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.
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 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.
St Matthew’s, Ipswich
With the help of an unassuming little one-way street my satnav wasn’t aware of, a roundabout and some road works, one third of my journey time was consumed by the last hundred metres of travel. So I arrived at the church somewhat flustered, and was met by a suspicious man at the door wanting to know what I was doing there. I hadn’t been told to pick up a key at the church office – at least, I didn’t think I had – but clearly this person wasn’t expecting me, and was concerned about locking the church on his departure.
I offered to ring the office, and Tami, my contact, kindly came over with a key. But then a further problem arose: the man, who turned out to be the gardener, wanted to lock me inside the church. I wasn’t too thrilled by the prospect, even though I was now in possession of a key. It wasn’t that it made much practical difference: my objection – horror, even – was due to the motivation behind such a suggestion, rather than the reality of being locked in.
St Margaret’s, Rishangles
Not long before Covid hit, I’d written to six owners of private churches in Suffolk to ask if I might come along and play to them in their houses. As with the ruins at Flixton, what had once seemed impossible now no longer did. Why rule out churches just because they were in private ownership? Of the 8 redundant churches sold off (most of them in the 1970s, some already ruined), 6 were converted into houses (Rishangles, Knettishall, Ubbeston, Shipmeadow, Debach, and – sometime after the millenium – Stratford St Andrew); 1 was converted into something resembling a house but still used as a church of some description (Mickfield); and 1 remained a church (Benacre).
All Saints’, Sproughton
I rang the churchwarden at Sproughton with some trepidation: even so near the end of my church tour, I still found it hard to phone churchwardens or vicars out of the blue. But my additional hesitation came from the fact this church was in the same benefice as Copdock – the one and only church I’d walked away from without waiting for it to be unlocked, so hostile was the keyholder. I knew the person in question wasn’t a churchwarden so I would be unlikely to have any further contact with him, and besides, Sproughton wasn’t Copdock; but the latter’s proximity rubbed off on its theoretical existence in my mind. So my delight and gratitude were excessive when my request was received enthusiastically by Philip, despite the fact he lived in Ipswich and would have to drive some way to the church.