Suffolk churches: Introduction (March 2017)

My earliest memories of Suffolk churches are from visiting them with my father. I’m sure we went by car when I was little, but as I got older we would go on bike rides punctuated by village churches. My mother had forgotten how to ride a bike, and no doubt she had good reason to keep it that way in order to maintain her most convincing excuse for a peaceful afternoon without the children.

Sorting through floor-to-ceiling bookshelves after my father died, I found a large number of church guides from around the county. Many of them I had no memory of visiting with him, and perhaps I never did: the guides could easily have predated my birth, or my joining of his expeditions with my three older brothers. Just as likely, though, we may have visited some of them when I was too small to remember.

My musical acquaintance with Suffolk churches began a little later. I performed at my first Suffolk church concert at the age of 13 in Wattisham, an adjacent village to Hitcham. I played the Schubert string quintet with all but one of my siblings, an expansive and heartbreakingly beautiful work that my dad always hoped we’d play together one day, given we had the right combination of instruments: two violins, one viola and two cellos. It was an early evening fundraising concert around the winter solstice – in hindsight, quite a feat for the organisers and players alike, considering the church’s lack of heating and electricity. But the tiny church was full, and the evening a success. It was my first unforgettable musical performance. Amazingly, I have met more than one person locally in the last few years who recognised me or my name and told me that they were ‘at the Wattisham concert’.

From the age of 14 I started to play in Kettlebaston, another neighbouring village, often with my sister: every August bank holiday weekend there was a music festival in the church. I only played there in my teens, however, and after I left school there was a long pause in my musical connection with Suffolk churches, until I moved to Suffolk in 2011 and gradually started to become involved in the local music scene, beginning with the final Kettlebaston music festival in 2012.


Sometime on my recent excursions around Suffolk, when I have stopped at churches in nearly every village I have passed and never failed to be astounded by their uniqueness and beauty, I started to think about whether it might be possible to visit all of them, as a way of getting to know Suffolk better and discovering hidden places and beautiful buildings I would not otherwise find. Then, lying in bed unable to sleep the night after playing the cello at a friend’s funeral in St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds, I remembered that he, Jeremy, and Sam, his seventeen-year-old son, often took part in the annual Suffolk Historic Churches Trust bike ride. The idea entered my head that I might go a step further: rather than just visiting, I could aim to play the cello in all the historic churches of Suffolk. This would add an another dimension to the visits, and create a more personal, more memorable relationship with each church.

It was a coming together of many strands of interest – Suffolk and its countryside, history and architecture; music, and, as I intended, writing. But the underlying and less rational reason was a vague sense that it might be a form of cathartic ritual, pilgrimage even, in honour of two people dead and gone – a fact with which I still battle daily. Both were attached to Suffolk and its churches, and I was, and still am, attached to them. That my project would possibly take a long time to complete was appropriate: death takes a long time to accept, if acceptance is even attainable.

Hitcham church
Hitcham church in May

I soon realised, however, it was not just two people I would be remembering, but five: both of my parents, buried in Hitcham churchyard; Doris and Jack, former next door neighbours and unofficially adopted grandparents, whose memorial stone is not 20 metres from my parents’ grave; and Jeremy, buried in Brettenham churchyard, about the same distance from my house as Hitcham churchyard. Doris was a dedicated church goer; Jack, a staunch atheist, but both were as Suffolk as Suffolk could be. My mother is the person I would least associate, in spirit, with Suffolk or its churches, and yet she arranged with my father that they would both be buried in Hitcham churchyard. Perhaps her attachment was greater than I could understand. And in any case I certainly have her perseverance and patience to thank for my being able to enjoy playing the cello today.

But still I had no idea how many medieval churches there are in the county. I might perhaps have guessed 150 or 200. Little did I know that Suffolk has one of the densest populations of medieval churches in England…

I expected to find a number easily by searching online. The first number I found was 703, on the Suffolk churches website, which left me incredulous and on the point of immediately abandoning the idea. But, realising quickly that this included all churches, modern as well as old, I resumed my search. Putting a precise figure on it turned out to be much more difficult than I had anticipated. I found various impressive statistics, approximations and estimates: ‘approximately 500’, ‘Norfolk and Suffolk contain 1 in 8 of all medieval churches in England’, and so on. Failing to find what I was looking for, I moved on to various lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at calculation. It was not until I finally thought to mention my plan and this problem to Sam that he took down several books on Suffolk churches from his bookshelf, and I quickly found a figure of 505 ‘churches of medieval foundation’1.

Still it seemed far too many to contemplate. If I played the flute, that would be one thing. It wouldn’t be difficult to take the instrument along with me on any excursions, and I could even cycle if I wanted to. But a cello restricts nearly all other activities as it cannot be packed in a bag, nor left in a car, nor taken on a bike. Nor is it very discreet, should stealth be required on any occasion. Not that I expected this to be necessary, since I only planned to play if a church was empty, but neither was I planning to ask anyone’s permission and so feeling inconspicuous would have been preferable. I would have to go out for the day with the sole intention of playing the cello in churches – no walks, no dawdling, unless I was visiting an area where a friend happened to live and would allow me to leave my cello for a few hours, or if I went to stay in a far corner of Suffolk for a few days on holiday. So, I went back to my reasons for considering such a project to try and decide if it was worth the inconvenience, whether I should forget the idea, or whether I should reduce the number of churches by some rational or random exclusion criteria.

This exercise clarified for me that I could safely reduce the number of churches by excluding, for now at least, town and city churches – 46 in total2 – as I do not feel the need to acquaint myself with car parks in Ipswich, Lowestoft or any other such places with a cello in tow. Their churches might also be more event-full and more frequented by visitors, and since my plan for most churches would be to turn up without an appointment and hope that the church would be both empty and open, or with a key in reach, this could quickly become restrictive and frustrating. It is the villages and the hidden churches that interest me most, but I could add in some of the smaller towns such as Framlingham and Eye if I wanted to, or if I was passing their churches on the way to somewhere else.

I also felt I could exclude those churches I had already played in: a total of 153, if my memory serves me correctly. This seems pitifully few considering the number of concerts I have given in Suffolk, and the huge quantity of churches remaining. And for the purposes of my list, it only reduces the number by 13, as 2 are churches in Bury St Edmunds. A further 8 churches are inaccessible due to having been converted into private residences4, and one is still a church but is privately owned (also, sadly, inaccessible)5. Flixton and Linstead Magna are ruined and now barely recognisable sites in the middle of a field, which, at least for now, I will not attempt to locate. Westley and Braiseworth are Victorian churches rebuilt on new sites, so I have decided instead to visit the ruins of the old churches. And, finally, 5 churches that used to be in Suffolk are now in Norfolk: the border was moved south in 19746.

The number remaining is 430. No doubt there are inaccuracies in these calculations which will have to be corrected along the way (any amendments will be made to this page), but this is still a phenomenal number of churches. They will take years rather than months to visit; longer because of the cello. I have decided against a monthly target as I am notoriously bad (in my own mind) at achieving inflexible goals that I set for myself, and I am wary of creating an extra burden instead of a joy. But I have also decided against trying to reduce the number further: I want to find all the obscure corners of Suffolk, and any further exclusion criteria might cause me to miss something I don’t want to miss.

I am still hesitant but have decided to begin and see what happens. I hope that, rather than being a burden, it will become a joyful experience, and at the very least contribute to my love for Suffolk and give me an extra excuse to visit friends and acquaintances in far corners of the county. Perhaps it may also lead to some shared music making, future concerts, interesting conversations and new friendships…

Update 11/1/2020
I am now not far off reaching 400 churches, and I long ago decided that I would reinstate all the churches I left out at my first calculation: I am no longer daunted by the number; rather, I am reluctant for my project to come to an end. I am writing to the owners of the converted churches in the hope that they might like a few minutes of cello music in their living room; but if they don’t, I will have to leave them out. I may also fail to locate the hidden ruins of Flixton and Linstead Magna. All other ruins that are accessible to the public I will visit with my cello and play outdoors in clement weather, and those that aren’t, I will attempt to obtain permission to visit. Hengrave continues to prove troublesome. The revised total comes to somewhere between 489 and 500 churches.

1. Cautley, H. M., 1982. Suffolk Churches (5th edition).

2. As defined by the Wikipedia list of Suffolk town parishes, and the definition of the number of medieval churches included within those parishes: Ipswich (13 churches), Bury (2 churches), Newmarket, Mildenhall, Brandon, Sudbury (3 churches), Haverhill, Stowmarket, Needham Market, Hadleigh, Felixstowe, Woodbridge, Aldeburgh, Leiston, Lowestoft (7 churches), Beccles, Bungay (2 churches), Framlingham, Saxmundham, Orford, Halesworth, Eye, Kesgrave, Southwold.

3. Hitcham, Kettlebaston, Wattisham, Chelsworth, Preston St Mary, Lavenham, Long Melford, Woolpit, Rushmere St Andrew, Great Barton, Worlington, Fornham All Saints, St Mary’s Bury St Edmunds, St Edmundsbury Cathedral and St Mary’s Church, Ickworth. Sadly the beautiful little Liston church cannot be included in this list by virtue of sitting on the wrong side of the River Stour…

4. Debach, Benacre, Knettishall, Rishangles, Shipmeadow, Stratford St Andrew, Ubbeston.

5. Hengrave.

6. Belton, Bradwell, Fritton, Gorleston and Hopton.

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