St Peter’s, Great Livermere
Outdoor temperature: 12.1˚C; indoor temperature: 15˚C, humidity 68%
The day after returning from holiday, I attended the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust annual dinner. My neighbour at dinner was Tony, the rector of the Blackbourne Team, or Ministry, a description that I had hadn’t come across before. Looking it up afterwards, I found it was something larger than a benefice: it includes 8 parishes, of which 3 consist of more than one village. Perhaps the most surprising of the parishes was ‘Ingham with Ampton, Great Livermere and Little Livermere’. Ingham and Great Livermere both possess sizeable churches, and Ampton, though small, seems very much in use as a village church. Little Livermere, I discovered, is now a ruin.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to ask about the accessibility of some of these churches, I was informed that Great Livermere was open every day until the end of October. I thought Tony said that Ingham was open too, and the prospect of two open churches was certainly sufficient motivation to prompt an excursion the following week.
Having found Great Livermere locked the previous October, I approached without great excitement. The mere fact of my first encounter being with a locked door seems to colour my view of a church, and its village – although the appearance of a muntjac deer improved the experience greatly. But today was very different: it was a beautiful sunny morning, a ‘church open’ sign was standing outside the churchyard gate, and the thatched church looked inviting.
The interior was delightful. Spacious, simple and filled with light, I knew that the church and its acoustic would do their best to keep me there all morning. In fact, I would have stayed till lunchtime had I realised that I wouldn’t manage to get into Ingham, Ampton or Timworth. Afterwards it seemed a dreadful waste of time when I could have spent so much longer at Great Livermere. But such is the risk one runs when turning up at a church unannounced – or semi-unannounced, in the case of Ingham.
I practised for a blissful hour, accompanied by the sound of a cockerel outside, and my hands warmed up quickly when I started to play. My explorations afterwards encompassed wall paintings, a half-restored rood screen, graffiti and a memorial to MR James – of whom I am not sure I have heard, but he was apparently a famous ghost story writer.
My attempts to find another church to play in were frustrating, especially as I had expected Ingham to be open. I wasn’t in the mood for keyholder hunting. It was nearly one o’clock by the time I got to Timworth, and the prospect of lunch at a friend’s house finally won over my desire to visit another church. So I gave up, and headed for Bury St Edmunds.
St Mary’s, Bacton
Indoor temperature: 15.7˚C, humidity: 72%
I had attempted to visit Bacton church last autumn, and found a notice on the door stating that it was closed for painting restoration. I had gone inside briefly to speak to two churchwardens who informed me it would be open in time for Christmas, but it had taken me a full year to get round to visiting again.
This time, with the sun shining and the scaffolding and plastic sheeting gone, I felt its loveliness in a way I hadn’t the last time. It was light inside, with a beautiful hammerbeam roof, rood canopy, painted chancel roof and wall paintings. I had assumed the ‘painting restoration’ referred to wall paintings, but, having not seen them before, I wasn’t sure; I suppose wall painting restoration has to be subtle. The colours on the chancel roof and rood canopy, on the other hand, were bright and looked recently repainted. The font and a few bench ends near the back of the nave also attracted my attention.
I am not usually so keen on large churches – and it was large by village standards – but this one was out of the ordinary. As I tuned my cello, I prepared myself for a disappointing acoustic: normally tuning is enough to tell how a church will sound. But on this occasion I was wrong. When I started to play, I heard the sound carry far better than I expected. I also didn’t feel cold, perhaps an indication that I am getting used to these temperatures at home: until there is ice in the air, I only keep the kitchen warm – unless I have B&B guests, of course.
The surroundings and conditions were such that I would have had no difficulty settling down for some serious practice, were it not for some other discomforts: first, I needed the loo, and second, I had been feeling a bit run down and dizzy all morning, which meant the fact I had forgotten to take lunch with me was more problematic than usual. Bacton church was generous in its provisions of both toilet and Murray Mints. I don’t quite understand the reasoning behind sweets being an aid to prayer, but they were certainly an aid to cello practice: the intake of a little sugar made me feel much better. I hope that my offerings to the church in return – both musical and monetary – were an adequate expression of my gratitude.
Botesdale Chapel of Ease
After buying lunch in the Bacton village shop, I headed northwards into a slow and frustrating search for another church to play in. Arriving at Rickinghall Superior church, I was pleased to discover it was a Churches Conservation Trust church, thinking I would almost certainly find it open. But it wasn’t, and the instructions to find keyholders – on Candle Lane, ‘a short walk away’ – were near useless, as I had no idea where Candle Lane was and neither my map, the internet, nor any nearby road signs enlightened me. So I left, a little reassured by the knowledge that there was another church in Botesdale village just across the main road.
I thought it was Botesdale church, but soon discovered my mistake: it was in fact Rickinghall Inferior (or Lower). This, too, was locked, and with the rector as the only listed keyholder I had little hope of getting in even before I heard his phone greeting explaining that he was on holiday. A churchwarden’s number was given for emergencies, and I decided to phone him, despite feeling a little guilty. He was friendly, and sounded surprised that the rector was the only keyholder listed, but he couldn’t help me with opening the church on this occasion, as he lived in another village and about to go out to work. Eventually I managed to find out from him that it was open two Saturdays a month during winter, and said I would return on a day it was open.
I was out of ideas for another church to try, until, wondering where Botesdale church could be, I scoured my map and found a sign for a towerless church, which prompted me to look it up online: I am rather glad I have a smartphone now. It wasn’t a church any more, but it was medieval, so I decided it should definitely be included in my list.
Botesdale surprised me by its size. It was an attractive village with a few shops, and reminded me of Walsham le Willows, only larger (and without a tea room, as far as I could tell). Towards the far end of the high street, heading uphill, I found Botesdale chapel to my right, attached to a house. There was a light on outside the door – though not exactly necessary in daylight, it made me hopeful I might find it open. But no. I was on the brink of getting irritated, but immediately reached a keyholder on the phone, who told me he lived just around the corner. I went to fetch it with a spring in my step, happy that my perseverance was finally paying off after ‘wasting’ nearly an hour of the afternoon.
His wife, I assumed, opened the door and accompanied me to the chapel, where she tried to solve the problem of the outdoor light, without success. She was friendly and chatted about the chapel’s history. It had been turned into a school at some point in its long life, and that was when a house had been built onto the end of it. Now it was a chapel again. She seemed happy that I wanted to play the cello, told me about concerts that were sometimes given there, and left me with the key and instructions for locking up.
It was a pleasant and attractive building. The clouded glass windows were the only aspect of it that caused me some discomfort. Perhaps they are intended to reduce distractions from outside, but in most cases they make me feel more claustrophobic than stained glass. Coupled with the fact the sun had gone in, the chapel was rather dark, but the acoustic was good. I was glad to have made my acquaintance with Botesdale village, and grateful that my second visit of the day had been made so easy.
Header photo: Bacton church clerestory