I resumed my winter treasures this year thinking that there were only two or three subjects I had had to leave out in 2018. But as the month of February progresses, I find, again, that I am having difficulty deciding what to include. January brought aconites and snowdrops, and the start of February saw my first violet and periwinkle sightings as well as the first blackbird, thrush and skylark songs, all within 24 hours. The mild winter has brought out the blackthorn already, as well as daffodils and early-spring-flowering plums and cherries. The hawthorn in my roadside hedge is already sprouting, and weeping willows are starting to glow green-yellow. It is easy to trick oneself into thinking March is already underway, but I have no desire to wish away this most unloved month of February. Part of the pleasure is in knowing what lies around the corner, and savouring the hints of something not yet arrived. I wouldn’t want to lose a month of anticipation; nor would I want to lose a month of calm in which to continue my slow but steady and satisfying progress on long-neglected jobs.
So, instead, I am thinking back to December and January afternoons, and choosing a topic that applies to the whole of this season of low sun: the quality of light and shadow on a sunny day. It is glorious in the morning, but the afternoon brings a special orange glow. It is the kind of oblique light chased by artists and photographers, and not easily found in summer, except at sunrise and sunset.
St Michael’s, Boulge
I had visited Boulge once before, the time that I also stopped at Debach, not realising it was now a private house. I don’t remember if this was before or after I started my church tour; if it was after, then it was certainly near the start. On that occasion I came away assuming it was kept locked, but something I read on the Suffolk Churches website made me realise that most likely I had simply tried the wrong door, and that if I went back I would find it open.
St Mary’s and St Peter’s, Barham
Barham, near Claydon, was my aborted 4th church visit from a few days earlier. Like Claydon, this church was also up the hill on the east side of the A14, but from this churchyard there were clear views across the Gipping Valley. It was a lovely setting, but the noise of traffic was unrelenting, and I knew that everything between here and the opposite hill was road, rail or housing, mostly new developments. It was not as rural as it appeared at first glance.
A lady was getting out of her car as I pulled into the car park.
‘Is there an event on in the church, do you know?’ I asked her. ‘There seem to be a lot of cars here’.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘They might be in the meeting room at the back. It’s unusual for there to be so many cars. I’ve just come to do the flowers’.
We both went up to the church, and found it empty, so I went back to fetch my cello. When I returned, the lady I had arrived with was talking to another lady.
‘You’re welcome to play your cello,’ she said. ‘We’ve had communion in the other room and we’re having tea now. Please do join us if you’d like’.
St Peter’s, Baylham
It was another sunny day, and my destination was the road running between Needham Market and Ipswich: a prime location for churches I hadn’t yet visited. I didn’t know what to expect of Baylham; the only thing I knew of it was the Rare Breeds Farm, which was north of the village and on the other side of the railway, so not really in Baylham at all. The main road was as anonymous as I expected, but soon I came to a right turn signposted to the village. The church was up a hill, with stunning countryside views. There is little better than the quality of light on a sunny winter’s day, whether in the morning or the afternoon, and I stood gazing across the meadowed valley for a contented few moments before entering the church.
All Saints’, Easton
I thought I hadn’t been to Easton village before – and Easton Farm Park has long been on my list of places to visit, with or without accompanying children – but when I pulled up near the picturesque pub and miniature village green, I knew I’d driven through it once before, and could even remember the conversation I was having at that moment with my friend Mark, who was sitting in the passenger seat.
A little over a year ago, I completed my year of weekly ‘seasonal treasures’. I started the project as a form of self-medication: I suspected that I had some form of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and that winter would always make me feel low, even though I had learned – consciously – to like it. Now I am not sure I was right. I wonder if it was in fact a combination of difficult circumstances for several years running that formed unconscious, bodily associations of winter with physical and emotional difficulties, and that these associations required a concerted effort to break, by replacing them with more positive ones. Whatever the problem was, my self-prescribed concoction of daily walks, a daylight lamp, more frequent social and musical engagements and, perhaps most importantly, weekly writing about highlights of the season, was more successful than I ever could have hoped.
I enjoyed the writing so much that I continued my seasonal treasures through the whole year. It wasn’t only the process of writing that had such a positive effect: it was the necessity of noticing, and dwelling on, the beauty around me, in order to choose something to write about. In fact, I ran out of weeks to include everything I wanted to. So the following year I thought I would continue, if less frequently, in order not to leave out anything important. But my intentions didn’t materialise. As time went on, I realised that without a self-imposed schedule, my more pressing writing engagement with Suffolk’s churches took over, and the seasonal writing was left by the wayside.
St Botolph’s, Culpho
After Grundisburgh, I drove down the road to Culpho. It was a pleasant change to find churches all within five minutes’ drive of each other, after my tour of north-west Suffolk before Christmas, which has the most spaced out parishes of the whole county. I have forgotten the reason for this, and haven’t managed to track down the information I once read about it. I also had to look up again the strange village name: apparently it is derived from Old English and means ‘Culf’s spur of land’ – from ‘hoh’, the same origin as the word ‘Hoo’, as in Sutton Hoo and Dallinghoo.
A change in my church-visiting mentality had taken place over the previous few weeks. In the spring, James – my accompanist – suggested that a concert to celebrate my very last church visit would be a great way to end the tour. He thought it should be a church that I hadn’t yet played in, and since I had already played in over 300 churches, it required some mulling over. We finally settled on Orford, for its size, location and musical associations.
In the autumn, I finally got round to investigating the feasibility of our plan. ‘Yes’, came back the reply from the churchwarden responsible for bookings, ‘but it would be sensible to find a date sooner rather than later as we get quite a lot of bookings’. Yikes, was my internal response. How could I anticipate when I would finish my tour? I didn’t want to risk running out of time, but the winter months wouldn’t be suitable for a concert, so it would either have to be autumn 2020 or spring 2021, neither of which was strictly ideal: I expected to finish well in advance of spring, but the previous autumn might be a push. In the interests of caution, however, I finally settled on a date in May 2021, and James agreed.
St Andrew’s and St Patrick’s, Elveden
I drove past Elveden church once or twice, west to east, when I was staying in Rushford. It was interesting to drive up south to north from home this time: I could see how the roads linked together now. The church puzzled me: first I didn’t think it could be the medieval church of Elveden; then I thought there must be two churches side by side: I could see two towers, and two buildings, from the road. Finally I looked up Elveden church to try and understand what I was looking at, and found something remarkable: the son of the leader of the Sikhs, Prince Duleep Singh, moved to Elveden Hall in the late 1860s. The roof interior and font in the church were part of his restorations. The huge extension built on the road side of the old church was late 19th century work, and the cloister and second tower, a bell tower, were built in 1922. When I went to look in person, I found a large open space on the south side, from where I could appreciate the cloister, bell tower and only available view of the old church.
I was quite pleased with my arrangements for the following day. There were three churches in the vicinity of Rushford that I hadn’t yet visited; one was apparently open every day, and the other two I succeeded in arranging access to. I had been avoiding Redgrave for a long time after a somewhat unpleasant phone conversation with a keyholder: he was polite, but only just. His manner resembled that of a suspicious bouncer more than a welcoming keyholder – even though I had been put in touch with him by the Churches Conservation Trust, which is responsible for the church. I hoped I might find the details for another keyholder online, therefore bypassing the necessity of contacting this man again, but it had taken me 18 months to get round to it. Thankfully, I did find another keyholder, and this time I emailed rather than phoned. The prompt response I got couldn’t have been more of a contrast, friendly and enthusiastic, and my attitude to the church changed accordingly. By the end of our communications, I couldn’t wait to visit Redgrave.