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
Instead of going in search of sunshine this February, I decided in favour of a four-night church-visiting and writing break. I am having no trouble tolerating winter this year; in fact, I am thoroughly enjoying it, so there is no need to escape. I wasn’t really in need of an escape from home, either, but I have learnt to recognise the benefits of a prophylactic holiday: life tends to get very busy from March onwards, with few convenient opportunities after that to take a break until the autumn. For me, now, holidays usually just mean a change of scene and making the time for the important activities that tend to get squeezed when I am busy: church visiting, cello practice, thinking, writing, walking and seeing friends further from home.
I left home at 2pm: later than I intended. It was such a glorious day that, aside from my usual slowness in getting myself and the animals ready, I had to go for a walk before getting into the car. It was a cold, frosty day but the sunshine was warm and bright. I examined my church map and decided to try a couple of churches near the A143 east of Diss: just off my route to Metfield, where I was staying the first night. I couldn’t remember if this was an area with mostly locked churches or mostly open ones, but there were a number of churches along this stretch that I hadn’t yet visited, so I wouldn’t run out of choices.
All Saints’, Blyford
Indoor temperature: 8.7˚C; humidity: 78%
From Holton I continued along the road to Blyford: all of the churches were very close together in this area, and it felt good not to have to drive more than than 15 minutes from Westleton all day. I found the church opposite a pub – as it should be, I always think – on a little green at a junction with the main road. It must have been a main road (by rural standards at least) as it was signposted in one direction to Halesworth, and in the other, to Blythburgh. But I was very aware that my unfamiliarity with this area of Suffolk made it feel remote, no matter how much traffic might be passing, or how many people might be visiting the pub. On a Wednesday mid afternoon in December, however, neither the road nor the pub were frantically busy, and mine was the only car parked on the green.
St James’, Bury St Edmunds
It was the autumn equinox, and in some ways felt like the end of the year: my recital in St Edmundsbury Cathedral was the culmination of a season’s concerts, and a season’s cello practice. It was the end of a busy summer of B&B guests, and a few days after the recital I would go on holiday.
I had performed the first and last pieces of the programme before; but the other two – by Debussy and Martinu – turned out to be harder than I anticipated. Not technically or in terms of stamina – unlike the programme I had chosen last year when I started my church tour – but mathematically. Learning the notes and how the music went was the easy part, relatively speaking. Putting the pieces together with piano was much, much harder.