St Mary’s, Rougham
It was a challenge to find Rougham church. My satnav couldn’t locate it, and using a map required me to stop at every junction to check my location amongst the maze of lanes. It was perhaps a mile north of the village. I don’t think I had ever driven past it before, and it felt as though it was in the middle of nowhere, despite having Rougham’s primary school as its neighbour.
Two men were trimming a hedge at the entrance to the rectory driveway next to the churchyard. One came to talk to me as he saw me unloading my cello: he seemed pleased that someone should take an interest in the church, and want to play music in it. He took my contact details for possible future concerts, and said he might come in to listen when he and his companion had finished replacing a gatepost which was resisting any appearance of straightness – partly, he observed, because the fence next to it was leaning backwards, rendering their efforts almost futile.
I was surprised by the size and grandeur of the church; the tower seemed particularly elaborate. I stopped outside the porch to take out my camera, and found to my dismay that the battery was dead. It was the first time I’d forgotten to check it before leaving home, and I was usually careful to bring a spare one. On occasions such as this I wondered if owning a smartphone might have some advantage after all… But I didn’t, so I would just have to come back. I decided to save my tour of the huge churchyard for that future unencumbered visit, for added incentive to return1.
I stepped inside to an imposing interior. Above my head was a handsome single hammerbeam roof, decorated with decapitated carved figures (see header photo). They were angels, as I found out later, but it was impossible to tell they once had wings. All of the medieval bench end figures had also been sawn off. I think now that I might be forgiven for so often missing these details early on in my tour: while it was easy to see that the roof figures were missing their heads, it was difficult to tell these pews ever possessed any carved figures or animals. You would need to have seen quite a few medieval pews, or read up about them, to know what to look for.
I found myself getting angry about something that happened centuries ago, as though it was the work of yesterday’s vandals. There is something particularly violent about decapitation, especially of a carving that has taken a great deal of care and skill to create. It never ceases to shock me what destruction we will wreak in the name of religion – and of course, tragically, it doesn’t stop at vandalism.
To distract myself from my anger, and the floor – made up of black and red chequered tiles, which must be the single element of Victorian restorations that I dislike the most – I busied myself with setting up to practise. But even before I took out my cello, I sensed I would not play too long here. There was no conscious reasoning involved; I think it was simply that I prefer practising in small churches. Large ones seem more suited to playing for an audience. This may be a transference of habit: the equivalent of practising at home in a small room and performing in a concert hall or other large space. But, of course, atmosphere and acoustics also play a role. There have been occasions when I very much enjoyed, or would have enjoyed, having a large church to myself for a little while – notably Stoke by Nayland and Blythburgh – but they are exceptional churches, with exceptional atmospheres.
When my possible one- or two-person audience didn’t materialise after half an hour or so, I packed up with the intention of practising longer in the much smaller Rushbrooke church nearby, even though I didn’t know for sure I would find it open.
St Nicholas’, Rushbrooke
Although I pass Rushbrooke church (or Rushbrook, as one signpost would have it) fairly regularly on a back route to Bury St Edmunds, I hadn’t yet been inside. At least not that I remember, although it is likely that I visited at least once with my dad, since this was his preferred route to Bury. I have always thought it a lovely looking little church, on a bend in a single track lane, surrounded by horse paddocks belonging to the stables opposite and near a sign to Lucy Redman’s garden which is seasonally open to the public.
As soon as I opened the door I could tell it was an unusual church: I stepped down into a ‘room’ in which the font was housed – I suppose it was originally a south aisle – and almost directly opposite the entrance was another doorway with a velvet curtain. Passing through this doorway, I reached the nave through a gap in the north-facing pews. Opposite were south-facing pews. I was reminded of college chapels in Cambridge; indeed, I found out from a notice on the pews that this arrangement is described as ‘collegiate style’. To my left was, I thought, an organ with painted wooden pipes, until I took a closer look and discovered there was no organ. What a great deal of trouble to go to for purely aesthetic effect, I thought. But I suppose anything beautiful in any church would be explained as an expression of religious devotion, not as an aesthetically pleasing decoration for its own sake. This particular example was only unusual in the sense that it appeared to be something it wasn’t.
It was dark in the nave, but as I moved up towards the chancel it became lighter. I found another ‘side room’ – a chapel at the east end of the former south aisle – but this time with no dividing wall. It was furnished with benches, and its large windows allowed the light from the windows to brighten the spacious chancel. It was full of memorials to the Jermyn family. Rather strangely, some of them were very specific about the age of the people they memorialised: Thomas Lord Jermyn, died in 1703, aged 69, 5 months and 10 days. The most moving and elaborate memorial was to the ‘onely sonne’ of Thomas Jermyn, who was killed just after Christmas 1692, aged 15, ‘by the accidentall fall of a Mast’.
It reminded me of my visit to Thorpe Morieux church, where I regretted my lack of knowledge about the people commemorated on wall and floor plaques, even though the vast majority of them would have been from families of whom records exist. To my amazement, I actually found a biography of Thomas Jermyn online. But there was no mention of his son, only his daughters. Here were specifics about the death of this boy: it was tragic, and I knew nothing of his short life except that he was ‘A Hopefull Youth’ and ‘dearly beloved’, but it enabled me to imagine him as a real person, and his parents as real people doing their best to survive their desperate grief: ‘a day never to be forgotten by his unhappy Father and Mother’.
There were more memorials to Jermyns under my feet as I practised the cello, including one to a six-year-old child. The contrast in space and light between the nave and chancel was extreme, and I enjoyed the church all the more for it. The nave on its own would have felt claustrophobic despite its unique beauty, but I could appreciate it better from the ‘safety’ of the chancel. Sitting next to the chapel felt like practising in a comfortably sized, bright room with an excellent acoustic. The result was that I had no problem delivering on my (almost) baseless assumption that I would spend longer practising here than at Rougham, and I left the church pleased that I had fulfilled my practice duties for the day in a thoroughly enjoyable manner.
St Mary’s, Boxford
A few days later, I thought I might visit Assington church on my way back from an errand, followed by a writing stop at a café nearby. Discovering that the church was only open on weekends, however, I chose the nearest convenient alternative: Boxford. It had the advantage of a café on the high street, which I had long wanted to try. But it was closed for a summer break, so I went to the pub instead, which, likewise, I had often thought would be worth a visit. To my disappointment, its friendly and welcoming exterior wasn’t quite replicated on the inside – at least not during the afternoon – and the weather wasn’t favourable for sitting outside. Thwarted again, I turned around and went back to the church, which I hadn’t stopped at on my way into the village due to the surprising lack of parking spaces. I soon found out the reason for this: there was a wedding underway in the church. Thankfully the door had been left open a crack, so I was at least spared the embarrassment of stumbling in on it.
I walked away, disheartened by my run of bad luck. There were no other churches between Boxford and home that I hadn’t yet visited, so I would have to take a detour if I was determined to practise in a church. Before I could come up with a satisfactory plan, however, I drove past the church for the third time and saw that the wedding was over. The sun was also coming out. I decided to sit outside the pub to write for while, hopeful that if I waited I might be able to get in after all.
The rain kindly held off long enough to assist me with my plan. I returned to the church and opened the door tentatively. There was no one inside. With a great sigh of relief, I went to collect my cello and set up straight away in case the peace was shortlived.
I managed half an hour’s practice; not as long as I wanted, but more than I expected, given that Boxford receives a fair number of visitors and the church is its focal point. As I was taking a break to write in the visitors’ book, an elderly man with a stick came in through the north door, and asked how the wedding went. After I explained that I wasn’t part of the wedding, he went and sat down at the front of the south aisle, where chairs were set up in a circle as if for a meeting or group activity. I didn’t feel I could start playing again, as he made no other reference to my cello, and it seemed that he might be expecting other people. Until the uncertainty was resolved one way or the other, I lingered at the back of the church looking at the literature spread out on the table.
A few minutes later another elderly man entered the church, asked me the same question, received the same answer, and went and sat down with the other man. This clearly spelled the end of my playing, so I decided to pack up and look around the church.
It was an impressive church. Inside, it felt like a smart town church, but outside, the two contrasting porches gave it a different feel. They were equally beautiful in their own ways: the stone south porch was highly ornate; the wooden north porch, much simpler, though still decorated. Inside, I noticed angels painted above the chancel arch, which looked relatively modern, but I found out in the church guide that they were Elizabethan. Perhaps the comment that they were ‘damaged by later unskilled attempts at restoration’2 explains their modern look. There were also wall painting fragments on the east wall of the south aisle, seemingly much older but in fact dating from the same period.
What attracted my attention most, however, was the stained glass in the east window. I am still surprised when I see a stained glass window that I like immediately, and this was one of them. It was the opposite, in some respects, of the previous windows that had caught my eye: it was modern, and it depicted a religious scene. I didn’t compare their characteristics at the time because I didn’t remember them, but the mediocre photograph I took is sufficient to see now that it has one significant thing in common with the previous windows: it is made up of blocks of bright colour, like expressionist art.
No other people, elderly or otherwise, materialised in the time that I took to look around the church, and it was well past five o’clock, which I had thought the most likely time for the start of their imagined meeting. So I left wondering whether it was coincidence that two men had arrived to sit together in the church, whether they had arranged to meet there, or whether they were just extremely early for a larger group activity. In any case, it seemed exactly the right sort of use for a church, outside of services: a place for parishioners to feel companionship and community.
Header photo: Mutilated carved figures on Rougham church roof.
Total church count to the end of July: 80 +1 former chapel
1. Photos were taken in October
2. Boxford church guide