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.
Holy Trinity, BungayTo celebrate the end of Lockdown 2, I planned a visit to two churches whose opening times were provided online: Holy Trinity, Bungay, and Beccles. It was a cold, drizzly day, but I wasn’t going to let anything so trivial put me off.
I was please to discover Holy Trinity felt more like a village church than a town church, in contrast to St Mary’s just across the road – where I had given a concert in August 2017 – due to its size and perhaps its round tower, which, now I think about it, I had never seen in a town before. A question of money, no doubt: towns were probably always able to fork out for their churches in a way villages weren’t, and square towers must have been more expensive to build because they require large cut stones not available locally.
St Peter’s, Creeting St Peter
It was a beautiful afternoon when I drove to Creeting St Peter church, which had been left open for me. It took me a while to find it: for a church so near both Stowmarket and the A14, it was well hidden away.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of the acoustic: the church was crowded and dark. But I found a ray of sunshine at the front of the nave and set up there, and found the acoustic beautiful, as well as the wall paintings which I could see well enough in the dim light. It felt so precious to be there on my own, and once I was warmed up the pain in my left arm subsided. I had organised a concert in Trimley St Mary church near Felixstowe that week with friends, so practice was a necessity. I felt the obstacle to playing was as much psychological as it was physical – the diagnosis was cubital tunnel syndrome, a compressed nerve at the elbow – and that I needed to do this concert for my own sanity as much as anything. If the programme was lightweight, I hoped it wouldn’t do any damage.
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.
Yesterday morning I was caught unawares.
Walking up the river from Looe Harbour in south Cornwall, I saw a green sculpture of a seal on the rocks. I stopped briefly to read the plaque, feeling no more than mildly curious.
A distinctive ‘one-eyed’ scarred bull Grey Seal […] who was a familiar sight in the harbours of south Cornwall for over 25 years. Eventually he settled on the rocks of Looe Island as his home and made Looe Harbour his dining room where he was fed and his company enjoyed by local fishermen, townsfolk and countless visitors.
‘A Grand Old Man of the Sea’ and a great favourite with all.
In life, Nelson was a splendid ambassador for his species; now, in bronze, he serves as a potent symbol of the rich marine environment of the area and a permanent reminder of the need for it to be cherished.1
As I moved along to allow others to pass me on the walkway, I saw a bunch of wilting red and yellow roses lying beside Nelson’s left flipper.
St Mary’s, Depden
I attempted to resume church visits in the last week of June. I hoped that playing the cello, and visiting churches, might help me psychologically. James, my accompanist, had died two weeks earlier, and for a while I had been struggling with a worsening nerve problem in my left elbow. I had rested it for ten days or so, and the pins and needles in my fingers had gone. Although I knew that wasn’t the end of the story – the nerve was still uncomfortable, sometimes painful, if I used my hands too much – I felt it was time to resume gentle playing, for the sake of my mental health more than anything.
Churches were now open for ‘private prayer’, so I decided to try ruins – no key needed – and churches where I had a contact already. I thought it would avoid the need for lengthy explanations. Depden came to mind: a church in west Suffolk that I had enquired about visiting twice before, in winter, when I was told the path was far too muddy for me not to end up falling over. I would have gone anyway, but the keyholder was adamant. I spoke to the same keyholder again, and she remembered me. I could tell from her voice that she was delighted with the idea of my coming. ‘But I’d better just check, and ring you back,’ she said. After my experience at Honington, I very nearly said, ‘I think cello playing counts as prayer’, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to utter the words. In any case, I was sure she would call back to say yes.
26/7/20 The other day I found myself standing ankle-deep in the River Wylye.
When it was time to go, I said to my friend Peter, ‘Can you leave me here and come back for me tomorrow?’
I was joking, of course. But not entirely. Between the long moments of blankness – the simple staring at the crystal-clear surface, at the colourful gravel bed, listening to the flowing water – thoughts came and went.
‘I could stay here for hours.’
‘I love chalk streams.’
‘Is this what meditation is?’
‘A chalk stream is actually all I need to feel better. It could cure me of anything.’
I felt odd this morning. Part of me was sorry to be going home today, not knowing when I might get out again; and part of me was anxious to get back to the safety of home. I had intended to go for a walk and leave late morning, but a phone call from my friend Joost changed my plans: he had suddenly panicked that London would be locked down by the weekend and he wouldn’t be able to leave, so he had decided to pack his bag and get on a train. He had already missed the opportunity to get to the Faroe Islands where his partner and dog live, and felt a horror of being stuck in London for an indeterminate period without any work. We had discussed it a few weeks previously, and I had offered him the option of ‘self-isolation in Suffolk with goats’, which seemed to him a far preferable alternative.
I told Joost I would be passing Stowmarket station mid-afternoon and could pick him up, so he booked his ticket accordingly. Despite my lack of walk, it was too late to fit in four churches: I now had a time limit and was also slow to set off, distracted by the whole strange situation. Still, I thought it would do me some good to blot out the world for a while with some cello practice.
St Margaret’s, South Elmham
St Margaret’s was the very last of the ‘Saints’ churches, so called because the 11 villages – as I thought – of Ilketshall and South Elmham, in northeast Suffolk, are named after Saints. But I have now read that Homersfield church is also called St Mary’s, South Elmham, bringing the total to 12. All the Saints have their own church, apart from St Nicholas’ church which has disappeared. Although you might more accurately say that the villages only exist insofar as they each have a church: most of them consist only of a few scattered houses.
St Margaret’s, Sotterley
I had delayed visiting Sotterley church more than once: this was a church to enjoy in warm, dry weather, as it was a mile’s walk or so from the road, in the middle of the Sotterley estate. I would have gone in winter, had a bright day presented itself while I was in the area, but it didn’t, and so I waited.
The start of the path was obvious; after that, I had to scan the oak trees and field edges for white signs with black church symbols to find the next section of my route. I felt the thrill of a child on a treasure hunt. Before long I saw the grand house through a gap in the hedge on my right, across a pond, or perhaps more likely a moat (see header photo), and I knew I was nearly there. Sure enough, at the next sign on a small bridge across a ditch – the River Blyth, apparently – I could see the tower of the church poking above a dense cluster of trees. I’d stopped a couple of times to give my shoulders a rest, but yet again I was glad of my lightweight cello case: it was worth every penny I’d spent on it, and made walks such as these not only possible but delightful.
On my way to Wingfield church, I saw a café whose name I recognised from Instagram. On a whim, and not without some misgivings over whether it was strictly sensible from a virus point of view, I stopped. But I would arrive too early at my accommodation even if I visited two more churches, as the owner had asked me to come after 4.30pm. I passed a chicken residence, then stables and an animal supplies shop, and found the café beside some horse paddocks: certainly a novel setting. I poked my head through the door to check it wasn’t too busy, and that I could sit at the required distance away from other people. Only two tables were occupied; one by a group probably above the age of 80 who seemed entirely unconcerned about the threat to their health, and another by a man with tattoos all over his face and head (not to mention the rest of his skin that was visible) and his companion. I found a corner to sit in, answered the usual questions about my cello – some from the tattoo man, who was very genial – and treated myself to a piece of coffee and walnut cake.