Staverton Thicks Part 4: Summer

Oak branch

During my literary meanderings, from Ronald Blythe to Hugh Farmar to George Peterken, I discovered several details about the Thicks that I hadn’t yet found out through visiting it myself. Aside from the fact ‘Staverton’ means ‘staked enclosure’ (Blythe, 2013), and that it contains or contained what was thought to be the tallest holly tree in the UK (at 22.5 metres in 1969), I read about Butley stream and possible marshes or wetland to the northeast of the Park, and Butley Priory approximately a mile to the southeast. Founded in the 12th century, the Priory was once the owner of the Thicks. Only ruins and the Priory Gatehouse remain, both marked on my Ordnance Survey map. Lastly, the cottage Hugh Farmar lived in, Shepherd’s Cottage, was not the one along the road to Butley I first took it for when I saw his photograph of it: there was another, almost identical, thatched stone cottage in the northeast corner of Staverton Park, a mile or so from any road.

oak brackenMy first summer visit to Staverton was hastened by this prospect of further exploration and adventure. Had I not been forewarned of the ubiquitous presence of bracken, I would have been even more amazed by the transformation of the place as soon as I stepped off the road: green everywhere! The footpath was now quite obvious, though encroached on by the bracken wherever enough sunlight reached the ground. I followed it up to Staverton Park. I could barely see the pig field to the right, and there was no question of reaching the oak tree I had climbed in December: the bracken was six feet tall here. I continued northwards into new territory, and was soon in a state of high excitement at seeing a large grass snake slither off the path into the bracken – the first live one I had seen in many years, and certainly the very largest.

As I walked along the sandy track, my mind struggled to grasp at an elusive moment in time of which this place was reminding me. For a minute or two I could not recall it, scrabble around as I might in my memory. And then suddenly it appeared: Doñana National Park in southern Spain, where I had spent two months on a year abroad during my languages degree. Sand and bracken everywhere in the pine woodland, dappled sunlight and the hot, deep sandy footpaths up to El Rocío village nearby. There were no pines here, and no beating sun and scorching sand to burn my face and feet, just a gentle, breezy warmth. But the bracken and deep sand were sufficient to transport me back 14 years in an instant.

Shepherd's cottageBefore long I emerged at the northeast corner of Staverton Park onto a well-manicured lawn either side of the footpath and some scenic, rolling pastures with resident sheep and cows. I have never been so surprised, in England, to arrive back at signs of gardening and farming. To the left was the Shepherd’s Cottage I had come in search of, with a stern ‘Private, No Entry’ sign in front. I could see little of it, but enough to appeal to my imagination. Just a little further along at the junction was another such sign, but this one added, ‘beware of adders, keep to the footpath’. I stopped in a moment of doubt at my identification of the tail end of the snake I had seen. I forgot, until I arrived home and was able to remind myself, that I knew full well the difference in markings between a grass snake and a snake of the viper family, and it was most certainly a grass snake, as I had thought.

Butley village came into view to the right. Like the manicured lawns, it seemed odd to see a row of houses, even in the distance, having just been inhabiting a private, earthly but unearthly world. Just beyond the junction, the mown grass continued in a wide strip on either side of the unpaved track – access for cars to the nearest road, I assumed – perhaps as a precaution against surprising an adder, or being surprised by one. Now I was entering wetland territory, my map told me. To the left was a series of large ponds, and I disobeyed the sign to keep to the path by crossing the grass so that I could stand at the water’s edge. The smell of the water and water mint were intoxicating. I watched the water boatmen skimming about on the surface and thought how my view of them would forever be altered by a programme I had recently heard on the radio describing what parts of their anatomy they use to make a sound similar to a grasshopper. I had never heard them make any sound, but I smiled at the thought, and carried on walking for only a few yards before coming across two tall, pink orchids of a species which I had never to my knowledge seen before.

I could not identify them from memory when I got home – a foolish mistake that I still make on a regular basis – and so I had to return the following weekend in order to be sure of finding them still in flower: I was only just in time. This time I was armed with Francis Rose’s The Wild Flower Key, as well as a camera for backup. The book had barely been used since my Masters degree in conservation, and even then only under duress, as I found using a key to identify plants was like being forced to read and understand, on the spot with an inadequate dictionary, several sentences in a foreign language of which you have no prior knowledge. It was not a pleasant experience: nearly every word used in the description to narrow down the species possibilities had to be looked up in the glossary; then usually at least one word in the glossary definition also had to be looked up. Even at the end of the process I would be lucky if I understood what part of a plant or flower anatomy the decription referred to, and only a few were assisted by illustrations.

Nevertheless, after about 20 minutes’ dogged perseverance accompanied by a large dose of impatience, I emerged victorious with a certain diagnosis of Early Marsh Orchid, despite the not-so-helpful description of its leaves as ‘usually without spots’. This one most certainly did have spots. Which subspecies it may therefore have been, I could not work out from the book, and did not care to pursue; knowing the species was enough for my satisfaction.

After exploring the footpaths a while and failing to find the stream or any wetlands that I could access, I turned back. I don’t know which ‘river’ in the Thicks Sara Maitland or George Peterken could have been referring to, although Peterken’s was easier to guess at from his description: most likely it was the tiny stream invisible beneath reeds and rushes that ran east and then turned southwards beyond Butley to become Butley River.

Walking in the opposite direction now I noticed a sign explaining the wildlife benefits of the network of agricultural ponds. I would like to have known the origin of these ponds, so extensive were they. The most likely explanation is that they were disused pits, as there were various others in the area labelled as such on my map. This was not mentioned on the sign, however, so the main item of interest to me was the sentence indicating that visitors were welcome to explore the paths that weren’t guarded by ‘keep out’ signs.

Dark waterI started to look closely for unmarked paths amongst the overgrown foliage and long grass, having earlier seen boardwalks, or perhaps bridges, tantalisingly out of reach on the far side of the long pond running parallel with the track. My first find was in fact two jetties at the southern end of this pond, and shortly I found the hidden entrance to them. For the second time that afternoon I was transported to a faraway place and time – but on this occasion I was able to identify it instantly. The dark, clear water and the encroaching low foliage on either side as the view stretched out far ahead reminded me of my many boat trips down mangrove-lined rivers and streams in a Cambodian national park where I worked for a year. How odd it was that when contemplating the water I was aware only of its stillness, darkness and clarity, but all I could see in the photographs I took was the near perfect reflection of the sky. How strange also that this newly discovered place in Suffolk could take me back to two such unrelated experiences, thousands of miles apart.

Leaving the jetties and walking further down the grassy path accompanied by a delicious smell of chamomile, I found a boardwalk leading to further boardwalks and bridges over the shallow, interconnecting ponds. It was clear that no one had walked this way since spring had taken off: they were all overgrown with brambles, nettles and – could it really be? Wild raspberries!

After the third bridge I reluctantly had to stop; the barrier of stinging, spiking plants had become too dense and high for a short, sandal-wearing explorer. It would have to wait for next time. I spotted yet more bridges in places I had no idea how to reach, and thought how lucky it was that every time I visited I found something new that would require my return…

I turned to go back as it was getting late, and I still had the ruins of Butley Priory and the Priory Gatehouse to find. As I was walking back along the bracken-lined sand track, lost in involuntary meditation on the period of my life and my state of mind at the time of my stay in Doñana, my thoughts were interrupted by a beetle waving its legs in the air, helplessly stuck on its back in the sand. How had it lost its footing, I wondered? How long had it been there? I offered it a stick to right itself and it set off on its way. Thankfully that little beetle was enough to break the spell I had been under – the only equivocal one so far cast on me by this place.

My walk back through the Park gave me further reason to revise my opinion that summer was not necessarily the optimal time for magic. The stands of silver-trunked birches outnumbering, in this location, the ancient oaks, and softened by a carpet of bracken, created a scene in which I would not have been surprised to stumble across a gingerbread house or a talking squirrel. I then encountered a hare bounding along ahead of me on the grassy path approaching the Thicks. I kept walking; several times it paused, turned, looked at me for a few seconds, then continued at a leisurely pace, before eventually disappearing into the bracken. I was by now in the mood to believe that it had been sent as a messenger to lead me somewhere.

Staverton Park

Once in back the Thicks, I heard a mighty crashing ahead of me in the deep layer of crunchy holly leaves. In the fraction of a second before my brain caught up I thought a herd of horses must have escaped, so long were the legs and tails I caught sight of through the low branches. I stopped first; then they stopped, unaware of my presence, and I watched them in wonder until I betrayed myself by crouching slightly to get a better view. I was glad to have the opportunity to confirm my spring identification of red deer. The juveniles, which had been absent from my April sighting, were beautifully dark brown and woolly.

The dream world continued shortly after; this time a man-made one. After finding that the Priory Gatehouse, as well as the ruins, were cowering behind ‘Private, no entry’ signs, a pattern that was quickly beginning to arouse my rebellious instincts, the discovery of Butley church just down the road placated me. Thank goodness churches at least are allowed to be admired. But this wasn’t just any church: it was a continuation of the world I had left less than a mile behind me.

Butley church

I started to wonder about the links between places and fairy tales in a way that I had not while reading the Staverton Thicks chapter of Gossip from the Forest. I went back to the book and started at the beginning, as I should have done first time, had not my greed and impatience for Staverton Thicks literature temporarily cast out logic. I discovered almost straightaway that this is one of its core themes: Maitland believes that fairy tales are site specific (‘landscape informs the collective imagination, as much or more than it forms the individual psyche and its imagination’1), and that many of them evolved out of the forest. Although the first written forms of fairy tales date mostly from the medieval period and later, perhaps several hundred years after the 12th and 13th century beginnings of St John’s Church, Butley and Staverton Thicks respectively, their oral origins are believed to be ancient, perhaps thousands of years old2. Could this this be a reversal of ‘site specific’: could ancient fairy tales perhaps shape the development of a place’s architecture and landscape? If this square mile in east Suffolk was not a source of fairy tales (which I still suspect it must have been – and easily could still be today), it must have grown out of them. Or perhaps it is more likely that cause and effect are more complicated, more ‘tangled’, one feeding into the other cyclically over millenia. This seems the only possible way to understand how a place can belong so completely in a magical world.

*************

Autumn is approaching again. I first set foot in Staverton Thicks in autumn, but winter was just around the corner and the trees were bare. I still have in store the excitement of watching the oaks and birches turn bronze and gold, and to see the spikey blanket of holly leaves temporarily disappear beneath a softer, brighter covering.

As I write now, I am sitting beside the reservoir at The Hobbets, across the field from my house, on the hottest day of the year so far. It is almost exactly a year since I started to write about this other special place. Perhaps it is special only to me and very few others, but it is special nevertheless. Just yesterday I met a lady in the village shop who said, as though it was a matter of pride, ‘I’ve lived here 55 years but I never go that way!’ Had farming families fallen out, I wondered? Unbelievable as it seemed to me, I am sure the same statement might be heard any day of the week in a village near Staverton Thicks.

As well as respite from the heat, I came here today looking for solutions to two minor but persistent problems: one creative, and one concerning state of mind. I was hopeful that I might find them, but I don’t know whether I really believed I would – it was quite a big ask for a place to provide such a thing on demand. But I should have had more faith: it required only that I stay here a little longer than usual.

While swimming in, and sitting beside, the water, I have become acutely aware of the deep similarities between these two very different places. Both The Hobbets and Staverton Thicks have a sense of secrecy about them, and both are steeped in history. Most significantly to me, however, they share the uncanny ability, in the space of just a few minutes, to empty the over-busy mind, cleanse and recalibrate, rekindle and focus the dormant or distracted imagination.

Secrecy and mystery are part of their magic, but becoming very slightly better known secrets will do them no harm. After all, the number of people bewitched by their unassuming charms is likely ever to remain small.


[1] Sara Maitland, 2012, p.7.

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35358487