Suffolk churches 30: Saxtead and Westleton (July 2017)

Crippling indecision and a pile of chores had turned my intended four days’ break into barely two, and I left home in a bad mood. I was going to Westleton, near the coast, as the accommodation options for other destinations I’d considered had gradually dwindled the longer I dithered, and somehow I found my cello once again in the passenger seat. It was an easy opportunity to arrange a cello duet rehearsal on my way home, as Will, the other cellist, lives not too far from Westleton. Still, church visiting was otherwise not amongst my plans.

All Saints’, Saxstead
Passing through Saxtead proved too much of a temptation: I had missed the church on a few occasions because I spotted the sign too late. This time I was prepared: I remembered in time to look out for it and take the turn down the driveway. It wasn’t until I walked up to the churchyard gate that I realised, to my surprise, that the church didn’t have a tower. From the road, and even from the car park in front of the gate, the view was almost entirely obscured by trees.

Saxtead front Saxtead back

Saxtead interior

The heavy sky warned me against lingering outside, so I went straight inside and took out my cello. As soon as I started playing in the half light my glumness melted away instantly: the acoustic was a dream. The idea of leaving my cello at home seemed a distant memory; what better activity was there for what promised to be a very wet afternoon? If I was honest, I didn’t exactly know what I would have done when I arrived at Westleton if it was pouring with rain, and arriving in the frame of mind that I left home would have been no help at all. I had been gifted an instant solution to both mood and decision making, not to mention a ‘free’ practice session – by which I mean one that involved no self-cajoling and little mental effort. The instant lift in spirits particularly was not to something to turn down: I might have spent hours working to achieve the same result, with far less success.

So I played, and two hours later I was still playing – the longest time I had spent playing alone in a church, even longer than at Milden. As well as practising pieces I knew I had to prepare, I had brought a pile of cello duets to help Will and me decide on the final items for our concert programme (in Bungay, three weeks later), and I was enjoying looking back over some that I’d forgotten about, and hadn’t played in at least two decades.

Saxtead tudor roseI was enjoying myself so much that I took only a short break to venture outside to inspect the result of the huge downpour that materialised soon after I entered the church. Realising it had turned cold and blustery was further incentive to stay put. Eventually, however, I stopped playing in favour of looking round the church and having a picnic in the porch. I found some fragments of wall paintings, one of which was a decorative pattern made up of Tudor roses, perhaps the equivalent of wall paper, and the first such decoration I had come across. The other was a symbol, which I have now managed to identify as a consecration cross, showing where the bishop anointed the church to consecrate it.Saxtead cross

In the porch was a wooden frame or contraption of some sort; I could tell it was old, but I didn’t know what it was. Thanks to the internet, I found out afterwards it was a set of stocks and whipping post, but I could find no indication of how old this one might be.

Saxtead cherryThe exterior of the church was undistinguished, the larger part of it covered with grey and sad-looking render, and with a clear view only of the back of the church. At the front there were a number of large trees close to the porch, one of which I was desperate to climb: it was an old cherry, with low branches spread out horizontally in invitation. But it was covered in moss, and I wasn’t wearing appropriate clothes for climbing a wet and spongy tree. I planned instead to return on my way home in two days’ time, which would also allow me to remedy my second failure in a row to replenish my coin supply.

As I went back to the porch to retrieve my cello, I saw a poster for a ‘pet and teddy’ church service on the noticeboard. I looked for the date, and found it had already passed. Still, that didn’t stop me walking back to the car in much higher spirits than I arrived wondering vaguely if my cello might count as a pet…

Chapel Books & St Peter’s, Westleton
I have been to Westleton many times, but I have never noticed the church, even though it is just off the high street: it is at the end of a fairly long, uphill path, and so is invisible from the road, apart from its sign which is not particularly conspicuous unless you are looking for it. The other building I have missed consistently, and only found out about on my way into Westleton this time, is the second hand bookshop in the old chapel, a little way down the same road. This was the perfect opportunity to  put them both on my map.

The chapel came first: I looked out for it when I was cycling back to the village from Dunwich Heath. There was no one in sight when I entered. It was, by a long way, the largest second-hand bookshop that I have ever been in, but was otherwise characterised by the obligatory and comforting maze-like distribution of bookshelves. The occasional handwritten note served to guide me to sections of interest. I saw plenty to tempt me, but managed to choose just one book: a copy of George Eliot’s Adam Bede with a note inside the cover indicating it was given as a Christmas present in 1896 by someone who was perhaps a little dyslexic: ‘Happy Xams’, the message read. I would no doubt have bought it for myself, but, already owning a set of George Eliot novels, I managed to get round the difficulty by buying it for Sam, a friend’s son who had recently told me he’d never read any of ‘his’ novels. I directed him away from Middlemarch and towards The Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede, my personal favourites, even if they make slightly unusual reading for a 17-year-old boy.

Winding my way to the back of the shop to pay, I came across the first obvious signs of eccentricity – beyond my assumption that all second-hand bookshops and their owners must be just a tiny bit, if not very, eccentric. The instrument of choice to attract attention was a very dented, large rectangular metal can and a stick, and there were a few strange notices up around it. After waiting a minute or two for some sign of life, I reluctantly picked up the stick and tapped the can gently. The figure who appeared in the doorway to take my payment was eccentricity personified. He had straggly hair, wore an old floppy hat, equally old and oversized trousers and jumper, and sandals. I tried not to betray my amusement, and enquired, with very little hope, if card payments were accepted. To my surprise, he answered in the affirmative, and shortly after I was on my way with my booty safely stowed in my backpack.

I was equally astonished to discover later that the shop has a relatively modern and apparently functional website, which I found when I was looking up the history of the chapel1. I thought for a moment I’d got the wrong bookshop; it seemed impossible that such a place with such an owner could have more than a token one-page site telling visitors where to find the bookshop and when they might, if they were lucky, find it open. The opening sentences of the ‘About us’ page, however, assured me that I was in the right place:

“I am Bob Jackson. I am in no way qualified to do this job. I do not have the knowledge, temperament or aptitude to spend all my time mooching around books.”

It came as no surprise to read that he was once a recluse. I have never met a ‘practising’ recluse – I don’t suppose many people have – but it wouldn’t surprise me if more than one had the appearance and manner of Bob Jackson.


WestletonThe next day was the end of my all-too-brief break, and the morning of my rehearsal in Westleton church. It was without doubt the largest towerless church I have visited so far. But before I reached the church, a photographic guide at the entrance to the churchyard caught my eye, showing the wild flowers of Westleton churchyard.

Westleton harebellsIt only took one glance around me to see the churchyard was covered in harebells, a flower with which I am unfamiliar and perhaps would have struggled to identify without the help of the guide. I certainly would have (incorrectly) guessed them to be a spring flower, like bluebells, rather than a summer flower. It was lovely to see how much pride was taken in the churchyard’s flowers, and I was glad, for once, not to have to remember to look them up when I got home. Nevertheless, for some reason Richard Mabey’s and Roger Deakin’s complaints of the over-signing of nature in the British countryside immediately sprang to mind. In this context, I didn’t agree: having realised at Darsham and Pettaugh that there are too many people still unaware of the importance of managing churchyards for wildlife, I think that providing information to guide visitors can only help people appreciate them more, and understand better the significance of these habitats for wildlife.

I took a slow walk up to the church, admiring the blue haze around me on the way and feeling more than a little unwilling to go indoors on such a beautiful morning. The church looked large from the outside but endlessly long on the inside, an effect probably created by the fact the chancel was nearly as long and wide as the nave. It was a bright church, exaggerated by the sunshine and the white walls. It reminded me of Shaker-style interiors, although there may be little justification for such a comparison.

Westleton interior Westleton interior 2

There were a number of people gathered at the back of the church, some of whom were visitors, and others who seemed to be connected to the church. I asked a lady coming out of a room or store cupboard, who I thought it safe to assume wasn’t a visitor, if anyone would mind if I played the cello, and I told her I was expecting a friend for a rehearsal. There was no objection to my request, and as I was setting up, she and another man came to chat to me about concerts in the church, the state of the grand piano (which looked old but was apparently in regular use), and their fundraising efforts to replace the thatched roof. Will conveniently arrived just as our conversation was coming to an end.

One advantage of the length of the church was that, although a few visitors were still in the nave when we started rehearsing, we were far enough away not to feel we were intruding too much on their visit. They didn’t stay long, however, and we were soon left alone until a flower arranger came to join us in the chancel for the remainder of the morning.

Westleton floor Westleton sedilia

The acoustic was wonderful, and the brick floor a delight, particularly the areas of patchwork near the front of the nave. The Woods family was clearly prominent in Westleton at one time: most of the floor and wall memorials were dedicated to them. There were several beautiful arches in the chancel wall that reminded me of Moorish palaces in southern Spain, but I had no idea what purpose they served. I found out they were 14th century ‘piscina and sedilia’. I had come across piscinas before – not Spanish swimming pools, but small stone basins with a hole in the centre to deposit the remains of communion wine and wash communion vessels – but placed with the word ‘sedilia’, I felt I was back in the dark ages as far as church architectural terminology was concerned. For anyone else who has not crossed paths with such things, the word – although literally the plural of the Latin for ‘seat’ – has a curiously precise definition: it is a set of stone seats for clergy in the south wall of a chancel, usually three in number and often canopied and decorated. I sometimes feel as though each church visit takes me one small step further away from all-encompassing ignorance at the same rate at which it takes me one small step closer to completing my project.

Westleton towerAfter Will left, I wandered round the churchyard to enjoy the sunshine and flowers. I saw a moving 1946 memorial to a three-day-old baby near the porch, and a very odd construction at the end of the church which I assumed was the tidied up base of a once-tower. On its south side was a long bench facing the sun. Tiredness and reluctance to leave this special spot prevailed over hunger, and I lay down for a while, wishing, not for the first time, that this moment of sunshine and crickets could last forever…

1. It was a Primitive Methodist Chapel which opened in 1868 and closed in 1968. It was then an art gallery before becoming a bookshop.


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