St Matthew’s, Ipswich
With the help of an unassuming little one-way street my satnav wasn’t aware of, a roundabout and some road works, one third of my journey time was consumed by the last hundred metres of travel. So I arrived at the church somewhat flustered, and was met by a suspicious man at the door wanting to know what I was doing there. I hadn’t been told to pick up a key at the church office – at least, I didn’t think I had – but clearly this person wasn’t expecting me, and was concerned about locking the church on his departure.
I offered to ring the office, and Tami, my contact, kindly came over with a key. But then a further problem arose: the man, who turned out to be the gardener, wanted to lock me inside the church. I wasn’t too thrilled by the prospect, even though I was now in possession of a key. It wasn’t that it made much practical difference: my objection – horror, even – was due to the motivation behind such a suggestion, rather than the reality of being locked in.
St Margaret’s, Rishangles
Not long before Covid hit, I’d written to six owners of private churches in Suffolk to ask if I might come along and play to them in their houses. As with the ruins at Flixton, what had once seemed impossible now no longer did. Why rule out churches just because they were in private ownership? Of the 8 redundant churches sold off (most of them in the 1970s, some already ruined), 6 were converted into houses (Rishangles, Knettishall, Ubbeston, Shipmeadow, Debach, and – sometime after the millenium – Stratford St Andrew); 1 was converted into something resembling a house but still used as a church of some description (Mickfield); and 1 remained a church (Benacre).
All Saints’, Sproughton
I rang the churchwarden at Sproughton with some trepidation: even so near the end of my church tour, I still found it hard to phone churchwardens or vicars out of the blue. But my additional hesitation came from the fact this church was in the same benefice as Copdock – the one and only church I’d walked away from without waiting for it to be unlocked, so hostile was the keyholder. I knew the person in question wasn’t a churchwarden so I would be unlikely to have any further contact with him, and besides, Sproughton wasn’t Copdock; but the latter’s proximity rubbed off on its theoretical existence in my mind. So my delight and gratitude were excessive when my request was received enthusiastically by Philip, despite the fact he lived in Ipswich and would have to drive some way to the church.
St Margaret’s, Herringfleet
Herringfleet was the only church on the Broads that I had yet to visit, as it was under scaffolding and full of builders the last time I was in the area. I’d arranged with the vicar that it would be left open for me, so I walked confidently up to the door at noon, only to find it locked.
St Margaret’s, Lowestoft
I’d arranged a full weekend of church visits in and around Lowestoft, with the result that I was giving at least two concerts, if not more, in two days. I’d slightly lost track of which ones were concerts and which weren’t. I took pains to stress they would be very informal: I was out of solo performance practice and my stamina wasn’t up to a full recital. But I knew that if there were more than a handful of people attending, they would feel like concerts anyway.
St Peter’s by the Waterfront, Ipswich
By some miracle, I managed to find a parking spot without too much difficulty. The fact it was limited to 3 hours made the afternoon’s logistics a bit more complicated, however: I would have to move my car before going on to my next church, St Helen’s. Walking over the bridge to St Peter’s, I suddenly felt daunted by the prospect of visiting four churches in a day, and wondered how my stamina would hold out. Not my cello-playing stamina so much as my bodily stamina: I was, as usual, feeling unwell in multiple ways, and it had been a while since I’d visited so many churches in a day. And this was Ipswich, not the countryside – with accompanying navigation, car-parking and cello-carrying difficulties.
I forgot my worries as soon as I entered the church – another big, empty, beautiful space, this one used as an Arts and Heritage Centre. Two men were sitting along one wall, one reading a book and the other reading a newspaper. I enquired of Andrew, the manager, if they knew I was going to play. He replied in the affirmative, explaining they were volunteers. They didn’t say hello or even look up. Feeling a little awkward, I got on with setting up and playing, my awkwardness vanishing quickly in that delightful acoustic. A few people came and went, admiring – as I did afterwards – the remarkable and rare Tournai marble font, the Ipswich Charter hangings (framed fabric depictions of Ipswich’s history), and the Saxon coffin on display at the back of the nave.
St Mary’s, Willisham
It was an idyllic morning when I arrived at Willisham church to play at a Sunday service (though clouded over by the time I took this photo!). It was finally time to meet the cello-playing vicar I’d heard rumours of three years previously, made even more intriguing by the fact his cello – our email correspondence revealed – was made by Joseph Hill senior, the father of the maker of my own cello.
The extent of my acquaintance with the church was that I’d walked past it once, nearly a decade ago, but found it locked. It is essentially a Victorian church, but such are its charms and setting that I was glad to have arrived early to enjoy the view across the valley (see header photo) and its beautiful acoustic for a few minutes before anyone arrived. Playing alone in a church never loses its magic, no matter how often I do it, and no matter how glad I am to share music with others – particularly at a time when singing is not allowed, and so little live music has been enjoyed.
The photographic aspect of this blog is proving a problem in keeping up with my church accounts as it is so time consuming – so I will reduce the number included from now on (only slightly in this post), until I have finished the remaining churches. Then I will gradually add in the rest!
Wangford St Denys
I’d expected Wangford to be one of two possibly insuperable obstacles in my path to playing all of Suffolk’s medieval churches: it is not used by the Church of England, but leased to an American Baptist church, and the curate at Brandon church gave the impression I’d be hard-pressed even to make contact – he himself could give me no information about it. I could find nothing but a postal address when I searched online, and nothing about the church on the RAF Lakenheath website, to whom I assumed the church had been leased.
All was not lost, however, thanks to some photos of the church posted online. Outside the church was a sign saying New Beginnings International and listing services times and the name of Pastor Jake Jacobs. This church, I discovered, had a Facebook page, with email address and phone number. Phoning out of the blue was a little beyond my courage limits, so I sent an email, not very hopeful of a response. But, to my astonishment, the following day I received a friendly and encouraging reply from Bishop Jake Jacobs, and a day after that I was making my way to Wangford.
St Andrew’s, Melton
This church visit, my first of 2021, was as special as the occasion demanded. On the last day of March we were blessed with sun and warmth, spring blossom and birdsong. I was expecting a little audience – which might have been worrying given the many months that had passed since I last played in public – but having started practising for a concert with my friend Rachel, I felt comfortable with the prospect, especially as I knew how long it had been since anyone heard live music. The audience would be at a distance, anyway: I’d be in the church, and they’d be outside the open tower door.
It’s a little confusing that both the churches in Melton are dedicated to St Andrew; but the medieval one outside the village is usually referred to as Melton Old Church. St Andrew’s, in the village, is Victorian, built when the village migrated towards the railway. But since the medieval font from the old church was also moved here – not just any old medieval font, but one of Suffolk’s 13 Seven Sacrament fonts – I feel obliged to pay it a visit before the end of my church tour.