which I knew would both take the pressure off, from a playing perspective, and make it more fun, especially since his contrabassoon was making another appearance. We not only got through it but enjoyed it, and, as usual, playing music made me feel substantially better. But the effect sadly didn’t last the rest of the day, and on arrival home I went to bed, deciding there was nothing for it but to delay my planned drive to Sussex to see family till the following morning.

Sudbury St Peter interior Sudbury St Peter interior
Sudbury St Peter font Sudbury St Peter chancel Sudbury St Peter door

Clare Priory (The Old Infirmary)
Clare PrioryI’d come across Clare Priory – as possessing a medieval church, that is – entirely by chance, when I’d looked up Hengrave and saw mention of another medieval Catholic church in Suffolk. But although it acts as a parish today, this wasn’t originally a parish church, nor even a building intended as a church: it was the old infirmary, built in the 13th century. When looking at the Clare Priory website, trying to understand which building or bit of building I was targeting, I simply couldn’t make head or tail of the descriptions and photographs, thinking perhaps it was the shrine in the house I needed to enquire about, rather than the old infirmary or indeed the modern church recently built on to it. My correspondence with one of the friars didn’t enlighten me straight away, either, but eventually I formed a vague picture of what was what, and decided it was indeed the old infirmary I wanted to play in. It wouldn’t officially count towards my total, but I considered it an obligatory extra, along with St Stephen’s and St James’, amongst others.

David, the Welsh friar with whom I corresponded, was jolly and welcoming, and seemed keen to find me an audience. Following a request that I play The Swan, I invited Christopher – a friend and pianist who’d recently moved from Bury to Clare – to join me on the keyboard, making the whole outing a rather pleasing prospect.

On a warm, late August afternoon, therefore, we arrived at the Priory, and I remembered having wandered around the grounds (open to the public) some five years earlier, which made it all the stranger that I hadn’t thought of it sooner. David showed us the options of where we might set up to play. Now I could see for myself the layout of the buildings: the old infirmary essentially formed a corridor to the church, ie. the modern extension, and itself felt modern (having, I assume, been refurbished at the same time), apart from its delightfully wonky old font and one old beam. I could tell David was keen I played in the extension: a much larger space with chairs already set out. But I had to be awkward and insist that I play in the old infirmary, and so create extra work, as chairs had to be brought through. I felt a little bad, but not bad enough to change my mind; after all, my original request to play here was odd enough that I thought he would understand why I was being so particular. A little extra peculiarity never did any harm.

Clare Priory interior Clare Priory interior 2

The acoustic was good, as predicted, which made it all the more inexplicable that I found myself unable to play in tune as well as usual. I wondered if nerves might be to blame – though that explanation seemed just as bizarre – but in any case it wasn’t bad enough to ruin my enjoyment of the occasion, nor, I hoped, that of the ten or twelve listeners.

Clare Priory font Clare Priory entrance

The exterior of the building looked as medieval as the interior did not, and in the warm sunshine I felt an intense longing to stay longer and soak in the peace. David told me that as well as groups coming for retreats, individuals could stay at the Priory. The idea was so appealing in that moment that I wondered what sort of reason one needed, and whether it had to be religious. They seemed an open-minded bunch, though, welcoming a strange cellist with an unusual request, so perhaps a simple enquiry shouldn’t be such a difficult thing to contemplate.

Clare Priory 2

Header photo: The grounds of Clare Priory

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