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.
12/8/20 After I got back from Wiltshire a few weeks ago, I made a list of things that might help me to keep up my spirits and think positively. The break had done me a huge amount of good, but I could already feel that it wouldn’t solve the problems of being at home again. I was going to have to work hard at maintaining the change in mindset I had experienced in those few days away. I had already identified one thing that would give me that sense of wellbeing and excitement about life which had been so lacking in recent weeks: to go looking for chalk streams in Norfolk. But at least a whole free day was required for that kind of adventure, and I needed things I could do every day, at home, even on busy days.
I looked back at the list yesterday. Even though I had already implemented many of the items, I had forgotten it was so long. As well as obvious things such as planning to see friends and getting out regularly, the list read as follows:
Sit in the boat on the pond
Swim in the rain
Walk at dusk
Write at the reservoir
Sleep in the garden
Make a campfire & seat area at the top of the garden by the moat
Get up early (walk/bike ride)
Go into the hedge/stream area beside the meadow
Go for a new walk twice a week
Seeing this list again, it is clearly all about new perspectives: seeing and doing familiar things in new ways, and taking advantage of novelty available close to home.
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.
26/7/20 The other day I found myself standing ankle-deep in the River Wylye.
When it was time to go, I said to my friend Peter, ‘Can you leave me here and come back for me tomorrow?’
I was joking, of course. But not entirely. Between the long moments of blankness – the simple staring at the crystal-clear surface, at the colourful gravel bed, listening to the flowing water – thoughts came and went.
‘I could stay here for hours.’
‘I love chalk streams.’
‘Is this what meditation is?’
‘A chalk stream is actually all I need to feel better. It could cure me of anything.’
St Mary of Grace, Aspall
I was due in Brundish for an evening concert. It was the day of the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust bike ride, so I decided to take advantage of the fact that usually inaccessible churches would be open on this day. Aspall church was at the top of my list: the Aspall of cider fame, and – for me – church notoriety. I had found my last attempted visit thoroughly depressing: there was nowhere obvious to park, no sign of the church being in use, and no keyholder notice. My depression was lifted only by the flock of chickens in the churchyard, and, a little, on emailing the vicar afterwards, who assured me that if I contacted her before my next visit, she would make sure it was open for me. For one reason or another, I hadn’t made it back there yet. But today it lay near my route to Brundish, and I was excited by the prospect of overwriting this memory.
All Saints’, Great Glemham
It was a beautiful, warm day, and the last day of my break in east Suffolk. After a perfect walk through all the habitats Walberswick had to offer, I set off homeward with enough time to visit two churches.
Great Glemham was my first stop, a village known to me only as the location of the Alde Valley Festival in spring, to which I had managed one failed visit with my friend Cristina, neither of us realising it was closed on a Monday. I will make it there one day, especially since there seems now to be an autumn festival as well.
I was surprised when I reached the village: it was not how I imagined it at all, especially after visiting Little Glemham church. It is true, that was a gloomy, rainy day, and today was sunny; but this seemed an altogether brighter and more welcoming place, regardless of the weather. Great Glemham didn’t seem so great, however, either in church or village. In size only, I mean, because I was thoroughly delighted by what I found: a little church in the centre of a small village with pretty rows of cottages on either side of the lane. Thankfully, the A12 seemed not to bother this place in the slightest.