Suffolk churches 201: Row Chapel (Hadleigh), Needham Market and Debach (August 2021)

Row Chapel, Hadleigh (additional photos and videos by Alex Carr)
Hadleigh Row ChapelHadleigh Row Chapel signHadleigh Row Chapel doorMy friend Rebecca had told me about Row Chapel. It would be an unofficial inclusion in my tour, but, like several others, I felt I could hardly leave it out. I’d originally envisaged going there as a 450th church celebration with a few friends, but Covid and other complications meant I’d abandoned that idea, and didn’t get round to arranging access until the very end of my tour.

I was glad, in the end, that despite the last minute nature of the arrangement, I’d mentioned it to Rebecca and her new neighbours, Kit and Keith (who coincidentally was a retired tenor and had worked with my dad). I nevertheless expected it would just be me and the keyholder, but in the end the chapel was quite full – full, I say, for the tiniest space I’d yet played in, far smaller than either of the contenders for the smallest Suffolk church, Redisham and Darmsden. It looked even smaller on the inside than the outside. There were perhaps 10 people there – some friends of Rebecca’s also came along – and the chapel felt full. The acoustic was challenging, as I expected in such a small, carpeted timber-framed building, and having a former professional musician listening certainly made it more nerve-racking.

Hadleigh Row Chapel playing

Hadleigh Row Chapel interior Hadleigh Row Chapel interior 2

At the end, I was asked by one of my audience what made Irish music sound Irish. I’d been thinking a little about this myself – knowing, of course, that every type of folk music has its own ‘modes’, or scales, which differ from our standard classical major and minor scales. But I wanted to know exactly which intervals were responsible for it sounding specifically Irish. I knew there was more than one, but I had identified one in particular in the Spalpeen’s Lament, and therefore played it to demonstrate.

It was a wonderful occasion, and I was glad I’d made the effort to fit it in when time was getting short. After a leisurely wander around the outside, I headed off for my next appointment at Needham Market.

Hadleigh Row Chapel 2

St John’s, Needham Market
Needham MarketIn contrast to Row Chapel, Needham Market looked bigger inside than out: the space was huge, with no chancel arch and a breathtaking roof, which it was possible to admire more fully with the help of a mirror placed in the middle of the large chancel. I’d felt hesitant about Needham Market being my 500th church because of my previous attempt to visit the church; but in the end, a change of date for my Debach visit determined it should be my 499th.

I was greeted by Sarah, the friendly and smiley curate – instead of the vicar with whom I’d corresponded – and a host of angels, which, she informed me, weren’t original, but the rest of the roof was. In April, all the benches had been taped off, so from that point of view I was also glad to have returned when things felt a bit more normal. It was strange, though, how my memory of the church from that brief encounter was so different from what I saw today: I had thought it dark and cramped, when in reality it was spacious and bright.

Needham Market interior Needham Market interior 2

A few people came to listen, and I played three movements of Bach and two Irish Airs. In Sarah’s request for an en core, saying that hearing live music again brought her to tears, and asking if she could pray for me – the first time in 499 churches, that I could remember, and perhaps the best moment for it, when I no longer felt such a disconnect between my musical activities in churches and their religious use – I could tell how much she appreciated the music, and was touched. We chatted afterwards about my project, Suffolk churches and her curacy here, and I learned (to my surprise) that St John’s had been a chapel of ease until 100 years ago.

Needham Market font Needham Market window Needham Market door handle

Like at Redgrave – and unlike at Copdock – here was one return church visit which more than obliterated my first dubious experience of the church: I felt entirely positive about it now. Lovely though the church and its acoustic were, this change was entirely down to one person. I left feeling a little sorry, after all, that it hadn’t been my 500th church.

Needham Market roof Needham Market door

All Saints’, Debach
DebachDebach churchyardMy 500th church was amongst my stranger visits, but despite an odd start, it warmed up into something worthy of the milestone. I was welcomed into Stephanie’s kitchen, an extension to the rear – which looked like it hadn’t been touched since the church was converted, whenever that was – and through into the dining and sitting room, where I was to play. As in every other converted church, the sitting room was in what would have been the chancel. Purple sofas joined thick carpet, a grand piano, and a liberal sprinkling of plaster. I looked up and saw large cracks running up each corner of the east wall, and worried that I might not be safe sitting there. But there was nothing for it. Stephanie had lived there since 2002, after all, and it hadn’t fallen down on her yet. Debach church modelShe said she was awaiting an assessment and decision about remedial works, and that no one had said it wasn’t safe. A small comfort, I suppose.

Before getting out my cello, I went to inspect the pulpit, which interestingly was accessed only via the vestry, down some steps and then up some steps. The vestry was a sweet little room with two arm chairs by a low window, which made me think how lovely and cosy it could be. But it clearly hadn’t been used in a long time and probably never would be, until the church once again changed hands.

Debach fontThis time I was amongst widowed, retired medics instead of lawyers, until a school teacher joined us. Everyone else Stephanie had invited was away, ill or otherwise occupied today. But a small gathering of four, including me, was enough, and I proceeded to play Bach and Irish Airs between large pauses filled with chat, in an acoustic to be predicted according to the carpet. Following requests for more music, I played another Sarabande and the Spalpeen’s Lament. The music over, there was mention of cake, which was a highly exciting prospect given the milestone. And it wasn’t just any old cake: it was apricot and chamomile with pistachios on top. Just as delicious as it sounded.

After plenty more chat and plenty more cake, I left for home, reflecting on this, my final house-church, and all the others. Each one had been completely different, and each one had been a fascinating and wonderful experience – and experiment – of interacting with strangers I would never otherwise have had occasion to meet. It hadn’t been in my original plan to play in them, but I was mighty glad I had.

Debach 2

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