I have found myself increasingly referring to the Suffolk churches website in advance of my church visits, to find out whether I might find a church open or locked. At the beginning of my tour, it wasn’t so important: if one church was locked I could simply carry on to the next, which was unlikely to be more than five minutes’ drive away. I have tended to use local churches for convenience, on days when I am busy, so, as my list of local churches diminishes and I have to travel further to visit new ones, it is becoming useful for planning purposes to know in advance if I am likely to be able to get in.
I scan the first paragraph or two of the church entries as quickly as possible to find the information I’m looking for, trying not to notice much else, in order to see them with fresh eyes when I visit and not to be swayed by what other people deem to be interesting features. This of course means that on some occasions I have missed features that I would like to have seen. But I would rather return later, than to have my first impressions unconsciously dictated by someone else.
A pattern that has started to emerge in my search for opening information is that the majority of churches Simon Knott has found locked in the past are now regularly open. Whatfield is one such church. And there has been only a single example of the reverse: Lindsey. It seems to me a positive, hopeful pattern, suggesting that attitudes towards churches and their role in the community are changing for the better.
St Margaret’s, Whatfield
It was the day of my appointment at BBC Radio Suffolk in Ipswich to be interviewed about my church project. I had agreed to take my cello along to play, and not knowing exactly how to prepare for the interview, at least I knew how to prepare for playing, so I decided to practise in a church on the way, which I thought might also get me in the right frame of mind to talk about the subject. There were a few churches in the Ipswich direction to choose from, so in case I had time for more than one, or found any locked, I started with the nearest first, Whatfield. Whatfield is only a short distance off two main roads, more or less at right angles to each other. And yet, because it is not on my way anywhere, I never pass it. It felt unfamiliar and remote, but surprised me by being a sizeable settlement.
The church was down a gravelled drive near the centre of the village, next to a pretty thatched cottage of the kind you would only expect to encounter on postcards or Miss Marple. The churchyard setting looked a little unusual, due to a scattering of large trees; mostly ash, but a few smaller oaks. The church itself also did: it looked as though it was wearing a little hat on its tower – rather like Thornham Parva, but tiled not thatched.
The interior was pretty, with multi-coloured, jigsaw puzzle floor patches of stone, brick and pamment and an 18th century musician’s gallery at the back – another similarity with Thornham Parva, although the size and character of the two churches are otherwise very different.
As I was practising I noticed a plaque on the wall to my left, to someone who ‘loved this village’. I felt immediately emotional, despite the fact I had no idea who the person was. I think it is perhaps because I now know what this means. It is a short and simple phrase, but carries a weight of meaning behind it. We are on this earth such a short time, and yet our capacity to love places that we live in, not just people, is infinite.
The acoustic was probably the main reason that I didn’t move on to another church. I was enjoying it too much, and felt I would arrive in Ipswich calmer and better prepared if I stayed put. But, as always, I also noticed that to appreciate a church properly, I always need more time than I think. And even when I stay longer than intended, I rarely manage to find all of the church’s treasures, or spend enough time looking round the churchyard.
Having now read the Whatfield church guide, I know I missed something I would like to go back to see: the engraving of a parishioner’s name, John Wilson, on a pew, dated 1589. Much like the more mysterious graffiti at Lindsey church, I love the a sense of a palpable, somehow alive, connection with someone who lived and worshipped here more than 500 years ago. Five centuries might as well be five days, or five hours.
St Mary’s, Aldham
It was my first time in Ipswich for months and I was out of my element. Speaking live on air in a radio studio was an idea even more alien to me. To my surprise, however, it felt more like a private chat than a broadcasted interview: the interviewer made me feel immediately comfortable, and the questions and answers flowed easily without any effort on my part. But I wasn’t at ease playing the cello. Wedged between the desk and the wall, in a studio with no acoustic and a microphone far too close for comfort, I felt nervous. It was baffling: I could play difficult music in a big church full of people with barely an extra heart beat, and yet here I was with a short and easy piece I should be able to play in my sleep, and I couldn’t make the notes speak. But the playing was only a tiny part of it, and I hoped that non-musicians might not notice the mistakes, so despite the dubious musical interlude I left the studio in high spirits.
Aldham was the next church on my list after Whatfield; I didn’t manage to fit it in on the way to Ipswich, so I decided to go on my way home. It was too glorious a July afternoon, and I was too restless after my radio interview, to go straight back home to wait for the plumber to come to inspect an ominous looking wet patch on the bedroom carpet. But, as soon as I arrived at Aldham church, down a lane past Aldham Hall and next to some farm outbuildings, I knew there was no rushing this visit, no matter how urgent the plumbing problem. I phoned the plumber to tell him I wouldn’t be home by five after all.
It was a round-towered church situated on a steep hill and surrounded by meadows, wetlands and ponds. It might be less than a mile from the A road linking two of Suffolk’s major towns, but there was no hint in this landscape that such a thing as motorised vehicles even existed. I could tell before I entered the gate that Polstead had just lost its status of ‘best countryside view’; in fact, I felt this could easily be a contender for the best spot in the whole of Suffolk.
The welcome sign outside the gate stating ‘this church is always open’ endeared it to me further, especially after my recent experience at Lindsey, and with barely the patience to unload my cello, I walked up the churchyard path to the entrance. The view was even better from the south side. Still, I couldn’t help being just a little disappointed when I entered the church: it was Victorian. But it was light inside, and simply enough restored not to feel entirely at odds with the outside of the church. The factor that most effectively reconciled me to the interior, however, was its acoustic. I could have stayed to play all evening, despite the strong tug I always experience to be outdoors in the sunshine, especially in a place with such unsurpassed views. It would be the perfect picnic spot, I thought, and I was already planning a return visit to come and walk the many footpaths in the area, and to cross the valley to the hillside meadow opposite for the very best view of the church. What looked like a large rock beneath a tree there also warranted further investigation.
I returned less than a month later on an equally glorious summer afternoon, the first return visit of many, I hope, but I haven’t yet found out why the rock is there. It was larger even than I expected, and didn’t look native, but rather as if it had been placed there for a particular purpose a long time ago.
My rationale for not reading about churches before visiting them was borne out at Aldham: I wouldn’t have had nearly such a wonderful surprise had I known what to expect; I would have mourned the lack of sheep in the meadow below the churchyard (the perfect finishing touch to the pastoral landscape); and my first visit would have been darkened by the knowledge that in the 16th century, a protestant preacher was burnt at the stake on a hill visible from the church1. I want to learn about all the different facets of the landscape’s history, but was glad to have had that first, unadulterated enjoyment of a very special spot. And if I am disturbed on future visits by the sinister side of human nature, George Eliot’s words reproduced on the church porch noticeboard will serve as a kind of talisman, a warding off of evil.
Just before I got in the car to leave, I had a peek through the slit window of the barn next to which I was parked. The contents couldn’t have been more fitting: inside was a huge old cart, with a spare set of cart wheels.
Click here for BBC Radio Suffolk interview.