Approaching an old church induces a similar effect in me as approaching an old pollard oak. The closer I get, the more my daily preoccupations melt away into insignificance. Touching the tree, climbing into it, or entering the church, I become part of a greater, more worthy existence, no longer a small, flawed individual. In the presence of an immovable, grand and beautiful structure that has stood in this spot for centuries, awe and peace replace racing thoughts and mundane worries. I become aware of the speck that is a human life span. It is a fact often difficult to make peace with, but these giants administer the harsh truth with a large dose of comfort.
There are also historical and structural parallels of course. Hardly a church has not been partially or almost entirely rebuilt since its original construction in medieval or even pre-Domesday times1. A pollard oak, where the tree is cut some two or more metres off the ground and new shoots sprout from the stump or cut branches, often lives longer than a ‘maiden’ uncut tree. A coppice on the other hand, cut at ground level and resulting in a ‘stool’ from which hundreds of new shoots grow, can become gigantic and may live indefinitely, certainly for millennia…
Captain’s Wood is one of the few bluebell woods in Suffolk that I had not yet visited – that is, of those that aren’t so secret you have to talk to locals to find out they exist. A friend mentioned she was going, which reminded me of my omission and it seemed like a good destination for my next day off, even if it meant leaving my cello at home. But, luckily, Sudbourne is near Butley. And Butley is where a new friend of mine lives.
I invited Kim to accompany me to Captain’s Wood, and she very kindly agreed to house my cello while we went on our walk. Walking unencumbered in a wood in spring time reminded me that I must not forget to indulge in this pleasure from time to time in preference to touring churches – or I should find more ways to make both possible in one trip.
We approached the wood through an attractive area of grassland dotted with gorse. The sunshine was an unexpected treat. I noticed how all the oaks ahead of us were at different stages of leafing, and the leaves and buds were of thoroughly different colours. Some of them were the yellow-green I usually associate with spring oaks, but some of them were almost an autumnal bronze. It never occurred to me that they might be different types of oak; that is, until I read Roger Deakin’s disgruntled description of the oaks on Wortham Common: ‘even the oaks are out of place; early-budding specimens from Italy or Romania via the big forcing nurseries in Holland’2. I found the idea of oaks being a subject of annoyance mildly amusing, although I empathise to some extent, having learnt about exotic and invasive species while studying nature conservation. And, as always, Deakin was prodding me to find out more about the trees and plants around me.
We did not find the bluebells until the latter part of our walk. They were lovely, though not yet quite at their best – slowed down by the recent cold weather, no doubt – so the elements of the visit that really stood out for me were the trees. First, a giant oak which must have once been coppiced, as its trunk divided into large branches almost at ground level. I only had to walk towards the majestic oak and its vast canopy to feel its welcome spell over me. It was easy to step into the tree from the ground, unlike the pollard oaks in Staverton Thicks; I was less than a metre up but I still felt part of the spirit of the oak. It was with great reluctance that I descended after a few minutes to continue walking.
We then started to see birch tree after birch tree that had fallen but was still happily growing upwards from its new horizontal position. The crowning exhibit, however, was a birch growing from the top of an uprooted oak stump. The stump was rotted and hollow, and the wood grain contours were pronounced. The birch had threaded its roots carefully over and through the stump until they reached the soil. The effect was a wondrous work of art, only poorly conveyed by my attempts at two-dimensional photography.
This is my choice of art gallery. I feel nature should be allowed an entry to the Turner prize, but perhaps that would be unfair on humans: it would surely win every time for innovation and beauty.
I wondered what would happen once the oak stump decomposed sufficiently to collapse. Would the birch roots hold the stump in place? Would the birch topple over? Or would its roots be strong enough to hold it upright in mid-air? Perhaps one day, many years from now, I will find out.
After a refreshing stop at the newly reopened Oyster Inn at Butley, which I had only ever seen derelict (what a difference it makes to the atmosphere of a small village to have one of its old, focal buildings resurrected and enjoyed!), it was time to retrieve my cello and visit a few churches. The intermittent sunshine had lasted long enough for our walk, but by the time I set off with my cello, the temperature had dropped and a steady drizzle was falling.
St John’s, Butley
I first visited Butley church on a hot summer’s day last year (photo right), when I was looking for Butley Priory. Despite the contrast of today’s weather and the anticipation of feeling no warmer inside than out, there was something exhilarating about taking musical shelter in such a special place. It is one of my favourite Suffolk churches – so far, at least.
While I was playing I became aware of a noise, which, out of habit (logic does not play a part in such semi-conscious mind workings) I momentarily mistook for my chickens. Smiling at my silly mistake, I turned my attention to the sound. It seemed to be rooks having a disagreement on the roof. This was not the first time that I had heard birds outside a church, singing or arguing, often thudding on the roof, and sometimes giving me, inside, the impression that it was the church itself singing or cooing. I loved the feeling that the church was a participant in the life taking place in, on and around it: it was no longer a stationary, inanimate object, but a living being.
St Botolph’s, Burgh
After Butley, I decided to drive back home and visit some churches en route. My first challenge when I stopped at Burgh was working out how to pronounce its name. Burgh immediately follows Grundisburgh when travelling northwestwards from Woodbridge. Having asked various people more than once how to pronounce Grundisburgh, I can finally remember that it is ‘Gruns-bruh’. So, is Burgh ‘Bruh’, a ridiculously short name that doesn’t sound like a name? No, apparently this one is pronounced, for once, roughly as it is written, ‘Burg’. It is a peril-filled area of Suffolk as far as pronunciation is concerned; I would not like to be a tourist asking for directions here. Debach is not far away and I only recently found out that its correct pronunciation is ‘Debbitch’ or ‘Debbidge’. I don’t know if this is a matter of opinion or whether both versions are acceptable. I suppose if you say it quickly enough perhaps no one will notice…
Burgh church is perched on the hill next to the road, as is Clopton church, just a few hundred metres away. I did not remember there were two churches on this part of the attractive though well-used road from Woodbridge to Otley, which runs alongside the River Lark and its pretty meadows on one side and rises steeply uphill on the other – they had merged into one in my mind. After battling to fit my cello through the pedestrian gate which would no longer open fully, I walked up the hill. The entrance door was in the tower. I passed the bell ropes and went through another door to discover inside a heavily stained-glassed, dark church – by far the darkest church I have ever visited, as far as I can remember. The lack of daylight did not help, and there was no electricity so I could not turn on the lights. In spite of this, I liked the feel of it and enjoyed playing in the gloom that suitably reflected the dreary afternoon outside.
St Mary’s, Coddenham
My next stop was Coddenham church, which I had many times wanted to visit, especially after having been told it was an ‘angel church’ (with angels on the roof), but the road through Coddenham is perilously narrow and I could never see where to stop without holding up the traffic. This time I was determined, however, partly due to having spotted a churchyard full of cowslips on my way past in the morning. Driving homeward was the easier direction to notice on this occasion that it was possible to drive through the gates of the churchyard. Still, I could not tell for sure that the grass to one side of the footpath was intended as a car park until I got out to read the small sign that said, ‘no cars beyond this point please’.
No sooner had I checked the church was still open and gone back to get my cello out of the car, than another car pulled up and a man got out. ‘Are you here to visit the church?’ I asked. ‘I’ve come to lock up,’ he said, and as he could see my cello, I explained what I was doing. ‘I’ll turn on the lights for you and come back later – it’s no problem, I only live down the road,’ he said. ‘But do you mind if I listen for a few minutes?’
We chatted while I set up and he turned on the lights. He sang in a choir in Ipswich and therefore, of course, we found we had at least one common acquaintance from music circles. I enquired about the angels, and he handed me a sheet describing each one. I didn’t understand the difference between them and so only glanced at the sheet; it is only on looking at my photos now that I can see each angel is carrying a coat of arms: one with two keys on it, one with a sword, and so on. Perhaps I will have to go back with a pair of binoculars, retrieve the guide and do some proper angel-watching.
The church was clearly well used and well loved, and my chat with the churchwarden was an uplifting way to end the day. By the time I had packed up, I was tired and the rain had not let up, so I didn’t attempt to photograph the outside of the church – I would come back another day. I knew it would be soon, because Kim had told me on our walk that morning, much to my surprise and delight, that bluebells grew in Staverton Thicks, one of my favourite places in Suffolk and not far from Captain’s Wood. But she thought it would be a week or two before they were out. It is astonishing how much flowering and leafing schedules vary from one location to another, and even from one tree to another in the same location, as I saw with the oaks at Captain’s Wood. Two weeks previously, in mid April, I had visited the bluebells at Spouse’s Vale in south Suffolk: they were already busy in their creation of a blue land-sea.
I knew the cowslips might be gone the next time I passed, however, so I ignored the rain and got down on my knees to wish them well until next spring.
Total churches visited to the end of April: 14
1. 418 Suffolk churches are listed in the Domesday book, more than for any other county in England.
2. Deakin, R. 2006. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, p.100.