Total Suffolk churches 11th April 2017 – 4th September 2021: 504 + 7 additional historic chapels and churches
St Bartholomew’s, Orford
Concert photos courtesy of Richard Allenby-Pratt, Linden Baxter, Alison Marshall and Sheida Davis; church photos taken by me a few days prior to the event.
The day had finally arrived for my final medieval Suffolk church: no. 504. Including the unofficial extras, the total came to 511, with only one included in error – Higham, in west Suffolk, which is actually a church of Victorian foundation. So the true number of Suffolk medieval churches – of which any part remains above ground – is 503, including active and redundant, public, private, converted and ruined churches. I am fairly confident I didn’t leave out a single one.
As predicted, I was pretty nervous, as I had been for most of the week. Not only about the performance and the boomy church acoustic – which isn’t a problem when you are playing solo Bach suites but can be a lot more problematic for chamber music – but about the whole occasion. I was responsible for nearly all the organising, and there was really no way round the fact I needed to say a few words at the beginning. Speaking at the end might have been easier (or possibly harder, if the adrenaline had run its course), but I wanted music to have the last word.
My nervousness was exacerbated on arrival, seeing far fewer than the promised 200 chairs set out, and the explanation given was simply, ‘there were more chairs stacked in the corner before, I don’t know where they went.’ But my sister-in-law Ali came to the rescue, which under normal circumstances should have been enough for me not to give it another thought, super-efficient organiser that she is. But these were far from normal circumstances, and it took me a while longer to stop worrying and concentrate on the far more important matter of our rehearsal.
By the time we’d finished, my fears about our not being able to hear each other properly in the soupy acoustic were laid to rest, and I was as ready and calm as I was ever going to be, for what still felt like a surreal occasion after the past 18 months of very few live concerts and events. Not to mention the fact I couldn’t believe I’d actually come to the end of my tour.
I’d made the decision to have only the one piece in the programme, for a variety of practical reasons, but ultimately because the Schubert string quintet is such a huge, sublime work – widely regarded as one of the greatest chamber works ever written – that to add to it would to be to dilute its effect. It also has huge family and personal significance. My four siblings and I often played the piece at family birthdays and other occasions, and it was the first piece I ever performed in a Suffolk church at the age of 13, in Wattisham. The idea that it should also be the piece I played in my last church came to me when, in the summer of 2019 – a few months after my return visit to Wattisham church – my sister, brother and two friends came to my house to play it with me. I hadn’t played it in years, and it was like greeting a long-lost friend. One I’d forgotten I loved so much; one which could create heaven, and cover all human emotions, in the space of an hour.
I never really believed I’d manage to make it happen, though. Getting five busy people together from different parts of the country to rehearse and perform is a feat which anyone who has attempted it will know is not undertaken lightly, and it nearly didn’t work out. But thanks to everyone’s enthusiasm to perform this piece once more, we managed it in the end.
The speaking went as well as I could have hoped, especially given that I hadn’t really told anyone except for the people concerned that this concert was to be in memory of friends and family: James Recknell, who had become such an important part of my musical life, church tour and my still-developing involvement in Suffolk’s music scene, and whose idea the concert was; Jeremy Hill, my friend Penny’s husband, whose funeral gave me the idea to play in all of Suffolk’s churches; and my parents, whom I have to thank for so much, including my home, my ability to play the cello and my love of Suffolk.
At first I thought that if I wanted it to be a memorial concert for my parents, it was nearly a decade late. But then I realised it was exactly the right time for it. Performing chamber music again – something I’d found so difficult for so long after my parents’ deaths – with my sister and oldest brother felt like arriving in a new and better place. A place from which I could let my parents know, though they were not physically present, that I am ok now. If I started my church tour to find a way to accept loss, perhaps it has worked, in some way. Not by making it any less painful, but by helping me to incorporate those loved, physically absent people into my being and my joy in life. And today I was playing music for those people, still living in my heart, as well as those in front of me, in the church.
Despite our panic that we didn’t have enough rehearsal time – a result of the difficulty of diary coordination – we were all delighted with the concert. Everything we’d rehearsed that I’d worried might go wrong, didn’t go wrong. The only things that did were unimportant, one-off mistakes which always crop up in high-adrenaline performances, and didn’t matter at all as far as I was concerned. We all loved every minute of it.
It was the first time I could remember being the recipient of a standing ovation. It was clear from the smiles and the tears that the occasion was as special to all the friends, strangers, acquaintances, churchwardens and musical colleagues who came to listen as it was to me. The church was nearly full. For many it was the first event or concert they’d attended since Covid, and the effect of the Schubert, played live in such a building with such a musical history, was profound.
It was an afternoon I’ll never forget. Thanks to friends and family who went above and beyond with baking, we were able to enjoy that crucial ingredient of concerts and celebrations alike – cake – in the sunny, warm churchyard afterwards, enjoying the afterglow of this surreal but truly wonderful occasion. Then we headed homewards via Shingle Street, one of my favourite places in Suffolk, to see the sun set.
Above: slideshow of concert photos by Richard Allenby-Pratt, Linden Baxter, Alison Marshall and Sheida Davis. Players: Florence Cooke & Rosie Lowdell (violin), Kurosh Davis (viola), Sheida & Yalda Davis (cello). Below: photos of Orford church, including the remains of the ruined Norman chancel.