Thursday, I May 2003 was the beginning of a whole new experience and one which would last until 16 October. I'd answered Roger Wolfe's plea in the Newsletter for volunteers to help keep St Peter's Church open for a couple of hours each Thursday afternoon from May to October. It was part of the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust policy to open the three maritime churches which stretch in a line parallel to the Waterfront. The churches being medieval and of particular interest, it was felt that people would be tempted to see inside buildings not normally open.
I soon found that it took a good fifteen minutes to uncover display panels showing the history of the area and to set out the sales table (including the all-important donationsjar). Notices had to be put outside the church to advertise the fact that we were open, and at 2 pm promptly the great doors were thrown back.
My duties were varied and ranged from greeting visitors and telling them pertinent facts about the church to selling pamphlets and books. Spare moments found me wielding either a broom, dustpan and brush (plaster tends to drop from walls on a windy day) or a duster on the pulpit or on the token pews near the altar. I also discovered that the churchyard is popular with local drinkers, so we had regular pick-up duty to keep the area free from rubbish.
I say "we" as there were three volunteers on a regular basis with a few more every now and then. Fortunately two of the three of us had an encyclopedic knowledge of the church and its environs, while I managed to commit to memory "mentioned in Domesday survey of 1086" and "font brought over from Tournai in 1190." 1 did however get muddled somewhat with my 14th and 15th centuries, and need to do some swotting up if asked to volunteer next year!
We also managed to move several items of furniture from left to right (with the aid of metal rollers and three pairs of willing hands) and even added various splashes of colour to brighten up the interior. A magnificent pair of red velvet curtains transformed the sales table, while St Michael's Church, no longer used, provided us with an altar frontal and matching pulpit fall, both in red.
There were various events of special interest to St Peter's Church while we were on duty, one of which being "IP-Art" which took place in the first two weeks of July. An unusual photographic record of the various stages of a specially commissioned piece of sculpture was placed in the centre of the church, attracting many visitors who also stayed to appreciate the building itself.
The two Heritage Open Days in September provided a particular "buzz" as, owing to the church being on a list of religious venues to be visited by sponsored cyclists, we had a steady stream of helmeted visitors on the Saturday, all eager to have their cards signed and be on their way to the next target. (You've guessed it - I volunteered for a couple of hours in the morning!)
Obviously, volunteers are no use without visitors, and to me these were the special joy of being in the church on a Thursday afternoon. Many of them were "locals" who had probably never stepped over the threshold until attracted by the "Church Open" sign. Others were ex-locals who had moved from the area many years ago and all having fond memories of being christened, married or singing in the choirs of 1927 and 1945! As Jill Freestone's splendid free-standing displays showed many old photographs both of the choir and local inhabitants, our visitors were able to spot themselves in the photos, thus providing us with names to fill in gaps.
Those who'd moved even further away included one man whose family emigrated to Canada in 1838. Now living in Vancouver, he was intent on tracing his family background. Yet another Canadian visitor, who had worked in a nearby factory some years ago, popped in to see the church and by chance met someone who had worked in the same place at the same time. This sparked off a vigorous "Do you remember" session. We became accustomed to accents from places such as New York, Tokyo, Australia, Philadelphia and Holland (the latter people having arrived by boat at the marina). On one memorable day we were visited by a lad from Portugal who delighted us by wandering round chanting in Latin, for as he said,
"This is what you do in a church." Ireland and Belgium, Toronto and The Hague were also represented. We had some visits by Blue Badge Guides bringing small groups of visitors as an extension to their Town Centre Walks. (Perhaps these could be a regular Thursday afternoon event?) Occasional flashes of excitement were provided by boys on the roof, resulting in publicity in the local paper; an exchange of statements in the same paper as to whether or not the church was "empty" provided a burst of visitors the following Thursday! Likewise the ITV drama about Henry VIII resulted in several visitors eager to see a display about "local boy makes good" Cardinal Wolsey and his adjacent Gateway. A particular highpoint was the arrival of our 1000th visitor, a somewhat bemused Filippino lady with a child, who was presented by Dr Blatchly with a copy of his book about the splendid font in St Peter's Church.
In all, it was a fascinating six months and an experience which I would certainly repeat in 2004. It was fun and I would heartily recommend it to anyone with a few hours to spare.