St Andrew’s, Darmsden
Outdoor temperature: 23.8˚C; indoor temperature: 15.7˚C, humidity: 63%
Searching my map for churches near Barking – which I planned to visit in conjunction with Priestley Wood, a bluebell wood across the road from the church – I discovered a village I had never heard of: Darmsden. That was the first surprise. The second was when I reached the turn off to the village to discover it was a dead-end road, signposted ‘Darmsden: public footpath only’. It is the only Suffolk village I know of – yet – which is officially only accessible to the public on foot.
I knew the church was a long way down this private road, however, so I decided to ignore the instructions to abandon my car. The church had its own signpost and I assumed people must, on occasion, need to drive to there. Thankfully no one stopped me, and before long I reached a tiny church with views over the hilly rape fields behind it (see header photo).
It was a hot day, and, not for the first time, I would rather have stayed outside in the shady churchyard. But cello practice was a necessity, and rarely are the weather conditions right for it to take place outside (too hot, too cold, too wet, too windy…), so being in a church was the next best option.
As soon as I entered, I thought that whoever decided Redisham was the smallest church in Suffolk had got it wrong. This one was undoubtedly smaller, and had no separate chancel. The only way I can explain this is that I seem to remember – though I now can’t find the source – Redisham was defined as the smallest ‘parish church’, or ‘church still in use’. Darmsden is still in use as a church, but I found out afterwards it was bought from the Church of England by the Friends of St Andrew’s in the 1970s, so perhaps it no longer officially ‘counts’.
The acoustic made up for the fact I had to be indoors, and in the end I was a bit late leaving for Barking: a fairly reliable indicator of my enjoyment of a church or its acoustic. ‘Late’, only because I was cooking a slow roast for friends in the evening had a limited amount of time to spare before I had to get home. The churchyard was as springful and peaceful as I could have wished for, and I made a mental note that if I ever wanted a secluded spot to enjoy a warm spring afternoon with a book or a picnic, or just to lie down and absorb the flowers, trees and birdsong, this place would be high on my list.
St Mary’s, Barking
Indoor temperature: 17.1˚C, humidity: 66%
I had been meaning to visit Barking church for a long time, but somehow had always ended up driving straight past to somewhere further afield. The enticement of bluebells had finally got me there.
As I turned up the church drive, I met a car with two small lollipop olive trees sticking out of its boot with ribbons tied round their necks. I wondered if I might meet more people at the church, clearing up after a wedding.
I arrived at the car park on the north side of the church and was surprised by its beauty: it looked completely different from the south side, which was visible from the road. Not that the south side wasn’t also beautiful; but it was more monotone. The north side seemed to have had better luck escaping from being ‘tidied up’.
On the north door was a sign providing keyholder details and stating that the church was usually open from 10am to 4pm. Finding the door padlocked, I felt indignance setting in, when I noticed a disabled sign pointing along a path to the right, so I decided to follow it. Inside the south porch I found a grand – and open – door. Relieved, I went inside, thinking it more than a little odd that the opening hours notice was posted on the locked door rather than the open one.
I found a large, bright and spacious interior; a huge contrast to Darmsden. But, with the exception of being significantly brighter, it wasn’t that I preferred it: both churches had their charms. This one would clearly be of more interest to the historian, however, with its original multi-crownposted roof, parclose screens and rood screen still in place. One of the north nave windows boasted elaborate decorations – apparently terracotta panelling – and at the back of the nave, I found the longest wooden chest I think I have ever seen.
Incidentally, I have now discovered the answer to a little mystery. On the Suffolk Churches website, the header includes a photo of a detail from a church. I didn’t know what creature it was (whether real or mythical), or which church it lived in, or even on what feature it was to be found. Now I know it is a lion, and lives in Barking church. There are in fact many of them, on the parclose screens and on the font. To my shame, I didn’t notice them; a return visit will be required.
After I started playing, a man and two women came in. The man greeted me as though he knew me, and I once he came closer I recognised him from my concert at Badley the previous weekend, as the person I’d assisted in pulling my cellist friend Will out of the ditch on the lane to the church. He told me he thought it was the vicar playing the cello (this was the first I’d heard of a cello-playing vicar in Suffolk…) and asked me, surprised, if I’d found the church open. He’d arrived from Great Bricett armed with a bunch of keys, to let in the two women who had grown up in Barking and wanted to see inside the church after so many years. They told me there used to be a serpent (of the musical instrument variety) hanging on the wall, but that it had been stolen, along with various other items of interest.
They were happy with a musical accompaniment to their visit, so I carried on practising while they looked around. I packed up soon after they left, with insufficient time to pay a visit to Priestley Wood before going home – ironically, since that was the main reason for my choice of churches today, but I am very gradually learning to accept that I rarely manage to keep to timetables I set myself. And, less predictably, that perhaps I enjoy practising the cello more than I realised.
The churchyard almost made up for it, however: on my circuit around the church, I found the south side of little interest, but, approaching my car again on the north side, I saw a couple having a picnic on a bench facing an additional graveyard in what had the character of a woodland clearing. It was peaceful and pretty; they had chosen their picnic spot well.
St Mary’s, Old Newton
Indoor temperature: 16.6˚C; humidity: 66%
Nearly a week later, Will stayed the night at my house after our concert at the Lavenham Guildhall and we went off to Old Newton church the next morning to attempt to fix the programme for our duet concert at the end of June. It was on Will’s way home, and I thought we could continue on to Mendlesham if we had no luck getting in.
I took the lane which had led me to Gipping chapel. Much as I enjoy its sense of remoteness, this time it seemed endless and I started to worry I’d missed a turn. Eventually, however, I came to the crossroads I was looking for, and turn left down a hill. At the bottom we reached a marvellous view of Old Newton church across the road. It wasn’t what I expected. I’m not sure what I did expect – perhaps a church in the middle of a suburban village, close as it was to Stowmarket. But this was an old, rural church, and I knew I would like it.
It was Sunday and we had checked service times before leaving home, but there were still cars parked outside when we arrived. So we went in without our cellos to find out what was happening. I was quite glad, for once, to have a companion for moral support. Not that I expected anything but a pleasant conversation with anyone we met inside, or, at worst, popping our heads round the door and leaving again. But some residual shyness remains. I think it is simply part of my character, and while practice and habit overcome reserve, confidence with strangers will never come naturally to me. I think the same applies to playing the cello in public: it is only because I have been doing it most of my life that it rarely daunts me now; but I am not, and never will be, a natural performer.
Reaching the porch, we met people coming out after post-service coffee. We asked the vicar if we could play, and he asked if I was the ‘cello person’: I’d visited other churches in his benefice so he knew about my church tour. He and his congregation were smiley and welcoming, telling us how good the acoustic was – we could tell just from the sound of our voices – and we went to fetch our equipment, looking forward to playing in this surprisingly beautiful, assymetrical and ancient-looking church.
We set up in the bright chancel, tried out more new music, and finally chose a definitive selection of duets for our concert. It was satisfying, and we didn’t stop till after 1.30pm, despite the fact I was tired and had aching shoulders from last night’s concert. By then I was also hungry. Finding some almonds in my bag from the previous evening and discovering the church had a toilet were both points in favour of my continuing on to Mendlesham to practise more. The almonds gave me energy to look around, go up to the gallery, admire the brick ‘benches’ in the porch and examine the graffiti, including a spiral design which I had never come across before. But in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to go to another church or drive further from home. I was too achy and tired and it was the weather for garden relaxation.
We all thought so. I spent most of the afternoon lying in the garden next to snoring goats and preening chickens. When my rest was over, they decided theirs was too.
Header photo: Darmsden churchyard