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 Peter’s, Carlton Colville
For once, I should have trusted my satnav – or at the very least reminded myself of the exact location of Carlton Colville in relation to Lowestoft before I set off. I thought I had plenty of time, but my decision to drive through Herringfleet into Lowestoft made the journey nearly half an hour longer than it should have been, in part due to a single-track-road delay caused by an astonishingly large herd of farm machinery. But thankfully there were no serious consequences: only a few people had stayed on after the service, wandering about the church in no rush for anything to happen, as far as I could see. Which was a relief, as I felt pretty rough this morning. My church appointments had to be kept, but it had occurred to me that I didn’t actually need to get home today. I didn’t fancy a long drive after my church visits were over, and I hadn’t yet managed a walk in Loddon, where I was staying – which seemed a grave omission – so that morning I’d arranged to stay an extra night to enjoy a leisurely Sunday afternoon.
The church interior was decidedly ordinary, not helped by the tape stuck to the floor; but the acoustic was good. I started playing to an almost empty church, and gradually it filled as those attending the 10.30am service arrived, some perhaps early on purpose to hear the music. I played three movements of the Bach G major suite instead of the whole thing, and the usual two Irish airs – an abridged version of the previous day’s programme, of which I was glad, as my performance stamina left something to be desired. It was a friendly, understated visit, which entirely suited my Sunday morning physical and mental capacity.
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 Peter’s, Athelington
Athelington was to be an unusual church visit: Mike, a sound artist and friend of Steve’s, was joining me to make a recording for BBC Radio Suffolk. My first, and no doubt only, radio broadcast church visit. It was the hottest day of the year so far – 27°C – and it was odd to think that just a month ago I was playing in Felixstowe church in a scarf and fingerless mittens.
We’d decided to make a video rather than just audio, and it was the video element I was more nervous about. If audio recording makes me feel self-conscious, video has this effect times a hundred. Still, I was glad finally to be meeting Mike, and knew it would be fun once I’d got over my apprehension.
I was looking forward to seeing inside Athelington – I’d tried several times to gain access – although I was worried it might be devoid of atmosphere, having read it was comprehensively restored by the Victorians. But it was tiny enough to satisfy even me, smelled just as old churches should, and boasted a handsome set of medieval bench ends; so I knew as soon as I entered that this visit would certainly be representative of my project as a whole, and that the acoustic would be conducive to happy recording.
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 Reconciliation, Hengrave
To my very great surprise and delight, no cunning nor sweet talk whatsoever was needed, in the end, to get into Hengrave church – a private Catholic chapel in the ownership of Hengrave Hall, now a wedding venue. It had long been at the back of my mind as a likely stumbling block to completing my tour of Suffolk’s churches, along with Wangford St Denys: I had contacted them once before and received a firm No in reply. But Chris, a cellist acquaintance who is the contact for their advertised wedding quartet for hire simply asked the office staff if I could come along when they were due there for a photo shoot. Perhaps the staff had changed since the time of my enquiry, or perhaps it was another unfortunate case of ‘it’s who you know’. But I wasn’t complaining – I almost couldn’t believe my luck, and coming as it did soon after the reply from Wangford St Denys, I felt for the first time that finishing my project this summer was a real possibility. I could now reschedule the long overdue final concert in Orford church without any fear that I might not manage to make it my last church, and with slightly less fear – for a short while, anyway – that Covid would put a spanner in the works.