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.
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.
15/5/2021 I suffer from a peculiar problem. I frequently feel a bit stupid after opening my mouth. Usually in the context of trying to communicate or explain something emotionally laden, whether in speech or by text message or email.
Where does this come from? One friend thought it must come from somewhere as opposed to nowhere, but I haven’t yet managed to locate its origin. There is little mystery in the recent spate of stupidity attacks, however: attempting to communicate pain, even to friends, is not an easy business, and talking to doctors is almost guaranteed to make you feel stupid. Whether intentional or not, doctors who don’t make you feel this way seem to be in the minority.
While trying to think of a possible source for this feeling, and the contexts in which I might have originally experienced it, I remembered something that happened when I was fifteen or sixteen. I was walking with a friend to a rehearsal on an orchestra course – somewhere in the Malverns, I believe – when I exclaimed, ‘Wow, look at that tree!’
My friend responded: ‘Yal, it’s just a tree.’
I should have learned my lesson by that age, several years into teenagehood. I should have learnt to keep my mouth shut. I felt stupid, and I felt upset.
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.