Since starting my churches tour, I had been longing to get back to Blythburgh church, my first ‘floor church’. I had failed to see the angels on the roof the first time I visited, and now I was curious about them. But, more importantly, although I suspected Blythburgh possessed the best floor of all, I couldn’t remember exactly what it looked like. I had searched online, thinking that someone, anyone, must have noticed the floor as well as the roof, and put up some photos. But no, it seemed I was the only church floor addict. I found a few references to Blythburgh’s ‘brick floor’, but I knew the description was neglectful: it was like calling one of the insane, ancient oaks in Staverton Thicks ‘a tree’. I found a small part of the floor just about accidentally included in a few photos of the church, but not enough to see it properly. These frustrating glimpses only increased my desperation to get back there.
So, on my next free day I set out for northeast Suffolk, with the intention of reaching Blythburgh in the afternoon, after stopping at other churches on the way. I was anxious to practise the cello, having managed very little the previous few days, and I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to practise in Blythburgh church, let alone get out my cello. I had chosen a cloudy, chilly Monday in the hope that it would be less favourable for tourism, but still, it was May, not January, and with the superlatives to be found on the Blythburgh page of the Suffolk Churches website1, I thought I would be lucky to have the building to myself even for five minutes.
St Mary’s, Dennington
Dennington was my first spontaneous stop. I had spotted a lovely-looking church at Saxtead earlier in the journey, set back from the road, but I noticed the church sign only as I was passing it. Another car was driving too close behind for me to stop or hesitate long enough to find somewhere turn, so I continued. Dennington church came soon after. In contrast to Saxstead, it was visible as I approached and there was plenty of space to park in front of the churchyard. Although I must have passed through the village scores of times, I barely remembered its name. I will never forget it again.
The church was large and impressive. The first curiosities I enjoyed were outside: first, an oak tree on the left side of the church as I faced it. It was an odd shape: its branches reached out a long way on one side, giving it a very unbalanced appearance. As I approached, however, I could see it was an illusion: most of the foliage to the right belonged to another tree behind the oak. No matter how many times I looked at the tree from the churchyard path, however, the illusion remained: it still looked like just one oddly-shaped tree.
The other curiosity was an architectural one: a mini hexagonal tower attached to a corner of the large one, and extending up further than the main tower. Reading about it afterwards, I found out that it gives access to the bells, presumably via a staircase. How I would love to climb up it…
The interior of the church felt even bigger and more impressive, and had an echo like no other church I had played in so far. Despite its dark wood and boxed-in pews, it still managed to feel relatively light, and also possessed pleasing areas of old floor.
Knowing what I do now about Dennington church, I feel more like a philistine than ever. I did not go to visit any of the countless outstanding historical and artistic features I have since read about – I noticed only a few, and did not realise their historical significance. I’m ashamed to admit that the statement, ‘if you have not come to see x, then you have certainly come to see y’, did not apply to me. Now that I know about the carved bench ends (including a giraffe and England’s only medieval tortoise!), ‘Suffolk’s best green man’, 15th century alabaster memorials, the parclose and rood screens and lofts2 (a foreign language to me)… I will have to go back to see just what I missed.
St Peter’s, Sibton
Sibton church was my next stop, also unplanned. I knew Sibton only for its abbey ruins, in the middle of a field visible from the road. I have always wanted to visit these ruins, but no public footpath approaches them. So, unless I can find out who owns the land and ask permission, I will have to keep to admiring them from afar. The church was only a little further along the road. It was a lovely little church, with the pews cleared to one side, suggesting it was perhaps in regular use as an event venue. It was light and clean, and the lack of soft furnishings endeared it to me further. It was not quite as boomy as I expected for all its hard surfaces. I have much still to learn about acoustics: there must be infinite variables involved. One person told me square spaces have bad acoustics, so perhaps long, thin churches sound better than those with side aisles. But this has not always been the case in my thirty-odd church visits so far. Another musician friend told me that acoustics are a bit of a black art, and that you could build two identical concert halls and they would sound different. It is a fascinating subject.
When I was satisfied with the amount of cello practice I had done in the two churches, I packed up and went outside to explore the churchyard before leaving for Blythburgh. Sibton churchyard is managed as a wildlife sanctuary, as are many others, but this one felt special. The sun had broken through the clouds by now, and the paths cut through the high grass and cow parsley, weaving around the church and under pine trees, brought to mind one of Roger Deakin’s wonderful descriptions of the ‘billowing fizz of cow-parsley [sic] in full flower’3.
Holy Trinity, Blythburgh
My excitement gradually built up as I drove north along the A12 from Yoxford, thankfully a rural and relatively pleasant part of this main road. A good mile before reaching Blythburgh I spotted the church, a magnificent beacon in the landscape. The cloudy, chilly morning had turned into a sunny afternoon, and I couldn’t believe my luck when found the church empty on arrival. I did notice a couple of people examining the outside of the building, but I though it was likely they would have looked inside first; in any case they were taking their time. Careless of whether I was using up my precious minutes alone in the church, I had to examine every part of the floor: it was even better than I remembered. It deserves a whole photo gallery to itself and I have decided to give it one, to balance out the angels’ unfair hogging of the limelight.
I willingly admit, however, that the angels merit the attention they get – just not to the complete exclusion of the floor. I had expected the angel wonder to be in the wood carvings alone, but the intricacy of the painting of the whole roof as well as the angels is quite a sight to behold (see header photo). I was lacking binoculars, again, but a photographic close-up showed me the thoroughly different, though equal, beauty of the roof: a fitting symmetry.
One of the many outstanding things about Blythburgh church is how wonderfully light it is inside. Not only because it has many windows, but also because there is hardly any stained glass. I have recently started to reflect on a comment a priest friend of mine made just as I was starting my church touring: that she didn’t much like stained glass in churches. I was mildly surprised, as the most notable thing about her taste in interior décor, furnishings, art and crafts is their bold colours – ones I would never have the courage to choose but somehow she always manages to pull off. I’ll never forget the red, orange and blue kitchen walls in her Cambridge house which seemed entirely normal to me after no time at all. Part of my surprise was also simply that stained glass windows were something I’d never really thought about in that way: I just took it for granted that churches had them, as they have fonts or organs. Now, having visited quite a number of churches in a relatively short space of time, I have started to see that this is not the case, and it seems odd that I ever thought of stained glass in those terms. I have come to the conclusion that I agree with her. I have seen a few, usually subtle, designs that I like, as long as most of the windows are clear, but I cannot enjoy the light-depriving sort of stained glass, no matter how great its artistic value.
After satisfying my aesthetic greed, I went to fetch my cello. Before I had even finished setting up, the people who had been outside came in. I waited till they went up what I thought was the tower staircase but turned out to be the stairs to a lovely priest’s room, which I visited later. A lady then came to attend to the flowers, so I asked her if she minded if I played the cello for a few minutes. Permission granted, I got out my cello. I noticed while I was playing that some of the floor had sunk, and that I was facing an uphill slope, east to west. At first I thought it was an illusion, but after concluding it wasn’t, I realised there was nothing more natural than for a centuries-old floor to be anything but flat.
Within a few minutes another couple, and then another, came in. My courage had increased just enough by now to hold my discomfort at bay and carry on playing to the end of the movement before having to stop. I waited for a break in the stream of visitors. I managed one more go but again it was short-lived, so I decided to pack up and come back in the autumn or winter when my cello and I might have the opportunity to befriend the church in a more intimate and relaxed way.
Driving home via a cellist friend’s house to rehearse for a concert a couple of weeks later, my afternoon’s adventures were rounded off nicely by yet another visual feast. I passed through a pretty landscape near Halesworth that was entirely new to me: marshy wetlands, meadows with small herds of multi-coloured cattle, and hills all around. It extended for several miles. Consulting my map and the internet when I got home, I found the wetland areas run along the River Blyth, and that the land on either side is the country estate of Heveningham Hall, much of which has been ‘re-wilded’ according to a design (previously only partially implemented) by Capability Brown. Whatever the pros and cons of this project, or the motives behind it, there is no doubt that the view across the estate was vastly more appealing than arable farmland, and wildlife has also given it the thumbs up4. I will have to find plenty more excuses to go that way again – and to explore footpaths in the area, when I can leave my cello at home.
1. ‘It is the most beautiful church in Suffolk, a wonderful art object […] It remains one of the most significant medieval buildings in England. If you only visit one of Suffolk’s churches, then make it this one.’ http://www.suffolkchurches.co.uk/Blythburgh.htm
3. Deakin, R. 2006. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, p. 111.