20/10/20 Two weeks ago I arrived home from a walking holiday in Cornwall and Devon to find the landscape transformed: I had left in warm late summer, and I was arriving back in the midst of autumn. The air was cool, the ground was wet, the trees were turning and leaves lay on the ground. One of the first things I needed to do in order to ground myself in this new season and my home landscape was to go for a walk. My hoped-for walk on arrival was swept aside by an emergency vet trip, as were most of my positive feelings about arriving home. But in the short period before panic and anxiety set in, I had already felt the relief and joy of arriving back to a place in which I was glad to live. In my desperation to get away in the preceding months, it was easy to forget that. The desperation had nothing to do with attachment to my home and local landscape; it was about getting away from chores and having a mental rest, which I was finding difficult to achieve without altering my surroundings.
My walk was delayed until the next day. I went to The Hobbets, where I spotted hiding in the long grass beside the path a single large shaggy ink cap. One of my favourite mushrooms. No: my favourite mushroom. I greeted it enthusiastically, without checking first there was no one in earshot – I have got used to people happening upon me mid-conversation with some animal, plant or tree. I looked around for others, but found none. I hoped more would appear in the next few days.
On my way home, I started to wonder why I love shaggy ink caps so much. Was it because they were one of the few mushrooms I could identify without any doubt? No, it wasn’t that: I could identify shaggy parasols, giant puffballs, common ink caps, honey fungus and fly agarics. Not a huge selection, but better than nothing. It was definitely to do with their appearance, I decided, and perhaps their name. I love the word shaggy, as well as what it signifies. They are shaggy, of course, and also beautifully white, unmistakably themselves in their distinctive shape even when they are only just starting to poke through the grass. They are a friendly autumnal sight; there is not the slightest hint of malice about them.
After my visits to Depden and Westley, and contacting a few other churches with the result of having several potential audiences waiting for me, I decided to leave it a while. Although I was desperate to visit churches again, I simply wasn’t ready for an audience. Both because I was out of practice, and because I was feeling too emotional to be sociable or ‘perform’. I just wanted to be alone.
After a few weeks, however, I decided to try a change of tack. Instead of getting in touch with churches where I already had a contact, either because I’d tried to visit before or because I’d been due to give a concert there this summer, I would try churches with which I’d had no previous communications. My reasoning was that if they didn’t know who I was, perhaps they would be less interested in hearing me play.
I targeted a group of three churches in east Suffolk that I had attempted to visit before: finding out that Bruisyard church, memorable for my churchyard playing in February 2019, was once again open every day, I was overjoyed. Carlton would have to be opened for me, but that was alright: I was confident I should have Bruisyard to myself first. Saxmundham was open for prayer from 2 to 4pm on the day I wished to visit, so that, too, was easier. Until the churchwarden emailed back to ask what time I planned to come as he wanted to listen.
Yesterday morning I was caught unawares.
Walking up the river from Looe Harbour in south Cornwall, I saw a green sculpture of a seal on the rocks. I stopped briefly to read the plaque, feeling no more than mildly curious.
A distinctive ‘one-eyed’ scarred bull Grey Seal […] who was a familiar sight in the harbours of south Cornwall for over 25 years. Eventually he settled on the rocks of Looe Island as his home and made Looe Harbour his dining room where he was fed and his company enjoyed by local fishermen, townsfolk and countless visitors.
‘A Grand Old Man of the Sea’ and a great favourite with all.
In life, Nelson was a splendid ambassador for his species; now, in bronze, he serves as a potent symbol of the rich marine environment of the area and a permanent reminder of the need for it to be cherished.1
As I moved along to allow others to pass me on the walkway, I saw a bunch of wilting red and yellow roses lying beside Nelson’s left flipper.
12/8/20 After I got back from Wiltshire a few weeks ago, I made a list of things that might help me to keep up my spirits and think positively. The break had done me a huge amount of good, but I could already feel that it wouldn’t solve the problems of being at home again. I was going to have to work hard at maintaining the change in mindset I had experienced in those few days away. I had already identified one thing that would give me that sense of wellbeing and excitement about life which had been so lacking in recent weeks: to go looking for chalk streams in Norfolk. But at least a whole free day was required for that kind of adventure, and I needed things I could do every day, at home, even on busy days.
I looked back at the list yesterday. Even though I had already implemented many of the items, I had forgotten it was so long. As well as obvious things such as planning to see friends and getting out regularly, the list read as follows:
Sit in the boat on the pond
Swim in the rain
Walk at dusk
Write at the reservoir
Sleep in the garden
Make a campfire & seat area at the top of the garden by the moat
Get up early (walk/bike ride)
Go into the hedge/stream area beside the meadow
Go for a new walk twice a week
Seeing this list again, it is clearly all about new perspectives: seeing and doing familiar things in new ways, and taking advantage of novelty available close to home.
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.
26/7/20 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.