Suffolk churches 7: Buxhall, Shelland and Semer (May 2017)

St Mary’s, Buxhall
The next morning I decided to try some local churches as I was only free until lunchtime. I had passed Buxhall church several times already since starting my project, but for some reason that I cannot now understand, I had been putting off stopping there. Perhaps it was precisely because of ‘passing’: I hardly ever thought of Buxhall as a destination, except occasionally to visit the dining pub, mostly when my parents were still alive, or once to buy a mower, which was not exactly on my list of exciting outings. Today, I decided, that would change.

Buxhall church

Once I had got out of the car and turned my full attention to the church and its surroundings, I could see how unjustified my reluctance had been. The church was much larger than it appeared when driving past, as it was set back so far from the road. Everything about it was attractive: the grassy car park, the gate, the path through the churchyard up to the church, and the church itself, in a sunny and open spot. Several certificates and photos displayed on the noticeboard in the porch attested to a lively bell ringing team. The inside of the church was no less enticing: light, spacious and immaculately clean and tidy. I breathed a sigh of relief at the contrast with Washbrook church which I had visited the day before. My practice here was enjoyable and fruitful, and I gained a new, positive connection to Buxhall. I left in good spirits to look for Shelland church nearby.

King Charles the Martyr, Shelland
I remembered having driven past this church while taking a scenic route with as many detours as possible down tiny lanes. There is almost no reason otherwise that you would happen upon this church unless you were looking for it, or unless you got lost (most likely trying to follow a terribly-signed diversion from a road closure, as I think may have happened to me on one occasion). Still, I didn’t remember anything about it. I found the tiny church at the remote and equally tiny Shelland Green. It was on the far side of the green, with no road or driveway leading to it. I took a chance and parked on the green outside the church gate. I was getting bold now and didn’t mind too much whether I got told off for parking in the wrong place; after all, if I did, it was for lack of any alternative instructions.

Shelland churchThe outside of the church was as sweet as you might expect for a diminutive, remote rural church with no tower; the interior, however, was quite a surprise. The beams across the roof were painted red; the walls, raspberry yoghurt and mint green; and the ceiling, blue. It was cheerful, certainly; but tasteful? Perhaps the cheeriness will win me over after a few more visits… Apparently these colours date from the early 19th century, an idea that I find as surprising as the colours themselves.

Rabbet storyAs I explored the church, I found a child’s story left on a table in front of the organ. It made me chuckle (and I am thinking of permanently changing my spelling of the word rabbit). I also felt very lucky: I had recently welcomed a characterful rabbit into my animal clan for the first time. Some poor child in Suffolk was pining for a rabbit, Shelland rabbetwhile I had acquired one without asking. After that, rabbets seemed to keep popping up in all corners of the church…

Another prominent feature of the church was the pews, fenced in so high that I wondered anyone could see out of them. Maybe this was the intention, although I couldn’t understand the reason for it. Were people so easily distracted from their religious devotions that they needed all sightlines blocked except to the pulpit? That would be no religion for me: mine requires full view of earth, sky and horizon. It had the effect of making a tiny church feel crowded and even tinier. Shelland interiorThere wasn’t enough space to bow in the central isle even if I had wanted to, so I played in the spacious chancel, separated from the nave by a charming wooden gate.

It wasn’t until after my visit that I read about another unusual feature of the church: its 1820 barrel organ that still plays 36 tunes and is the only one left in Suffolk. Only a few days before, a friend had tried to explain to me what a barrel organ was; I had never come across one, although his description did bring to mind the Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ in Bagpuss. This of course means that a new addition to my church ‘activity list’ is to find out how I can hear it play… And what with the rabbets and the Mouse Organ, I am already starting to revise my opinion about the colourful interior of Shelland church.

All Saints, Semer
Semer church approachOn a quiet weekend when I had no great church-touring ambitions but wanted to brighten up the prospect of cello practice with a little outing, I decided to go and fetch the key to Semer church from the farm shop. I had tried to visit the church before but it was a fair detour to the key, and on that occasion I didn’t have enough time. Semer keyThe key alone was certainly worth the extra trouble: I am not sure I have ever held or used such a magnificent key. Approaching the church, especially knowing that I could get inside this time, was also a great pleasure – it is well off the road and tucked away behind a meadow, with the River Brett running down the eastern side of the churchyard and drive.

I assumed the church would be deserted, but a man in overalls and a farmer’s cap was cutting the grass on a ride-on mower. His attire took me straight back, with nostalgia, to the days of Mowles’ garage at the end of my road which closed perhaps twenty years ago. Ron Mowles, now in his late eighties, still lives there in the same thatched house, but the garage was long ago pulled down to make way for new houses.

Despite the sound of the mower, the little church had a peaceful feel to it. This time I had brought my sound recorder in case the acoustic was good; I was not disappointed, so I decided to try it once the lawnmower had stopped. Half way through the movement I was playing, the man who had been cutting the grass came in. I carried on to the end of the movement, unsure whether to draw attention to the fact I was recording by going to turn it off afterwards. In the end I decided not to – and I am glad I didn’t, as I was treated to that sometimes indecipherable but always wonderful Suffolk dialect, of which I have heard precious little since the deaths of Doris and Jack, my old next-door neighbours. I can now listen to it in secret whenever I feel particularly deprived.

Little did I imagine that I could simply have resorted to that modern technological phenomenon, Youtube, to hear him speak: several weeks later I discovered various ‘videos’ – audio accompanied by photographs – on the site while looking up the origin of his unusual first name, Granville. But in those he speaks in his ‘best’ English, so my secret audio file is not redundant.

Once I’d stopped playing, he asked what my cello case was (by which I assumed he also didn’t know what a cello was). He wondered if I was playing at the christening the next day, and, as the answer was no, I felt obliged to explain my presence. He told me he was the owner of the farm shop where I had picked up the key, by which I deduced that he was also a relation – uncle, it turned out – of someone I knew through a friend. I mentioned how much I liked the key, and he told me that it was made around 1960 by Alec Turner, who was sadly ‘runned over’ outside Granville’s house in 1990.

I find myself increasingly enthralled by people’s personal stories of family, place and local history. It has been a pleasure to read Ron Mowles’ recent recollections, and to see his old photographs, including one of his garage which I thought would only ever see again in my mind’s eye. Perhaps my interest is in part due to the realisation, since the loss of my parents and ‘adopted’ Suffolk grandparents, that there are so many stories I would like to have heard, but now never will. Perhaps I never thought of asking while the opportunity was there, or perhaps in some instances I felt awkward about doing so. It is also probably a case of coming to value belatedly what is no longer within reach. I think my favourite of Granville’s Youtube stories, with a little relevance to my churches project, was the description of his favourite spot on his farm: the only place on Sayers Farm where you can see across the whole valley, and count 7 churches. If I meet him again I will try to summon the courage to ask if he might show me. It was especially wonderful to hear that not a single hedge on the farm has been removed since his father started farming there in the 1930s.

‘I didn’t come to upset you, I just wondered what you were doing’, he said, by way of ending the conversation. I thought that a rather curious thing to say – perhaps it was an old Suffolk expression that I hadn’t heard before. On his way out of the church, when I was starting to play again, he turned back and added, ‘you have a nice tow’n’. Being told I had a nice tone in best Suffolk was the highlight of my day, especially from someone who apparently didn’t know what a cello was. It probably wouldn’t have mattered much what he said; I still would have treasured that gruff Suffolk lilt as much as any music. My reply ought to have been, ‘you do too’.

Semer church

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