AND from Anglican matins to East Anglian Nonconformity at
Walpole Old Chapel on a burning Sunday afternoon. The cornfields
sizzle, and the familiar scenes hurry by.
I mount the pulpit to talk about John Bunyan. We sing "He who
would valiant be" with Tony at the harmonium, if not lifting the
roof elevating our faith. The River Blyth flows out of sight; the
graveyard is feathery and unmown.
The chapel was built a decade or so after Bunyan's death, and it
remains a perfect architectural response to what remains of our
inbred Nonconformity. Beginning as a Tudor house, it was stripped
out and simplified for God.
There will be tea and cakes - "This was the Queen Mother's
favourite sponge." I wander about the burial ground. "And here they
all are," Nina, the poet, writes.
Samuel Stopher, Mary Stopher,
All gone, come to full stops
When I was a boy, there was a lending library where I could
borrow Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel novels for
tuppence a time. It was a kind of corner shop, with immense
timbers, and part of an ancient house where Bunyan had stayed when
he came to give the Suffolk Dissenters a piece of his mind.
He was an impressive figure: large, commanding, muscular from
humping an anvil about, and strong-voiced from preaching in the
fields near Bedford. Had the Church of England not locked him up
for this, he would most probably not have written a word. As with
St Paul, and a whole host of prison writers, he called for a pen
when the key turned in the lock.
I imagined Bunyan in the timbered room, now lined with novels;
or tying his horse to a gigantic nail that protruded from the
A marvellous find at Walpole Old Chapel was David Holmes's
An Inglorious Affair, which tells of a classic
Nonconformist row in Suffolk in the 1870s - something against which
the Trollopian quarrel of the Church of England scarcely raised a
It all began with a harvest-tea meeting and an argument about
singing the Gloria. A youthful organist asked the choir to sing it
in the Congregational Chapel; the Baptists cried "No!" The
Congregationalists then kept the Baptists out of the church for ten
years. The whole town was up in arms over the Gloria - "In
Halesworth, they talk of nothing else."
Standing in the scrubbed, pale, and infinitely sane interior of
Walpole Old Chapel, with the delicate scent of home-made cake and
wildflowers drifting up the pulpit, and with Bunyan filling my
head, all I could feel was this perfect summer's day. Also a sense
of ownership - that in some way I belonged here, and it belonged to
During the 17th century, it was taken to Massachusetts, this
Puritanism with its arguments and triumphs - there to become native
in a different sense.
Once, walking in Cambridge, Mass., with its London plane trees,
and its Fogg Museum, containing a roof angel from a Suffolk church,
I thought I could smell what I am smelling at this moment: some
indefinable odour of place. Particularly when the sun brings it