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 Mary’s, Rickinghall Superior
Unusually, I’d had some extended trouble trying to gain entry to Rickinghall Superior: it was kept locked, with a keyholder address given on the door. But with no postcode and no phone number, I was relying on the road name, which was to be found neither on my OS Explorer map nor on Google Maps. I had no luck acquiring help on this matter until I was contacted by a CCT Local Community Officer hoping to arrange a few concerts, and I managed to get Rickinghall Superior on the list. In the wake of the season’s concert cancellations, I asked if it might be possible to go alone instead. To my delight and surprise, I was informed that the church was now open on weekends, so after arranging a visit on the same afternoon to its neighbour, Rickinghall Inferior, I drove northwards on another bright day feeling satisfied at the prospect of being able to tick off the two remaining churches in the area.
The Suffolk Historic Churches Trust’s ‘Ride and Stride’ event on 12th September was going ahead, but my concert in Lowestoft remained cancelled, apparently due to having to leave the church locked for 72 hours before the Sunday service. I have since learnt that the fundraising total for the SHCT event far outstripped last year’s: perhaps more people than usual were desperate to get out on their bikes, and awareness of the increased financial pressure on village churches in 2020 was widespread.
Buoyed up by my concert in Trimley St Mary, I decided to make the most of open churches – as I did with Aspall in 2019 – making successful contact with several in the area around Clare where I had a few left to visit. Not expecting to fit in more than two or three before I had to get back home for the arrival of B&B guests, I set off on a sunny morning conducive to feelings of hopefulness. For the first time since March, I was managing a satisfying number of church visits. I thought it might be my last chance for a while: I was shortly going on holiday, and the virus restrictions were already starting to move upwards again.
St Mary’s, Poslingford
I received a warm welcome in Poslingford from one of the churchwardens who met me on the road as I tried to park in a tight space in my usual clumsy fashion. But there was no one manning the church and I was glad to have it to myself for a while. I didn’t expect this to last, but it wasn’t until I was packing up that another churchwarden arrived with a camera, followed by Don, with whom I’d been in contact, and Jean, his wife, clutching takeaway coffees from goodness knows where – Clare, most likely. They seemed to be settling for a little concert and so I duly took out my cello again and played them my favourite Irish air.
St Mary’s, Trimley St Mary
My planned July concert at Trimley St Mary church – now the Two Sisters Arts Centre – was moved to September, with a limited live audience and a larger virtual one. I changed the programme and my co-conspirators: Rachel and Steve would join me on oboe and bassoon respectively. It needed to be easy to arrange and relatively pressure-free for all of us, and, most importantly, I wanted to be in the company of good friends. I needed to rediscover the joy of practising, rehearsing and performing even in the context of arm troubles and my accompanist’s, James’, absence.
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.
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.
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.