While for many 19th May 2018 will be a day to remember, it is a day I will be happy to forget. It was the first time, and, I hope, the last, that I have walked away from someone who arrived to let me into a church, so upset was I by the treatment I received.
Of course, if I had realised that so many churches in the area around Ipswich are kept locked, even on weekends in May, and such is the distrust that no one will lend you a key to get in – they have to open it themselves, and, I expect, wait until you leave again – I would never have chosen this glorious Saturday morning to attempt visiting the area. But I didn’t suspect a thing. Until I got to Copdock church, found it locked, and was met with the rather aggressive question, ‘Who are you?’ three times on the phone to everyone I spoke to about acquiring a key. After the unpromising start to the first two conversations, the churchwardens did relent and became friendly, but they were both either watching the royal wedding or too busy to come to the church, and so gave me the phone number of another key holder.
The man who eventually did turn up to open the church (not a churchwarden, I hasten to add) couldn’t seem to understand why anyone a) would go out on a Saturday morning to visit a country church; or b) would do so without ringing to organise the visit before leaving home. I assured him many people did visit country churches, and that the vast majority of Suffolk churches were kept open so there was no need to ring ahead. (Besides, very few churches put keyholder contact details or church opening hours online, so you have no choice but to turn up to find out whether you can get in). But I could see the concept was completely alien to him, and the conversation only deteriorated further after that, until his rudeness escalated to such a degree that I left without waiting for him to unlock the church.
I rang the rector as soon as I left, and in response to her final question, ‘is there anything more I can do to help you right now?’, I replied, ‘only make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else’. If my experience spares other people, maybe it will have been worth it.
I reassured myself that, statistically, if someone had told me I would encounter resistance in perhaps one in 100 churches, I would have taken that as a very good ratio. I have now visited just over 200, during which I have had one slightly unpleasant phone call and one very unpleasant meeting. Pretty good going, really. But I was glad this particular encounter hadn’t happened early on in my tour, or it might well have put me off continuing.
St Mary’s, Belstead
Outdoor temperature: 15.2˚C; indoor temperature: 14.4˚C, humidity: 64%
Whether Copdock will be reinstated in my list of churches to visit remains to be seen. Thankfully, as promised by the vicar, Barrie, a keyholder at Belstead just a few hundred metres down the road, was gentle and wonderful. I was interrupting his viewing of the royal wedding, and offered to go and collect the key to allow him to continue watching it, but he told me not to worry as he was recording it anyway and could watch it later.
I didn’t do Belstead justice. I don’t know why but it took me the best part of an hour even to stop crying, and I couldn’t appreciate it fully in such a state of distraction. It is ridiculous, really, but I had left home in such good spirits, and the experience was such a shock after all the wonderful meetings I had had over the past year, that I couldn’t quite believe what had happened.
Eventually I calmed down, however, with the assistance of cello playing and the features of the church. But looking at the photos now, I struggle even to recognise the interior. I know it was beautiful, though. Thankfully with photographs as a memory aid – though they are more useful for details than for an overview, distorting as they do the perspective so that churches inevitably look far larger and longer than they actually are – I can appreciate a second time the wonderful rood screen, the piscina and the wealth of graffiti: stars, crosses, double Vs (or Ws), daisy wheels, sundials, initials and what looked like writing – someone’s name perhaps – but I couldn’t make out the words.
Barrie was waiting for me in his car when I came out of the church. He was listening to the wedding on the radio. I thanked him profusely and went on my way. I have never been so grateful for friendly treatment by a stranger.
St Mary’s, Tattingstone
Indoor temperature: 15.2˚C, humidity: 64% Tattingstone seemed a friendly church, and not only because I could get inside. It was well cared for, and there was evidence of a lively community involving plenty of children. Nothing specific caught my attention, but I was more than happy with an uneventful practice opportunity in a welcoming church, so I took out my cello and sat down with a great sense of relief.
I didn’t have much appetite for a third church visit, but since I would be passing Bentley on my way home I thought I might as well stop and check if it was open. As I approached, I became hopeful: there was a welcome sign on the driveway, and when I reached the church door I found another welcome sign with a – poem? prayer? I couldn’t even call it a ‘weird rhymy thing’ as I had described gravestone ‘poems’ to my friend Mark last summer (much to his amusement), as it didn’t rhyme. Suffice to say, the last ‘verse’ ran thus:
‘Let its doors be open and inviting to all who enter
there, and its walls resound with the praise and
worship of your people’.
I turned the door handle and pushed. It was locked.
I’m ashamed to confess that the frustrations of the morning got the better of me. I took out a pen and underlined the first five words, and put a question mark and exclamation mark above them. I discovered afterwards, by reading Simon Knott’s entry for Bentley, that I wasn’t the only one frustrated by the church’s contradictory messages, of which he and others found many more, and many worse, than I did.
In defence of my criminal inclinations, the sign was laminated and my pen was a roller ball. It would take only a damp tissue to remove my graffiti.
But my small act of defiance did me some good, and I got back in the car to return home sensing that my spirits and appetite for visiting churches would soon return.
Header photo: Belstead rood screen detail