St Mary’s, Langham
Outdoor temperature: 19.4˚C; indoor temperature: 18.9˚C, humidity: 62%
I knew that Langham church was in the middle of a field, and I was fairly sure it was kept locked. I had wanted to visit for a while, but was putting off the inconvenience of trying to get in. Finally the perfect opportunity arose: I had an evening concert in Wattisfield church on the day of the Suffolk Historic Churches bike ride. I emailed the vicar to ask if it was acceptable for me to turn up at Langham with my cello (not realising he was the same vicar I’d meet later in the day at Wattisfield), and, given the go ahead, turned up at the field gate later than I intended but still with twenty minutes before ‘closing time’ at 5pm. The people at the gate knew to expect me and directed me across the fields, kindly allowing me to take my car.
The track across the field petered out after about 100 metres; after that it was just me and the sheep. They were completely unconcerned by the moving car, and several times I had to stop for a sheep to finish a particularly tasty mouthful of grass before it deigned to move out of the way. I’d far rather have been on foot, but it couldn’t be helped; I’d been warned someone would be along to lock up at 5pm, and I would only just have arrived at the church by then if I’d walked from the gate.
Approaching the church gate was as special as I had hoped. It was small, towerless and had a lovely wooden porch. I had been prepared for an audience, but perhaps I was too late in the day for visitors. I didn’t mind having the church to myself, partly because it meant I could warm up as I wished for the evening’s concert, rather than play to an audience, but mainly because the church had an atmosphere that I was glad to enjoy alone. It reminded me of Little Wenham church in its spaciousness, simplicity and ancient feel.
I looked around for a chair, and the only one I found was of a heavy church variety with arms. But I had perfected the art of perching on the edge of such chairs. It was in the vestry – there was no door separating it from the chancel – and in the corner was an ancient stove with a tortoise on the top and ‘slow but sure combustion’ around it. I wondered how old it was and when it had last been used.
No one came to lock up at 5 o’clock, so I gave in to the seduction of the church and acoustic and stayed a while longer. Of course I therefore arrived at Wattisfield church later than I said I would; and John, my accompanist, typically arrived earlier than I’d suggested, so we both arrived at the same time instead of half an hour apart – an outcome that rather amused me, as being quite representative of our habits. Bad habits, in my case.
The concert was, as ever, a joyful occasion, and the church was filled with beaming faces. I learnt that Wattisfield church had only ‘reopened’ last November, so my first visit in April was timely. It astounds me what villages can achieve in less than a year.
St John’s, Stanton
Outdoor temperature: 19.3˚C, humidity 46%
A few days later, I had an appointment at the tearoom in Walsham le Willows with the organiser of the Wattisfield concert. Somehow we had got onto the subject of local tearooms – via the handmade mug of tea she presented me with before the concert – and I expressed my surprise that I hadn’t heard of the one in Walsham. It only opened a year ago, it turned out, and I am poorly acquainted with Walsham le Willows, so I forgave myself my ignorance on this occasion.
Of course my appointment also required a visit to Walsham church, but I wanted to visit at least one more. I remembered the church ruin in Stanton nearby, and I had a sudden desire to play outdoors, even though the warmest part of the summer was over. Still, it was sunny and warm, though breezy, and I decided it was perfectly reasonable to attempt it, and especially as it might be my last opportunity this year.
I had forgotten Stanton St John was a Churches Conservation Trust church. If I had remembered, I probably would have realised that it wouldn’t be entirely a ruin, as I’m sure it wouldn’t be left in in any danger of collapsing whilst the general public were allowed to visit. What I found was a well-kept churchyard, clearly still in regular use, and a church partially hidden from view behind shrubs and trees in the background. A council van was in the car park with two occupants taking a break from mowing the grass around the graves. They probably wondered what on earth I was doing, approaching a ruined church carrying a large musical instrument, music stand and fold-up chair.
St John’s was, in essence, an intact church missing only its roof and boasting a luminous green carpet. The only odd thing about it was that there was no access from the tower to the nave. There was a small door to one side, but without a tower arch it looked wrong, a bit like a house without windows.
I found some floor memorials at the east end of the nave on which to set up my chair, to avoid a wobbling chair or sinking into the grass. I was surprised to find that the church did possess an acoustic of sorts, reminding me that it is not the roof alone that serves this purpose. It wasn’t exactly resonant, but it was certainly easier than playing in my garden.
As I walked back through the churchyard, the council van occupants got out and started strimming. I was mighty glad I’d caught them in their lunchbreak.
A gravestone caught my attention, and my heart: a three-week-old baby. I wondered what could have happened to him. And I wondered how his parents were living with his loss today, thirty-two years later.
St Mary’s, Walsham le Willows
Indoor temperature: 18.7˚C, humidity 60%
This was my second attempted visit to Walsham, and having seen its exterior, I worried I might not like it. This impression was simply based on its size, which led to my suspicion that it might be heavily victorianised, and lacking in the acoustics department.
I needn’t have worried. Though it had obviously been well restored, the overall impression was not of an urban Victorian church, but a large village church with many surviving medieval features, and plenty of light in which to enjoy them. The most obvious, on entering, was the roof. Its design was unusual, with alternating hammerbeams and tie beams, but it was unmistakably the church’s original, breathtaking roof. Returning to mortals’ level, I thought the font particularly lovely, and as I walked up to the chancel, the rood screen came into view.
I set up to play in front of the screen, intent on a good hour’s practice here, buoyed up by my surpassed expectations of my surroundings. The church had one further surprise for me, which was the acoustic. It was not that of a small church, but it was resonant enough to encourage me to keep practising, but without making life too easy. It was just what I needed.
I was reluctant to stop, once I had started, and, leaving myself only ten minutes for a church tour and photographs, I found that after examining all the interesting details in the church, I had run out of time to look around outside. But I was only going down the road to the tea room and could come back afterwards for that purpose. The interior was too fascinating to rush. At the bottom of the rood screen, I found delightful little carvings of faces: my favourite was the fox. Then I had to examine every single column for graffiti, having spotted a daisy wheel on my way up to the chancel; but I found only a few more faint daisy wheels, and a set of initials.
Returning later in the afternoon to walk round the churchyard, I met a man in what looked like beach shorts examining the churchyard gate. I assumed he was there to mend it – despite his curiously un-builder-like attire – and I continued on my way after greeting him.
The exterior of the church was undoubtedly impressive, particularly the clerestory, and I stood a while gazing at it. The feature I wasn’t so sure about was the porch. I am not keen on black and white chequered designs, and suspected the Victorians’ hand in it. But in this instance they were innocent. Apparently, though I overlooked it, the porch is dated 1541.
The man at the gate came over to me while I was looking at the church, and I soon discovered that he wasn’t a gate mender, but simply interested its construction and functionality. He had also come to admire the church. I was pleased to meet another eccentric, and I could tell as soon as he started to speak that he was local. The conversation somehow turned to Hengrave church, and he was indignant that they wouldn’t allow me access to play my cello there. I was amused that the people I had mentioned it to so far were more outraged than I was, and it reinforced my motivation to find a way round the problem by guile or charm…
Header photo: Walsham le Willows churchyard