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 Mary’s, Bramford
I was particularly excited about this church visit, number 450, as it was the penultimate milestone of my tour – unless of course the total ends up exceeding 500, which isn’t impossible. The arrival of this milestone came more than a year after I anticipated it, but was all the more welcome for the delay.
St Mary’s and St Botolph’s, Whitton
I arranged to visit Whitton church on bank holiday Monday, when the vicar, Mary, thought to leave the church open for people to come and listen. But confusion over Covid rules for church use, distinguishing public worship from other uses of the building, meant that it wasn’t allowed after all; so, Mary told me, it would be livestreamed only.
Once a village, Whitton is now firmly a suburb of Ipswich, consumed by housing estates – though as I drove the last stretch of unpaved track there was still a hint that its church really should be out in the sticks. It was a sweet little church: the outside looked Victorian because of the spire – which, indeed, it is. The inside of the church was welcoming and cosy, with a medieval chancel roof (so Mary informed me) and a better acoustic than I would have imagined.
Steve, after mistakenly ending up at Akenham church where we’d played once before, finally turned up at the right church to play duets with me: I didn’t fancy the prospect of doing a livestream on my own, and duet music is usually more entertaining than solo cello. We played a Boismortier sonata and Bartok duets, with two Irish airs for solo cello sandwiched in between, to give Steve’s unpractised bassoon lip a chance to recover. It was my first experience of a livestreamed church visit, and despite the time lag between audio and video, I was impressed with the technology a small parish church is able to make use of in the wake of Covid.
St Mary’s, Ashfield-cum-Thorpe
When is a medieval church not a medieval church? Or more accurately, when is a Victorian church actually a medieval church? I’ve asked myself this question many times, and have come up with the wrong answer maybe once or twice. Usually any dispute is eventually settled by Munro Cautley’s Suffolk Churches, unless I choose to disagree with him, but even then it’s often not straightforward. A Victorian church built on the site of a medieval church ‘counts’, since it is still a ‘church of medieval foundation’. But the difficulty in this case is that the two villages, Ashfield and Thorpe, kept swapping between their two churches depending which one was in the better state of repair, until finally Ashfield was rebuilt and Thorpe left to go to ruin.
My dilemma lies in the fact that the ruin of Thorpe church still exists: a round tower languishing in the garden of Thorpe Hall, and really my preference would be to play there, rather than in a Victorian church. But Ashfield is included in Munro Cautley’s list, whereas Thorpe is not. These days I am hedging my bets, including any church that is remotely in doubt; moreover, Ashfield is open every day, which is not to be sniffed at, especially in Covid times. I will certainly continue my detective work on the ruins of Thorpe, which are on private property and unlocatable using my OS Explorer map; but I needed an outing, and I needed not to have to make any phonecalls to arrange it. So I headed for Ashfield and Helmingham one unusually sunny morning in mid-April, an extra spark added to my planned excursion at the thought of treating myself to my first pub lunch of the year.
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.
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.