St Andrew’s, Little Glemham
On a Sunday at the end of July I was due in Aldringham church, near Aldeburgh, for an afternoon concert. After carrying out my morning’s B&B duties, I found myself so tired that I went back to bed, worried that I wouldn’t manage the drive and the concert. I only expected to have a short lie-down. To my surprise, however, it was noon when I woke up, and I realised that instead of having all the time in the world to visit another church on the way to warm up, I’d be in a rush.
I glanced at the map before leaving home to check there were plenty of churches near Aldringham that wouldn’t require more than a minute’s detour; I didn’t plan anything further. So, when I saw a sign saying ‘Church Lane’ shortly after entering Little Glemham, I took it without hesitation, hoping that I would come across its namesake sooner rather than later, and find it open. I wouldn’t have time to go searching for a key or looking for another church.
Thankfully it obliged. In the roofed churchyard entrance gate, the floor was tiled in a manner that I hadn’t seen since my visit to Tintagel church in Cornwall the previous autumn: the tiles were made from vertically laid sheets of slate, creating a stripy effect. It seemed a very labour-intensive way to create a tile, though it made more sense in a place like Cornwall where slate is everywhere.
It was a pleasant church, once the lights were on: this was my first rainy church visit in two months or more, and it seemed very dark. On the north side of the nave was something very peculiar: a kind of chapel, with a statue at the back. It looked more like part of a museum or palace than part of a church, and it sat behind a railing, with no (dignified) way to access it without a key.
St Andrew’s, Aldringham
It was an odd contradiction, arriving at this little church with its straw-coloured churchyard in driving rain. I was glad to get inside, and to find that I wasn’t late after all. John, my accompanist, was concentrating on how to get his electric keyboard indoors without ruining it, and Will hadn’t arrived yet.
I had heard Aldringham was a lovely church, but I knew very little else about it. Its Victorian interior surprised me, but it felt welcoming and I could tell immediately it would be a rewarding place to give a concert. At the back of the church were raised pews. I’d never seen this before, and it didn’t occur to me that they were choir stalls, until I saw the choir sitting there afterwards for choral evensong.
The acoustic was a joy to play in, and despite a few anxiety-inducing moments over which I had no control, the concert – involving a mixture of cello duets, solos and trios – was a success. The church was almost full, and to my astonishment, I spotted in the audience someone who I hadn’t seen in years. She, Coriander, was at school with my sister, and had played the violin in the same orchestra that I did as a teenager. My sister and I had bumped into her in London about six years ago, but that was our only meeting in over twenty years. She hadn’t changed at all, and I couldn’t believe that the girl standing next to her – already taller than she was – was her 11-year-old daughter. Coriander was visiting her mother, who, it turned out, lived down the road at Kelsale.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the concert as much as I did, and afterwards mingled and chatted with tea and cake. I don’t know if it was just the first piece of Victoria sponge I’d eaten in a while, but in that moment I was sure it was the best I’d ever eaten. Expressing my admiration, I asked who made it. From the bashful mumblings I received in reply, it wasn’t hard to deduce that it was the lady I was speaking to.
I didn’t stay for choral evensong, as I had to get back home to shut in the chickens before dark, but there was just time to fit in another cup of tea at a friend’s house in Aldeburgh…
St Andrew’s, Sapiston
I had been asked by a musical acquaintance to play at her friend’s funeral a couple of days later. I hadn’t even heard of Sapiston – apparently pronounced Sapston – but my trusty fridge-door church map soon enlightened me. It wasn’t far from Bury St Edmunds, just north of the A143.
I discovered it was a remote church belonging to the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), located on the Euston estate. Despite the fact I was going to a funeral, these facts alone were enough for me to feel excited as I approached: I had high hopes of a glorious church setting and interior.
I entered through a magnificent Norman arch, to a simple, ancient-feeling and bright interior, such as I had almost come to expect of redundant churches. But looking around would have to wait until afterwards, when the church was empty.
I always wear black if I am playing at a funeral, if no one tells me otherwise. Somehow I always forget to ask. This time, unfortunately, I couldn’t have got it more wrong. I guessed the dress code must have been ‘flamboyant’. One man came in wearing a blue and white striped shirt, yellow spotted tie and yellow trousers. The next man donned a garish multi-coloured tie. I could barely believe what I was seeing, but I thoroughly approved: I have never liked the idea of wearing black at funerals. No matter how traumatic the death or the occasion, black seems to allow death to triumph over life. I would rather stand in solidarity with the colour and life of the person who has departed.
The funeral continued as it began. There was certainly more laughing than crying, as far as I could tell, despite the obvious pain. It was moving, though strange, being present at such a personal occasion. It was fascinating to hear a snapshot of stranger’s life, and I felt honoured to be able to contribute to her farewell. It couldn’t have been more different from my own parents’ understated send-off. But I couldn’t imagine surviving an occasion like this after their deaths, let alone singing (or playing) at it, as one of her daughters did. I’m not sure what I’d have done. Perhaps I’d have gone into hiding until it was over.
I played a song called Ashokan Farewell. I had suggested it as the only suitable solo piece I could think of – having been asked to play it at a previous funeral – that wasn’t from a Bach suite. It turned out to be more appropriate than I ever could have anticipated. Although it was written by an American, it was composed in the style of a Scottish lament, I read afterwards. What I also didn’t know until the funeral was underway, complete with tartan decorations and bagpipes, was that the lady was Scottish.
I stood next to the bagpipes player as the woven casket – the first I have seen – was carried out. At that moment I could think of little beyond the fact that I was being deafened, and wondering how anyone could play the bagpipes without wearing earplugs.
When everyone had left the church, I walked around. The Norman doorway arch, beautiful roof, wall paintings, consecration crosses, sundials and graffiti were all the kinds of features that I had come to expect of CCT churches, but I appreciated them no less for having anticipated them. That they had accompanied the farewell of a much-loved member of the community made them all the more special.
Total churches to the end of July: 213 + 3 chapels