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.
St Mary’s, Ickworth
Still enjoying the novelty of being within a day trip of each other following her move from south London to Hertford, I arranged to meet my friend Rachel at the National Trust’s Ickworth Park to play in the church there in the run-up to Christmas. There was an additional motive in this meeting: Rachel had recently confessed to me that she couldn’t bring herself to play the oboe in her local church, even though she’d been to sit there a few times and no one had ever come in. She felt it would be presumptuous, and that the oboe has the potential to offend more than the cello does. I tried to persuade her that if no one was there, there was no one to offend; and besides, if an instrument is played well, it never offends. More importantly, she would be doing the building a service by filling it with music. This wasn’t only my opinion, after having played in 437 Suffolk churches; it was also the opinion of most of the people I had spoken to along the way, whether religious, unreligious or anti-religious. But I couldn’t convince her with words alone, so I decided she needed breaking in gently, in Suffolk churches instead of Hertford ones. Perhaps after that, I thought, she might feel differently enough for me to accompany her to her local church with my cello.
St Mary’s, Rickinghall Superior
Unusually, I’d had some extended trouble trying to gain entry to Rickinghall Superior: it was kept locked, with a keyholder address given on the door. But with no postcode and no phone number, I was relying on the road name, which was to be found neither on my OS Explorer map nor on Google Maps. I had no luck acquiring help on this matter until I was contacted by a CCT Local Community Officer hoping to arrange a few concerts, and I managed to get Rickinghall Superior on the list. In the wake of the season’s concert cancellations, I asked if it might be possible to go alone instead. To my delight and surprise, I was informed that the church was now open on weekends, so after arranging a visit on the same afternoon to its neighbour, Rickinghall Inferior, I drove northwards on another bright day feeling satisfied at the prospect of being able to tick off the two remaining churches in the area.
The Suffolk Historic Churches Trust’s ‘Ride and Stride’ event on 12th September was going ahead, but my concert in Lowestoft remained cancelled, apparently due to having to leave the church locked for 72 hours before the Sunday service. I have since learnt that the fundraising total for the SHCT event far outstripped last year’s: perhaps more people than usual were desperate to get out on their bikes, and awareness of the increased financial pressure on village churches in 2020 was widespread.
Buoyed up by my concert in Trimley St Mary, I decided to make the most of open churches – as I did with Aspall in 2019 – making successful contact with several in the area around Clare where I had a few left to visit. Not expecting to fit in more than two or three before I had to get back home for the arrival of B&B guests, I set off on a sunny morning conducive to feelings of hopefulness. For the first time since March, I was managing a satisfying number of church visits. I thought it might be my last chance for a while: I was shortly going on holiday, and the virus restrictions were already starting to move upwards again.
St Mary’s, Poslingford
I received a warm welcome in Poslingford from one of the churchwardens who met me on the road as I tried to park in a tight space in my usual clumsy fashion. But there was no one manning the church and I was glad to have it to myself for a while. I didn’t expect this to last, but it wasn’t until I was packing up that another churchwarden arrived with a camera, followed by Don, with whom I’d been in contact, and Jean, his wife, clutching takeaway coffees from goodness knows where – Clare, most likely. They seemed to be settling for a little concert and so I duly took out my cello again and played them my favourite Irish air.
St Mary’s, Trimley St Mary
My planned July concert at Trimley St Mary church – now the Two Sisters Arts Centre – was moved to September, with a limited live audience and a larger virtual one. I changed the programme and my co-conspirators: Rachel and Steve would join me on oboe and bassoon respectively. It needed to be easy to arrange and relatively pressure-free for all of us, and, most importantly, I wanted to be in the company of good friends. I needed to rediscover the joy of practising, rehearsing and performing even in the context of arm troubles and my accompanist’s, James’, absence.
After my visits to Depden and Westley, and contacting a few other churches with the result of having several potential audiences waiting for me, I decided to leave it a while. Although I was desperate to visit churches again, I simply wasn’t ready for an audience. Both because I was out of practice, and because I was feeling too emotional to be sociable or ‘perform’. I just wanted to be alone.
After a few weeks, however, I decided to try a change of tack. Instead of getting in touch with churches where I already had a contact, either because I’d tried to visit before or because I’d been due to give a concert there this summer, I would try churches with which I’d had no previous communications. My reasoning was that if they didn’t know who I was, perhaps they would be less interested in hearing me play.
I targeted a group of three churches in east Suffolk that I had attempted to visit before: finding out that Bruisyard church, memorable for my churchyard playing in February 2019, was once again open every day, I was overjoyed. Carlton would have to be opened for me, but that was alright: I was confident I should have Bruisyard to myself first. Saxmundham was open for prayer from 2 to 4pm on the day I wished to visit, so that, too, was easier. Until the churchwarden emailed back to ask what time I planned to come as he wanted to listen.
There was another benefit to staying away an extra night: I was on the cusp of reaching 300 churches, which I had arranged with myself I would achieve by 11th April, the second anniversary of the start of my church tour. Having an extra day to visit churches now, a week earlier, meant I might reach the milestone sooner. There was no rush, of course, but I was excited about the prospect. I was on 296 and wasn’t completely sure I would manage 4 churches that day, but I would try. If I was successful, I would also have covered nearly all the churches on the Felixstowe peninsula; at least, all the villages, if not the town itself and its suburbs.
Here are some cello concerts coming up! Please visit crosswaysfarm.co.uk/suffolk-churches-events/ for the complete list!
Tuesday 16th April, 12.30pm. St Mary’s Church, Walsham-le-Willows.
Cello recital with James Recknell (piano). Free entry; refreshments provided.
JS Bach: Viola da gamba Sonata no. 1 in G major
Beethoven: Variations on a duet from the Magic Flute
Debussy: Cello sonata in D minor
Martinu: Slovak Variations
Sunday 19th May, 3pm. St Mary’s Church, Thornham Parva.
Cello concert in memory of Mandy Summers. Yalda & Sheida Davis (cello). Free entry; refreshments provided.
JS Bach: Cello suite no. 3 in C major (played by Yalda)
Jean Barriere: Sonata for two cellos
Julius Klengel: Suite for two cellos in D minor
Isaac Albeniz: Sevilla