I have passed St Mary a number of times since travelling to see the orchids at a nearby reserve. So with some time to kill a couple of weeks ago, I decide to call in.
The church is nearer to the village of Metfield than the one it is parish church for, and parking was problematic, as the church is off the main road, and the small houses and farms that make this part of Withersdale all had rather unwelcoming do not park here signs, and nearer the church, do not park on the grass signs. So where doe the visitor who arrives by car actually park? I ended up on the verge of the B road that passes close by, but the unwelcoming nature of the area had put me in a bad mood.
St mary is a small and simple church, a small bellcote at the west end, a fine ancient font on a new pedestal, some small but old pews and a fine roof.
(Introduction: Back in 2002, Withersdale was the 500th church on the Suffolk Churches site. You might say that the end of the journey was in view. I had recently had a conversation with some friends about writing parodies, using the style of other authors for those things we would have written anyway. One friend, a teacher, claimed to have written an entire school report in the style of Raymond Chandler. Some writers are easy to replicate – TS Eliot and Hemingway, for example – but it is harder to sustain a parody when the parodied writer is best known for going on at length. I said I’d have a go at Proust, which I did here, and James Joyce for church 501, Bungay St Mary. It’s not for me to say how successful the parodies are, although the Joyce one has been complimented kindly by some of the man’s fans. Nobody has ever said anything about the Withersdale parody – perhaps more people read Joyce than Proust, I don’t know. In 2007, when I began revisiting Suffolk churches to replace the old photographs I had taken with brand spanking new digital ones, I came back to Withersdale. Unfortunately, I got here at the dullest hour on a dull day, and so the exteriors are not what I had hoped for. Still, that’s a good excuse to go back again. As for the text, I have not seen any reason to change it, other than to add one hyperlink to a page on the Norfolk Churches site. I realise that this will be an annoyance for anyone wanting to find out more about Withersdale and its church. For this, I apologise.)
2002: For a long time, I used to read French novels in bed. And then, mid-morning, I’d get up and wander through an industrial wasteland.
I was living in Sheffield, in South Yorkshire, in the years when the coal and steel industries were finally coming to an end, and I’d walk through the battlefields of Brightside and Attercliffe, wondering at the abandoned factories and mills, and the wasted infrastructure, the boarded-up pubs and shops, the graffiti, the row upon row of derelict terraces. One day, I even found an old railway station, the door onto the platform hanging open, the wind howling through the gap into the tunnel, the line going nowhere.
Often, I would imagine what these places had once been like, when they were still alive, for I was not born to this, coming as I did from the flat fields of East Anglia. The first time I saw it all, it was already over. I loved the litany of names: Attercliffe and Brightside I have already mentioned, and there was Eccleshall and Carbrook, Intake and Millhouses. I don’t know now if I knew them from visiting them, or only knew them from their names, bold on the fronts of buses.
I would wander alone through the broken streets, gazing up at the brick-faced shells, and imagine them full of activity, and try to decide what this winch had been for, or the platform where the lorries came, or the booth by the gate. This was all the evidence, and this was all I had to go on, as I reconstructed a world I had never seen. And what really interested me was not the places at all, but the people who had once inhabited them; those people who had now gone, but these buildings were once the focus of their lives, and they had known them very differently to the way I was knowing them now.
Using material evidence to reconstruct their activities, I could perhaps begin to understand their lives.
I was thinking about this as I cycled along the Waveney valley – but then something else happened. I had come to Withersdale from Weybread, up on the Norfolk border. In fact, I had reached Weybread from the northern side of the Waveney, since the most direct route from Mendham to Weybread had been across the river into Norfolk, and through the lanes that lead into Harleston. About fifteen years before all this happened, when I was living on the south coast of England, I had had a brief but passionate affair with a girl who came from Alburgh, a Norfolk village on the other side of the border to Mendham. I hadn’t thought of this for years, but suddenly seeing the name of the village, which I had never visited, on a road sign, startled me. And then something extraordinary happened. As I sat on my bike, savouring this shock of recognition, an agricultural lorry passed me, and I noticed that the name of the town painted on the side of the lorry was the same south coast town where this occured.
I was still wondering at this as I threaded through the back lanes between Weybread and Withersdale, a world away from the post-industrial ruins of South Yorkshire, or the misery of the south coast, for I had not often been happy there, and never wish to be so poor or so far from home again. When I moved to the south, I had not many months since finished an increasingly pointless relationship that should have stopped after six months, and unfortunately went on for another two years. My habit of reading Proust in bed had come towards the end of this; that, and wandering around east Sheffield, were, I think, displacement activities of a kind, not only to avoid spending too much time with her, but also to avoid doing anything about it. It also had much to do with me leaving Sheffield shortly afterwards. It was a year later that I moved to the south coast, and I was already seeing the girl who would become my wife. And then I met this woman from a Norfolk village shortly after I arrived in the unfamiliar coastal town, in the warmest October of the century. The leaves were only just beginning to colour and fall, and I remembered the way the woods rode the Downs, and the way the fog hid all day in the valleys.
And then I thought, well, it must have been more than fifteen years ago, because I could remember leaving her bed in the early hours of one Friday morning, the paleness just beginning to appear in the east, and being stopped on a roadblock on the bypass, where it joined the Lewes road. It was the night that the IRA had bombed the Tory party conference at the Grand Hotel, and everyone leaving town was being stopped and questioned. I had no idea what had happened, and the policeman didn’t tell me. As I explained where I had been, I watched the police coaches hurtling back westwards out of Kent, away from the miners’ strike.
When I had made my life less complicated, I used to cycle around the Sussex lanes, finding lonely churches and sitting in them. When I’d lived in Sheffield, I liked to wander up on to the moors, perhaps to Bradfield, where the church looks out on an empty sky. Standing in its doorway took me out of the world altogether, and was the first time I experienced that sense of communion with the past. St Mary Magdalene, Withersdale, reminded me a bit of Bradfield, although busy Suffolk is much noisier than the peace around Sheffield. Here was an ancient space, plainly Norman in origin, that had stood here stubbornly while the world changed around it. Wars had come and gone, times of great prosperity had warmed it and depressions had made it cold again. Disease and famine had emptied it, until the irrepressible energy of human activity had restored it to life. And it was still here, so unlike our own transitory existences. But perhaps there is a resilience in stone that reflects the human spirit.
What would I have found most extraordinary back then, on the south coast? That we would now have known ten years of relative peace in Ireland? That the time of the Tories would finally come to an end, and it would be hard to imagine them ever regaining power? That I would be married with children in East Anglia? I think I would have found the Tories being out of power least believable.
I had been looking forward to reaching Withersdale for several years, and it had increasingly become the sole quest of the day, like people who set out on a journey to see with their own eyes some city they have always longed to visit, and imagine that they can taste in reality what has charmed their fancy.
Everybody who writes about it seems to like it, Mortlock calling it a dear little church, Simon Jenkins thought it unusually atmospheric, and Arthur Mee writes as though he actually visited the place for a change, and curiously mentions half a dozen pathetic old benches… which once held an honoured place in God’s house and are now a shelter from the sun for a few of God’s sheep, which is typical of barmy Arthur.
The church sits right beside the busy Halesworth to Harleston road, which you wouldn’t expect from its reputation for being remote and peaceful. Incidentally, this is a road I always find difficult when I’m cycling, since it bends and twists through high Suffolk, and you can never be entirely clear about which way it is heading, and several times I have made the mistake of absent-mindedly turning for Harleston when I wanted Halesworth, and so on. Withersdale was the last piece of the jigsaw in north east Suffolk for me; I had visited every single other medieval church beyond the curve that connects Diss in Norfolk to Halesworth, and then the sea.
It was a crisp, bright afternoon towards the end of February, and my next stop after Withersdale would be the railway station at Halesworth, where I planned to catch the train that left at 4.30pm, en route from Lowestoft to Ipswich. Before Halesworth, the train would pass through Beccles, where I had stepped off of it earlier that morning, and cycled off to visit the churches of Worlingham, Mettingham and Shipmeadow workhouse. It was after this that I had made the somewhat convoluted journey through the Saints to reach Mendham in the early afternoon. Each of the Saints is an event, as if a counterpoint to the time it takes to travel through them, creating a history, a tradition of the distance, each one connected to and yet significantly different from the others, and sometimes events can overtake history and change its course, as I had discovered.
Now, I was nine miles from Halesworth, with less than an hour to go before the train left, which would give me time to visit Withersdale, but would concentrate my mind, since the 4.30pm train was the last that I could reasonably catch, having no lights, and needing to cycle a further two miles from the station when I arrived in Ipswich.
So, if I was to decide that the setting or interior of St Mary Magdalene were in any way timeless, this would have to be set against a pressing urgency – or, if not quite an urgency, a sense that an urgency would be created if I did not remain aware of the passing of time.
I stepped through the gate into the sloping churchyard, passing 18th and 19th century headstones as I walked to the east of the building. Here, I discovered that the church was not entirely rendered rubble, for the east wall had been partly rebuilt in red brick, and the window frame above was made of wood, which would be a memory of times past, and a hint of things to come.
The south side of the building was dappled in winter sunlight, and I remembered how Arthur Mee had found this church surrounded by elm trees, and how their leaves must have sent shadows scurrying along this wall, and how the sunlight had been washing it for generations. I wondered if there could be some kind of photographic effect, perhaps caused by chemicals in the rendering responding to the photons in the sunlight, and I remembered how Proust had watched from his curtained apartment the streets below, imagining scenes into stillness. I thought of my own small world, my transitory journey, and how this would be a blink of an eye, a relative stillness in comparison to the long centuries the wall had stood, and how everything I cared about, my passions, hopes and fears, signified nothing beside it.
I looked up at the pretty weather-boarded turret, and the little porch below. Although the church is visibly Norman in construction, the turret and porch have a later historical resonance, because they were the gift of William Sancroft, later to be Archbishop of Canterbury, who in the long years of the 17th century Commonwealth lived at nearby Fressingfield, during the time that the episcopal government of the Church of England was supressed.
Fressingfield was his native village, but Fressingfield church is a medieval wonder, and it is not too fanciful to imagine that Sancroft made St Mary Magdalene his quiet project, although of course it cannot be the work of one man, or even one generation or epoch, but his touch must have fallen firmly here.
I stepped inside to a cool light suffusing the nave and chancel, and I climbed up to the tiny gallery at the west end to look down on the space below. St Mary Magdalene is a relatively unspoiled prayerbook church, almost entirely of the 17th century, with some sympathetic Victorian additions. The pulpit is against the north wall as at All Saints South Elmham, to take full advantage of the theatrical sunlight from the windows in the south wall. The pulpit is tiny, barely two feet across, and the benches face it, and so do the box pews to south and east.
The woodwork is mellow, breathing a calmness into the silence, while the chancel beyond is gorgeous, a tiny altar surrounded by three-sided rails sitting beneath the elegant window, two brass vases of pussywillow sweet upon its cloth. I stood for some time looking down, and then descended, finding a superb font carved with a tree of life and a grinning face. It may be Norman, it may be older. It is set upon a modern brick base, but even this is fitting, as are the benches with strange ends, with a hole for the candlepricks, and I ran my hand over the golden curve, an eroticism stirring in the memory as the scent of flowers in a window splay touched my senses, an echo of a spring evening some twenty years before, when I had first ever thought myself in love, and this came to me now.
There was a crisp confidence to this building; it was expressed in the curious elegance of the 17th century English Church which had furnished it that, despite so many traumas, had finally come to represent the simplicity of the Puritans, the seemliness of the Anglicans, and that was the Elizabethan Settlement of the previous century fulfilled. Here Sancroft waited, while the world turned upside down around him, and then Cromwell died, and so too did the Puritan project; Sancroft became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, witnessing its destruction by fire in 1666, and overseeing its complete rebuilding in the classical style, and such a contrast with St Mary Magdalene it must have made that perhaps he sometimes wished he was back here. A High Anglican, he crowned the Catholic James II with some misgivings, but then refused to recognise the Protestant coup of William III in 1688, returning once more to Suffolk, where he died.
I sat in the shadowed pew and felt the distant beat, the quiet trick of history turned and played. I thought of the certainty that this interior represented, the triumph of the will, of belief over mystery, and how the rationalist, superstitious 18th century worshippers here could not have conceived of the great sacramental fire that would one day flame out of Oxford and lick them clean.
I sat there, long enough to forget that I must of necessity move on, and the place began to cast a spell which I thought mostly due to the light, which was becoming pale as the sun faded beyond the distant trees, or perhaps the silence, but I knew in fact it was because of the matter on my mind.
You see, there’s another thing. A few days before my visit to Withersdale I had spent a weekend abroad with three female friends, one of whom I felt increasingly drawn to, to the extent that I wondered if anything might come of it. This was also on my mind as I sat in the neat coolness of St Mary Magdalene, looking at the pussy willows in the altar vases, and talking to someone, possibly God.
How to understand flowers on altars, I wonder. How the 18th century puritans who furnished this place would be appalled! And yet they were perfect, as if the entire building had been constructed and furnished for them to be placed here, on this day, at this time, with the late afternoon light glancing down the hillside and leading my gaze to the brass vases. What did they mean to me, in comparison with their meaning for the people who placed them there? I ought to mention that the friends I went away with were all younger then me, at least twelve years, and it is to my great delight how younger people reinvent the world I think I understand, just as I must have done, and still do for people that much older than me. This constant process of reinterpretation must be immensely annoying for those who think they have grown old and wise, but I rejoice in it; it is a beautiful chaos, and keeps the world fresh and new, and history could not exist without it. By history, I mean of course the gradual process of constant change, which was also Newman’s definition of the word tradition, rather than anything about dates and famous people.
So I sat there, and wondered if I should try and make something happen with the woman I mentioned, if I should tell her how I felt, and discover if what seemed to be the case was actually so, and so as I sit here now, writing this, I know the full story, and how it finally ended some weeks later, and this makes complete the circle from the moment I crossed the Waveney at Mendham, putting in chain an irrevokable sequence that would lead me here now to this computer keyboard, on this sunny spring evening in Ipswich. In A L’ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs, Proust remembers crossing France by train at night, and the dislocation and alienation of being hurtled through an invisible, unfamiliar landscape. He cannot sleep, and in the middle of the night the train stops in a secret valley, far from the nearest town, perhaps because there is a station, or because the track is blocked, I don’t remember. He opens the carriage window; it is a hot, sultry night.
Suddenly, a woman appears from the nearest cottage, with a jug of coffee, and he watches her give the coffee to a group of passengers, or perhaps they were the men removing the blockage, which I think was a tree, but may have been an animal of some kind, or perhaps it was to do with a swollen river. Proust thinks of her life in this lost valley …from which its congregated summits hid the rest of the world, she could never see anyone save those in the trains which stopped for a moment only.
She moves back down the track, and gives the narrator some coffee. Wordlessly, he drinks it, returns the bowl, and the train starts to move, and he watches her silently as she recedes into the blackness, not knowing where he is, and only being certain that he will never see her again.
Instantly, the day is magnified, signified: Il faisait grand jour maintenant, says the narrator, je m’eloignais de l’aurore… This is history, thousands of these events, infuriatingly disparate and yet somehow connected. And this is so for everyone, for millions of us. I think now of Withersdale, and see connections ramifying, spiralling outwards, always becoming endless.
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