St Mary’s, Letheringham
Outdoor temperature: 6.5˚C; Indoor temperature: 7.4˚C, humidity: 63%
My obligatory return trip to Monewden to take photos had an unexpectedly beneficial side effect: it provided the impetus to go out with my cello. If it hadn’t been for that semi-reluctant, semi-long-distance drive, I might not have discovered that playing in churches in January can be enjoyable, despite the cold.
Just down the road from Monewden, I found a great surprise and delight in the form of Letheringham church. An old priory church set beside a farm, its north wall formed the churchyard boundary. I found the access drive round the back of the farm. Inside the churchyard gate was an information board giving more details about the priory, of which a (Tudor) brick gatehouse and walls remain. Founded in 1194, the priory was a cell of the larger priory in Ipswich, and the explanation given for monks being moved here made me laugh: they were probably ‘old, ill or naughty’.
The church was tiny, in part due to its lacking a chancel, which was demolished in the 18th century. It reminded me a little of Gipping chapel inside, though on a smaller scale. It had a friendly feel and was full of light; I particularly enjoyed the old brick floor and ancient memorials set in it.
I could see my breath for the first time. I was interested to know if there was a specific temperature below which breath condenses, though I suspected humidity might be an influencing factor. I would have to wait till I got home to look it up1. But the strangest thing happened. Although I could tell even before measuring the temperature that this was my coldest church visit yet, I had no trouble removing my coat and gloves, and was able to play the cello for half an hour or more without my fingers becoming numb or even particularly uncomfortable. First I wondered if it was due to low humidity, but consulting my records, I realised it couldn’t be. So, I concluded, my perception of temperature has far more to do with me than with external environmental conditions. Either it is something to do with circulation or other physiological and psychological states, or I am slowly becoming acclimatised to the cold.
Whatever the reason for my new-found chill tolerance, my visit to Letheringham was highly enjoyable. Partly because of the wonderful acoustic; partly because I was glad to be playing the cello again; and partly because I was on a high from having discovered such a lovely, remote church in the middle of January, and being able to enjoy playing when the thermometer indicated that it should be impossible. This was definitely a church to add to my concert venue bucket list, along with Thornham Parva.
Before leaving the church I noticed a large, blocked Norman doorway in the north wall, set below ground level. Had the floor been raised substantially, I wondered? Or perhaps there were originally steps down to it that had been removed? The only information I have been able to find is that ‘the foot of the north doorway is set 0.8m below the nave floor, perhaps respecting the level of the cloister into which it led’2). In front of the arch was a vase of blossoming twigs. I had to look closely to check they were real: I hadn’t realised there were any January-flowering cherries. It seems laughable now that I have started to see them everywhere. As usual, I wonder how I could have missed such blossom in previous years, but perhaps I had just forgotten about it. In any case, it seemed a lovely way to brighten up a building in January; much more so than a vase of flowers. It was a joyful celebration of the season.
I very nearly missed the other Norman doorway altogether. The interior south door, a bright blue pin board affair unlike anything I had seen in a church before, distracted my attention from the doorway which framed it. Luckily, at the last moment it occurred to me to look up. Once I did, I was struck by the outstanding ability of an ugly thing to obliterate a beautiful thing. I resolved not to let myself be so deceived in future.
As I was walking away from the church enjoying the bird song, I suddenly realised I had company. A long nose had appeared over the churchyard wall. I thought he was just being nosy or friendly (or both), until I realised he had an ulterior motive: food. He was eating moss off the top of the churchyard wall.
St Mary’s, Framsden
Indoor temperature: 6.5˚C, humidity: 65%
Heading homeward, I chose Framsden as my next stop. It was a large church, with elaborate flintwork on the porch and, unusually, a huge velvet curtain separating the nave from the chancel. It felt odd not to be able to see the whole church, and it somehow contributed to the darkness inside. But there was no shortage of windows, so I suspect this feeling was mostly caused by the contrast from light-filled Letheringham.
I also started to wonder whether my perception of cold was affected by brightness: the temperature was a little lower than at Letheringham, but perhaps not enough to account entirely for my much greater feeling of cold here. Playing was still fairly manageable, but I didn’t feel I could continue for too long. After about 10 minutes I packed up in favour of looking around.
Perhaps my favourite feature of the church was a large, sewn oak tree hanging on the wall at the back of the nave. I don’t know whether ‘tapestry’ is the right description for it, as the leaves of the tree looked more like a carpet than a tapestry; but it was a work of art.
Behind the velvet curtain was a large chancel, where I found a gas heater turned on. Thus began my lengthy indecision over what to do about it. In the end I decided to leave it on, in case it was warming up the chancel for an afternoon choir practice or evening service, but to let a churchwarden know. To my surprise, however, I couldn’t find a single contact name or phone number anywhere inside the church or porch, so I went outside to look for a noticeboard.
Walking round to the north side of the church, I was astonished: it looked like a different building. The walls were whitewashed, and in front was a large weeping ash. I had never seen a weeping ash, and wondered at first whether there was such a thing; but the keys (seeds) hanging from its bare branches left no room for doubt. It made for an unusual and beautiful view of the church.
Continuing to the eastern end of the churchyard, I was rewarded with another wonderful sight: the first snowdrops of the season. Once I had noticed one clump, I saw them everywhere. In my garden the leaves were barely above ground yet; in fact, the bluebell leaves seemed further advanced than the snowdrops. I have always thought I have my own odd little microclimate, where the seasons seem to run a few weeks behind the rest of the countryside. But I don’t mind. It means that when I go out, I can have a preview of the excitements to come, but also enjoy the benefits of the slower version at home, without the disadvantages of prolonged cold weather.
I went back to the porch to retrieve my cello, and found some interesting graffiti (photo right): it looked like a tower of some sort, but it was extremely long and thin even for that. Having found no noticeboard at the north entrance to the churchyard, I thought I might have more luck at the south entrance, which would also be a good spot for photographing the church. But in my fluster at finding no noticeboard there either, I forgot about the photo. Doubting by now whether the heater problem justified such an extended effort, but feeling I had persevered so long I might as well try the village hall before leaving, I finally found a phone number for the parish clerk. Better than nothing, I thought, and texted to let him know about the heater, adding a suggestion that some emergency contact details at the church might be a good idea.
On my way home, satisfied that my good deed for the day had finally been fulfilled, I turned my attention to cherry blossom. I noticed several trees in bloom, and reprimanded myself for failing to notice them before. Signs of life and beauty in January are most certainly not something to be overlooked.
Header photo: Letheringham church, triptych detail
1. Although the exact temperature at which your breath condenses is affected by other environmental factors such as humidity, I learned that you can be relatively sure to be able to see your breath below 45˚F, or 7.22˚C.