Yesterday I went on a walk with a friend, her first outing alone since lockdown. She asked me if I thought it was true there was more wildlife and more birdsong since lockdown, or whether we were simply noticing them more. I have heard many people say it, and seen many videos of wild animals wandering care-free down empty high streets, but the question of there being more wildlife, objectively speaking, needed logical consideration. It was probably a subject for the radio programme More or Less.
When she began describing the things she’d noticed, it was clear to me that most of it was just a matter of hearing birds where traffic noise would normally drown them out or encourage them to move elsewhere; or birds and other animals being happy in places they’d usually avoid. Fewer people, less traffic and less noise all mean that animals may be considering raising a family or looking for food where they never would have before. People have also slowed down, are spending more time at home and probably more time walking and cycling in their neighbourhood; therefore they are most likely seeing and hearing things that usually pass them by. But I don’t really see how there can be more wildlife already. Perhaps there will be at the end of the season, if nesting is more successful or more widespread this year. Perhaps some plants and animals that are sensitive to air quality will also benefit, though I can’t imagine the effects would be noticeable just yet.
It was the middle of March and I had booked two nights away in Rumburgh to fill in a few gaps on my church map. I suspected this would be my last church outing for a while. In fact, I felt some uncertainty as to whether I should be going at all: the government was being rather slow to impose movement restrictions, I felt, and I wholly expected to be confined to home within a week or so. But church visiting is usually a fairly solitary activity, and I didn’t think it would do any harm if I took sensible precautions. So I set off for Syleham church near the Norfolk border, a church that I had long saved up to visit on an occasion when I could give prior notice to a lady I’d met at Metfield church. She had given me her contact details, and wanted to gather some villagers to come and listen. But I suspected it would be a long while now till that would be possible, and so I decided to visit on my own and let her know that I would come back another time to play for them.
Driving up the A140 towards Diss, I suddenly remembered that Stuston church was just off the main road, and I might as well pay it a visit to see if the building works were now finished.
All Saints’, Stuston
As I drove up the lane, I saw first that the red and white tape cordoning off the porch was gone. Feeling hopeful, I drove past the scene of my number plate mishap two months earlier and to the churchyard entrance, where I found there were still two builders’ vans parked, and two men standing beside them. I got out of the car and asked if they had finished their work yet. ‘We’re just clearing up,’ he replied. ‘But you’re welcome to go in’. I explained that I wanted to play the cello, if that wouldn’t disturb them. One replied, ‘I like a bit of cello!’ So I took my equipment out of the car and walked up the newly gravelled churchyard path.
Everything I heard on the radio on the morning of 29th February told me that this was the day for doing something unusual. Visiting churches was nothing unusual for me, but visiting Ipswich was. It was also a duty – to be repeated several times in order to find all 12 medieval churches in the town centre – which would have been undertaken extremely reluctantly if I didn’t have Steve as my driver, tour guide and musical companion. I had no inkling at all of just how unique our afternoon would turn out to be…
St Mary’s at Stoke
Steve knew a sneaky parking spot near the centre of town which didn’t involve paying for a car park – something he told me he couldn’t bear doing. His aversion to paying for parking was much more extreme than mine, it turned out. It was obviously nothing to do with the money; he’d happily do anything else with the few coins required for the purpose, including give them away to a stranger, I suspect. It was simply the principle of paying to park your car. After a good giggle about Steve’s unexpected strength of indignation on the matter, and expressing my surprise that there was anywhere without parking restrictions so close to the town centre, we walked up to the main road, from where we could see no fewer than three churches. Steve suggested we first go to the one directly ahead of us, on the same side of the river and up a hill. This turned out to be St Mary at Stoke.
As we were walking up the hill, I complained about Steve’s customary speedy walking pace (which he usually blames on his dog pulling on the lead, but I am sceptical). I told him I couldn’t walk that fast uphill with a cello, to which he replied that he thought his bassoon was probably heavier – at least with a music stand in the front pocket. We stopped and swapped instruments. He was right. It was at least as heavy, probably heavier: difficult to say for sure, as the weight distribution was so different. I was surprised. ‘It’s all that metal!’ Steve said.
I thought I had forgotten to write my final winter treasure in the turmoil that was the month of March. I had to look back through the list of blogs on my website to check. It was a relief to find I hadn’t forgotten to do it; but slightly worrying that all recollection of it had since deserted me.
This month I did forget, until a few days ago when I realised we were approaching the last week of April. I’m not entirely sure how we got here.
Having made a huge effort over the last few weeks to achieve something I never would have had the confidence to attempt even a few years ago, I have been feeling exhausted. Apart from the first day, this has not been the kind of exhaustion where I can’t drag myself off the sofa because my limbs feel like lead, but more a mental and emotional sort where I feel I have used up a year’s worth of ‘sticking my neck out’, as a friend put it, and now my mind is intent on shutting itself down. Doing anything other than being entirely passive is too much effort.
St Mary’s, Kentford
I had planned a day out to visit Kentford, Denham (St Mary, near Bury, rather than St John, near Eye) and Depden. But when I phoned the keyholder at Depden, she advised me to wait for better weather: the path was so muddy, she said, I might not be able to stay upright carrying my cello. If I hadn’t been dependent on her for the key, I probably would have gone anyway; but I couldn’t really insist, beyond saying I was planning to wear wellies, which didn’t convince her. So my outing was reduced to two churches. Kentford was first, after some errands in Bury.
I was on my way to Bromeswell to play in a concert organised by my neighbours’ 11-year-old granddaughter, and planned to stop at Little Bealings church, near Woodbridge. I had done my research and was confident that my plan would proceed without a hitch, giving me plenty of time to practise before the concert.
But my confidence was misplaced. It was locked. I managed to find a phone number online, and my conversation with the keyholder proceeded thus: she didn’t have her key on her right now. It was locked because there were building works in progress. But it would be open two mornings a week if I wanted to come back another day. Despite my requests for clarification, I came out of the conversation unsure whether I couldn’t go in because she didn’t have her key, or because of health and safety. Still, I managed to force my brain out of its confusion and into logic quickly enough to ask when the building works were expected to finish, and say I’d return after that. The end of March, she said. Little did I imagine what a different situation we would find ourselves in by then…
My only other option, I concluded after a good few minutes of dithering, was to go to Woodbridge. Melton, a redundant church, was also kept locked and I hadn’t yet had a response from the Melton Old Church Trust about when I could visit. I worried that by the time I had found somewhere to park, and walked to the church, I would have very little time to do any practice. But the choice was between practising in a church I’d already visited, or going to Woodbridge. I chose Woodbridge.
More than two weeks passed before I visited another church. But a break can be helpful, and – when I drafted this account, not all that long ago – I was no longer worried about fitting in the remaining churches before September, thinking it would require little more than a few extra bursts of effort, and some additional advance-organising. Now, of course, life looks very different. Who knows when my next church visit will be, let alone whether concerts will be back on the menu by September. It is a pity, but entirely insignificant in the context of the international crisis we find ourselves in. I will simply resume when circumstances allow. In the meantime, I have plenty of churches still to write about, and once I’ve caught up, then perhaps I can get ahead a little on the planned book… Not to mention cello practice. I feel myself even luckier than usual to have these things in my life, as well as a large garden and lots of animals, which between them carry the potential of indefinite mental, physical and companiable occupation.
St Margaret’s, Southolt
I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get into Southolt church, as I had read it was a redundant, locked church in the care of its village. But I was going to be in the area, so I thought I’d try anyway, as the Suffolk Churches website had kindly informed me that almost every house in the vicinity of the church was in possession of a key.
St Mary’s, Hadleigh
I had been to Hadleigh church a few years previously, but I didn’t remember much about it except its size and setting: it was large, and set within a courtyard-type space, with the old guildhall on one side of the churchyard-lawn hybrid, and a huge Tudor gateway on its tower side. This gateway once led to the now-demolished medieval Deanery . I was more than surprised to discover that its tower was medieval: it is the only large church in Suffolk with one. I thought that spires – which I don’t like much – were Victorian features; but it turns out that even if they are medieval, I am still not entirely convinced…
Although it seems not to get as much as attention as flowers or blossom, pussy willow is for me – and many others – a highlight of late winter. Quite strangely and uniquely, it is a name that is over-specific and under-specific at the same time. It is not one species of willow, but several; and it is not a permanent name for these species, but a season-specific one. They are only referred to as pussy willow at the time of year when their male catkins emerge, covered in soft, silver fur.
I realised only a few weeks ago that they couldn’t all be one species, because the pussy willows I have seen near my house have shorter fur than the ones near Lavenham, which are as much fluff as bud, and glow when the sun is behind them. For five years I used to drive past them every week, but I rarely have a reason to go that way any more, and the road they line is not enticing. It is fast, bendy and not easy to stop on. Still, I have been wondering if I might not be too late to go looking there this year.
St Mary’s, Preston St Mary
I hadn’t been inside Preston church for perhaps five or six years. As I had become accustomed to in such instances, I could remember the general size and layout of the interior, but none of the details. As I approached the door, I could hear the organ, and feared once again that my 400th church plan for two days later would be thwarted. But I went inside anyway to find out how long the organist planned to stay.