St Michael’s, Framlingham
On the first Saturday in December, I had an appointment at Framlingham church to play music at their Christmas Tree Festival. They had asked me months in advance, but it wasn’t until a few weeks earlier that I had come up with a suitable plan for providing seasonal, fun ‘background’ music for their event: solo cello music wouldn’t work, nor cello accompanied by piano. Finally, I had an idea: it occurred to me that several cellos might be the answer. Carols are usually harmonised in four parts, and if I could get hold of a book of carols (first port of call: the Hill Music Library, ie. my friend Penny’s house), and two or three other cellists, it might just work out.
I mentioned my idea to a cellist friend, Mandy, and she kindly agreed to play. She managed to rope in an ex-pupil of hers, and Penny gave me not only the music but the contact details of a cello-playing colleague; and, bingo! We had a cello quartet. I had only met one of the players, but I was confident we would have no trouble playing carols together.
It was great fun. All of the stalls and most of the people were in the huge chancel, so we played facing east. Caroline (Penny’s colleague) arrived wearing reindeer antlers, and courtesy of Mandy, we all tied red tinsel to our cello scrolls. Despite some occasionally odd harmonisation in the old-fashioned carol book we were using, I thought carols sounded rather good on four cellos. In fact, I think quite a lot sounds good on four cellos – I am biased, of course, but it is a sonorous, mellow and well-blended sound, and the cello’s large pitch range allows for effective harmonisation.
We played for half an hour, and enjoyed tea, cake and chat afterwards. The day’s proceedings were drawing to a close, and I couldn’t resist taking a look at the ‘knitters and stitchers’ stall. Once there, I couldn’t resist buying a knitted sheep, which – ridiculously – was on sale at 50p. I gave them £1 and they added in a felt mouse with a candy stick tail for good measure. Some concern has since been expressed by visitors to my house over whether it is identifiable as a sheep, but I had no trouble recognising it. And, what’s more, it’s a smiley sheep.
Afterwards I enjoyed my tour around the church, admiring especially the highly decorative organ and roof. I also found a wealth of graffiti, both inside and out. Interestingly, the bulk of it was on the exterior chancel wall, and looked as though a great deal of time and care had gone into the carvings.
St Mary’s, Woolpit
A few days later, it was the Lavenham Deanery advent service in Woolpit church. I had asked Will and John to play a Handel trio sonata with me, on cello and keyboard (in the absence of a piano) respectively. It is a beautiful piece that I played many times with my sister when we were children, and I had been longing to get back to it for a while. In fact, it was the reason that Will and I met: over a year ago, I asked a local musician friend if he knew any cellists in the county, as I wanted to play this piece. He put me in touch with Will, who had moved to Suffolk fairly recently. We played it first in May, at the Darsham cello concert, and this was to be our second performance.
The music was to take the place of a sermon – and this despite the fact the congregation was made up mostly of clergy. It made us chuckle. The church was, as promised, ‘temperate’: not warm, but warm enough to avoid discomfort when playing. So I thought, anyway, but I was wrong. Very strangely – since I have played in far colder churches with less difficulty – my fingers became gradually colder and number as the piece progressed, to the point that I could no longer tell quite where I was placing my fingers and it became very difficult to play in tune. Still, I hoped that to the ‘lay’ ear (no contradiction intended), it wouldn’t be too noticeable.
Thankfully, this appeared to be the case, and many people expressed their appreciation afterwards. I was now especially glad at the prospect of soup: we had been invited to stay for lunch, and I was secretly hoping there would be a repeat of last year’s ‘monastery soup’. I am not generally a great fan of soup, but this was definitely the best soup I have ever eaten. If I was told I had to live off it for the rest of my life, I would be satisfied – and not only because it was laced with sherry (or was it brandy). It was just the remedy for creeping chill: hot, thick and full of whole mushrooms. I don’t know what any of the other ingredients were, and have found no recipe online which resembles that magical soup. But magic is sometimes best kept a secret.
Energised and warmed, I enjoyed looking around the church all the more for the fact that I had been there several times (at least) before and could remember nothing of it beyond general size, layout and character. I already knew of one feature I had missed: the angel roof (photo above). This roof is often spoken of with great admiration, of the sort usually reserved for original, medieval features. I am not sure if the roof itself is original (‘complete restoration’ seems to mean anything from repair to reproduction, but to my untrained eye it looks medieval), but the fact that the angels were not mentioned by Dowsing (the Puritan inspector) when he visited in 1644 suggests, according to Simon Knott, that they were already gone1. They are a result of the 19th century restoration – bar one angel, apparently, in the southwest corner. Still, they are undoubtedly impressive, and perhaps we should be less ageist.
The other feature that stood out was the carved bench ends (photos above). Some of these are medieval, and some 19th century; and, like the angels, they were impressive, and everywhere. But I wasn’t sure how I felt about the dead geese in the mouths of the dogs…
On my way out of the church I found a wealth of graffiti inside and outside the porch, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, but at least one was from the 17th. As I was taking photographs, the rector of my parish came out of the church and made it his first job as the new Rural Dean to book me for next year’s advent service, whenever that might be. He had agreed to unlock the rood stairs gate in Rattlesden church for me to explore the rood and parclose lofts, so how could I possibly say no? It was the first item on my short but gradually growing church ‘bucket list’; and, as it turns out, cello playing is becoming quite a useful trading tool…
Holy Innocents’, Great Barton
It was time for the Kirbye Voices Christmas concert, and my friend Penny had asked me to play two short pieces: two fun movements from The Snowman, and the carol, O Holy Night, with which I was unfamiliar. I arranged a rehearsal with my accompanist, John, at his house beforehand, and was mighty glad that his wife, Linda, kindly lent me a hot water bottle to take to the church.
It was freezing. It made Woolpit seem tropical; and my numb finger experience there made me worry more about the cold. But the hot water bottle, and (virtually alcohol-free) mulled wine in the interval worked their magic, and I had no problems playing – aside from a few seconds of brain paralysis where I forgot to come in after the piano introduction at the beginning of O Holy Night and had to begin again. It wasn’t my best moment. And it wasn’t my first blunder at Great Barton.
My overriding memory of the church, unfortunately, was playing the cello at a wedding there one summer a few years ago, when I had left my bag beside the organ, which sits on a hollow wooden platform. I had turned my phone to silent, but failed to realise it was still on vibrate. Sod’s law dictated that, while I could go days (then) without a peep out of my mobile phone, at a quiet moment in the proceedings it went off, and the volume of the sound it caused in the hollow platform was impossible to ignore. My accompanist (also the organist) swore rather too loudly and looked around for her phone in a flustered manner. In contrast, having no suspicion at the time that it was my phone – mobile phone embarrassment was not a familiar danger to me at that time – I continued to sit entirely still and without betraying myself. To my shame, when I discovered afterwards I was the culprit, I didn’t admit my guilt to my accompanist, and never have to this day, although I am sure she must have realised as soon as she checked her phone after the service. My guilt, however, is now vastly outweighed by mischievous amusement…
The concert wasn’t an occasion to spend much time looking round the church, and I am starting to realise that there is one drawback to giving evening concerts in winter: outdoor photos are impossible, and indoor photos often difficult due to low lighting. Most of the churches I played at in December I have had to revisit in daylight hours, and it is starting to become a challenge for my very rudimentary photo filing system. But I did have time to admire the large and friendly looking dog on the front pew…
Header photo: Woolpit church roof detail