Total Suffolk churches 11th April 2017 – 4th September 2021: 504 + 7 additional historic chapels and churches
St Bartholomew’s, Orford
Concert photos courtesy of Richard Allenby-Pratt, Linden Baxter, Alison Marshall and Sheida Davis; church photos taken by me a few days prior to the event.
The day had finally arrived for my final medieval Suffolk church: no. 504. Including the unofficial extras, the total came to 511, with only one included in error – Higham, in west Suffolk, which is actually a church of Victorian foundation. So the true number of Suffolk medieval churches – of which any part remains above ground – is 503, including active and redundant, public, private, converted and ruined churches. I am fairly confident I didn’t leave out a single one.
As predicted, I was pretty nervous, as I had been for most of the week. Not only about the performance and the boomy church acoustic – which isn’t a problem when you are playing solo Bach suites but can be a lot more problematic for chamber music – but about the whole occasion. I was responsible for nearly all the organising, and there was really no way round the fact I needed to say a few words at the beginning. Speaking at the end might have been easier (or possibly harder, if the adrenaline had run its course), but I wanted music to have the last word.
St Peter’s, Eriswell
Returning from my first rehearsal for the Orford concert in London – my first time there in getting on for two years – I had scheduled my remaining two ruins in northwest Suffolk for the drive home from Cambridge train station. I had intended to play outside St Peter’s when I went looking for it in July (when the above sunny photo was taken), not expecting to be able to get inside, but finding a sign on the door stating the keys were available from the estate office, I decided I should wait: it was Sunday and I’d have to come back on a weekday. Unfortunately, however, this estate office turned out not to be in Eriswell but in Elveden. I thought it was only ten minutes’ drive from one to the other, but that turned out to be incorrect: my satnav and google maps both assumed it was possible to drive straight there along a road which is now in fact a gated drive, and in Brandon – which was therefore impossible to avoid – I encountered a liberal sprinkling of traffic. It took me nearly half an hour to get there, making the prospect of returning the key to the office by 5pm a somewhat trickier one than I’d imagined, and the whole operation quite exhausting.
Our Lady Immaculate and Joseph (or Coldham Cottage), Lawshall
I’d wanted to visit the Catholic church in Lawshall ever since I spotted it in February 2018. It was serendipitous that Pamela, who came to hear me play at Fornham St Genevieve, was connected with the church and happened to mention it when we met there: I’m not entirely sure I would have got round to organising it if she hadn’t provided me with an easy solution.
Row Chapel, Hadleigh (additional photos and videos by Alex Carr)
My friend Rebecca had told me about Row Chapel. It would be an unofficial inclusion in my tour, but, like several others, I felt I could hardly leave it out. I’d originally envisaged going there as a 450th church celebration with a few friends, but Covid and other complications meant I’d abandoned that idea, and didn’t get round to arranging access until the very end of my tour.
I was glad, in the end, that despite the last minute nature of the arrangement, I’d mentioned it to Rebecca and her new neighbours, Kit and Keith (who coincidentally was a retired tenor and had worked with my dad). I nevertheless expected it would just be me and the keyholder, but in the end the chapel was quite full – full, I say, for the tiniest space I’d yet played in, far smaller than either of the contenders for the smallest Suffolk church, Redisham and Darmsden. It looked even smaller on the inside than the outside. There were perhaps 10 people there – some friends of Rebecca’s also came along – and the chapel felt full. The acoustic was challenging, as I expected in such a small, carpeted timber-framed building, and having a former professional musician listening certainly made it more nerve-racking.
St Peter’s, Sudbury
On a warm, sunny late August day – which felt entirely strange and wrong after our cold, rainy summer – I arrived at my last of three Sudbury churches (the first two being St Gregory’s and All Saints’) to give a lunchtime concert, more than a year later than originally planned. Like Ipswich St Clement’s, St Peter’s was large and empty, and also due to close for building works – for two years – so I felt lucky to have got in just in time. It hadn’t occurred to me that any church might be inaccessible for such a length of time, and it could easily have disrupted my plans to finish my tour. Perhaps having to contact every church in advance since Covid had done me a favour in that respect. At this late stage, I suspect I would have found it near impossible to make the decision to leave them out simply because it was inconvenient to wait so long…
St Bartholomew’s, Shipmeadow
Before my appointment at Shipmeadow, I had a date with the ruins at Covehithe and Walberswick: I had intended to play outdoors there ever since I gave a concert in Covehithe church in March 2019. Time was running out, summer weather was in short supply, and I couldn’t possibly finish my church tour without fulfilling that particular desire. On arrival at Covehithe, I still (after nearly 500 churches) found it strangely difficult to just get my cello out and start playing while there were people wandering around. I was a bit surprised there was such a steady flow of people, actually; but I soon realised it was because the lane up to the church was being used as a parking spot for the beach, and everyone was popping into the church on their way down. Playing at Walberswick was easier: there were fewer visitors and I had company in the form of a new friendly acquaintance from Yoxford, Richard, who’d photographed me playing in Blythburgh church a few weeks earlier. I don’t know why being with someone should give me more confidence to do peculiar things. But it does.
Shipmeadow was different, again, to the other converted churches I’d visited: this one was open plan from end to end, with a raised floor. Apart from one bedroom – down some steps from the chancel in the old vestry – which I spotted when I went to use the loo, I didn’t manage to figure out where the rest must have been – assuming there was more than one bedroom, which I took for granted given the size of the place. This was my favourite conversion, I decided. Of course, it was probably impossible to keep warm in the winter, but open plan has always been my preference, and in this case it retained more of the character of the original building.
St Clement’s, Ipswich
St Clement’s was to be my last Ipswich church, and it was galling that despite my improved familiarity with the town centre – largely a positive state of affairs – I didn’t manage to round off my Ipswich church tour with a stress-free driving or parking experience. I’d left plenty of extra time to get there, and still I was a little late. I may like Ipswich far better now than I did, and have improved my navigation skills greatly, but I suppose I will never feel truly comfortable in large towns – and never feel at all comfortable driving in them.
St James’/All Saints’, Dunwich
As with All Saints’, Newmarket, it wasn’t until I trawled through Munro Cautley’s list of medieval churches that I realised Dunwich must be included. I couldn’t make the list add up to 500; but there seemed to be too few rather than too many, by which I deduced Dunwich had to be one of them. It didn’t make a huge amount of sense to me: all that was left of its numerous medieval churches was part of a buttress of All Saints, which had been rescued (when the church was lost to the sea) and erected in the churchyard of St James. Ah well, I thought: another good excuse to go to the coast and to play outdoors.
I thought I’d have surplus time to visit Dunwich before going on to Benacre. But I miscalculated journey times, and ended up in a rush with only ten minutes to stop. Signs enlightened me to the fact the church possessed a car park, and it was only because I decided to be obedient and use it that I entered the churchyard for the first time from the north instead of the west. And, therefore, instead of arriving directly at the buttress in question, I came upon what I could see at first glance was a Norman ruin. A ruin of what?
St Andrew’s, Stratford St Andrew
I’d last tried to visit Stratford St Andrew some three or four years previously, not remembering it was no longer a church. Luckily, I wasn’t arrested for attempted break-in. Stuart came out to meet me in the driveway – parked legally this time – and I was surprised when he said he thought he might have seen me before, since he used to live in Bildeston, a neighbouring village to mine. I deduced from our conversation that he was probably still living there at the time of my last visit.
All Saints’, Newmarket
Inexplicably, it had escaped my notice that there was more than one church of medieval foundation in Newmarket. I’d played in St Mary’s twice, and thought that was it for Newmarket. All Saints’, though entirely Victorian, should most definitely have been on my list, as it was rebuilt on the site of the medieval church. Munro Cautley seems also to include churches rebuilt on new sites – Westley and Braiseworth, for example – but I’m afraid this makes no sense to me. Luckily ruins still remain of both of these churches, and they were my chosen substitutes.