St Mary’s, Depden
I attempted to resume church visits in the last week of June. I hoped that playing the cello, and visiting churches, might help me psychologically. James, my accompanist, had died two weeks earlier, and for a while I had been struggling with a worsening nerve problem in my left elbow. I had rested it for ten days or so, and the pins and needles in my fingers had gone. Although I knew that wasn’t the end of the story – the nerve was still uncomfortable, sometimes painful, if I used my hands too much – I felt it was time to resume gentle playing, for the sake of my mental health more than anything.
Churches were now open for ‘private prayer’, so I decided to try ruins – no key needed – and churches where I had a contact already. I thought it would avoid the need for lengthy explanations. Depden came to mind: a church in west Suffolk that I had enquired about visiting twice before, in winter, when I was told the path was far too muddy for me not to end up falling over. I would have gone anyway, but the keyholder was adamant. I spoke to the same keyholder again, and she remembered me. I could tell from her voice that she was delighted with the idea of my coming. ‘But I’d better just check, and ring you back,’ she said. After my experience at Honington, I very nearly said, ‘I think cello playing counts as prayer’, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to utter the words. In any case, I was sure she would call back to say yes.
The other day I found myself standing ankle-deep in the River Wylye.
When it was time to go, I said to my friend Peter, ‘Can you leave me here and come back for me tomorrow?’
I was joking, of course. But not entirely. Between the long moments of blankness – the simple staring at the crystal-clear surface, at the colourful gravel bed, listening to the flowing water – thoughts came and went.
‘I could stay here for hours.’
‘I love chalk streams.’
‘Is this what meditation is?’
‘A chalk stream is actually all I need to feel better. It could cure me of anything.’
I felt odd this morning. Part of me was sorry to be going home today, not knowing when I might get out again; and part of me was anxious to get back to the safety of home. I had intended to go for a walk and leave late morning, but a phone call from my friend Joost changed my plans: he had suddenly panicked that London would be locked down by the weekend and he wouldn’t be able to leave, so he had decided to pack his bag and get on a train. He had already missed the opportunity to get to the Faroe Islands where his partner and dog live, and felt a horror of being stuck in London for an indeterminate period without any work. We had discussed it a few weeks previously, and I had offered him the option of ‘self-isolation in Suffolk with goats’, which seemed to him a far preferable alternative.
I told Joost I would be passing Stowmarket station mid-afternoon and could pick him up, so he booked his ticket accordingly. Despite my lack of walk, it was too late to fit in four churches: I now had a time limit and was also slow to set off, distracted by the whole strange situation. Still, I thought it would do me some good to blot out the world for a while with some cello practice.
St Margaret’s, South Elmham
St Margaret’s was the very last of the ‘Saints’ churches, so called because the 11 villages – as I thought – of Ilketshall and South Elmham, in northeast Suffolk, are named after Saints. But I have now read that Homersfield church is also called St Mary’s, South Elmham, bringing the total to 12. All the Saints have their own church, apart from St Nicholas’ church which has disappeared. Although you might more accurately say that the villages only exist insofar as they each have a church: most of them consist only of a few scattered houses.
16/6/20 Sometimes I wonder whether sorrow and celebration are compatible, or if they are in fact so closely intertwined that celebration is hardly meaningful unless it is goes tightly hand in hand with its opposite. Hearing on Sunday night of the death of a musical colleague and friend, from whom the excitement of my musical future in Suffolk seemed barely separable, part of me was in no way inclined to continue with the celebration of bee orchids that I had begun a day earlier. But June has been a month of loss for me since my mother’s death a decade ago. There is an irony, and pain, in the contrast between the joy and busyness of the season and the emptiness of grief, but in some way I have also become accustomed to it; to the extent that it may be the cause of my being even more attuned to the small wonders going on around me every day. It somehow feels more important than ever to celebrate the little bee orchid. Perhaps it seems more of a miracle, more beautiful, than it did before.
Last June I was excited to find bee orchids growing in the field verge nearest my wildflower meadow. This year in March, my friend Mark spotted a bee orchid in my front lawn. I was dubious; but after a few seconds’ contemplation of the greenery around my feet, I replied, ‘well, if that is a bee orchid, so is this!’ And so a microscopic examination of the front lawn began, with a stick placed beside each orchid so that it wouldn’t be mown over. He was right, of course: they were bee orchids, and there were a lot of them. He also found what we now believe to be a common spotted-orchid (complete with oddly-placed and possibly controversial hyphen), having first thought it an early purple – which, incidentally, has also made me realise that the supposed marsh orchids at the Hobbets that I mentioned two years ago are more likely to be common spotted-orchids, though the two hybridise readily. If and when it flowers, we will be able to confirm its identity.
St Margaret’s, Sotterley
I had delayed visiting Sotterley church more than once: this was a church to enjoy in warm, dry weather, as it was a mile’s walk or so from the road, in the middle of the Sotterley estate. I would have gone in winter, had a bright day presented itself while I was in the area, but it didn’t, and so I waited.
The start of the path was obvious; after that, I had to scan the oak trees and field edges for white signs with black church symbols to find the next section of my route. I felt the thrill of a child on a treasure hunt. Before long I saw the grand house through a gap in the hedge on my right, across a pond, or perhaps more likely a moat (see header photo), and I knew I was nearly there. Sure enough, at the next sign on a small bridge across a ditch – the River Blyth, apparently – I could see the tower of the church poking above a dense cluster of trees. I’d stopped a couple of times to give my shoulders a rest, but yet again I was glad of my lightweight cello case: it was worth every penny I’d spent on it, and made walks such as these not only possible but delightful.
On my way to Wingfield church, I saw a café whose name I recognised from Instagram. On a whim, and not without some misgivings over whether it was strictly sensible from a virus point of view, I stopped. But I would arrive too early at my accommodation even if I visited two more churches, as the owner had asked me to come after 4.30pm. I passed a chicken residence, then stables and an animal supplies shop, and found the café beside some horse paddocks: certainly a novel setting. I poked my head through the door to check it wasn’t too busy, and that I could sit at the required distance away from other people. Only two tables were occupied; one by a group probably above the age of 80 who seemed entirely unconcerned about the threat to their health, and another by a man with tattoos all over his face and head (not to mention the rest of his skin that was visible) and his companion. I found a corner to sit in, answered the usual questions about my cello – some from the tattoo man, who was very genial – and treated myself to a piece of coffee and walnut cake.
30/5/20 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.
23/4/20 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.