With bed and breakfast guests from 27th December, I decided to book a short break to visit churches in the week before Christmas. It felt a little risky to book 3 nights away several weeks in advance, not knowing what the weather would be like. But, bar any blizzards, I knew that if I committed myself by paying for accommodation, I would go, and enjoy it even if the churches were freezing. And if they were really too cold, I could spend more time walking and writing instead.
So I found and booked the loft of someone’s outbuilding in Westleton, near the coast and a good area for both walking and churches. I was lucky with the weather: it was mild, with more than a fair smattering of sunshine. For the second time this autumn, however, my trip was preceded by an animal disaster which meant that I left home both with a heavy heart, angry with myself and doubting my competence, and feeling that distraction and having a break away from home would do me good.
St Peter’s, Stutton
Indoor temperature: 10.2˚C, humidity: 78%
I had made a Saturday morning appointment with Steve, a bassoonist with whom I had played recently in two orchestral concerts, to visit his village church. I had first met him a year or two previously in his official capacity as a woodwind instrument repairer: I went to his house to meet a friend of mine, Joost, who had just come up on the train from London to drop off his bassoon at Steve’s house. Joost had raved about both Steve and his vegetable garden, and had asked if I could have a tour. I was kindly invited to coffee and cake as well. His vegetables were indeed impressive, as was his baking, and he was quite as friendly and lively as Joost had led me to believe.
So, when we met again, we quickly got chatting about all sorts of things, including, of course, churches. I was delighted when he offered to join me at Stutton church, and I was impressed that he was up for the challenge of church playing at this time of year: any rural musician will be partially used to playing in cold churches in the run up to Christmas, but I think not many would choose to do so just for the fun of it.
St Peter’s, Theberton
Outdoor temperature: 9.7˚C; indoor temperature: 9.9˚C, humidity: 71%
I was back on the east coast the following weekend for a concert at Snape Maltings. My friends in Sibton Green kindly offered me a bed again to spare me a late drive home after the Friday night rehearsal, so I had the luxury of a whole morning on Saturday to explore.
Heading towards Aldeburgh to visit a friend for late morning coffee, Theberton lay along my route. I had a treat in store. Its round tower and thatch were only the beginning: inside, I found an impressive hanging quilt made by the ‘Theberton and Eastbridge village stitchers’, showing scenes of village life. I turned right to walk towards the chancel and saw that the south aisle and its columns were painted. I read afterwards that this painting dates from the 1846 rebuilding of the south aisle1. While I admired it, however, I didn’t really question its age or design, I simply thought how cheerful and bright it made the already lovely church.
St Mary’s and St Peter’s, Kelsale
The following morning, after a blissful night’s sleep in the epitome of rural Suffolk cottages, I went for a walk in the sunshine and then set off in the direction of Saxmundham. Before the afternoon concert in Darsham church, I was due at Aldringham Court nursing home at 2pm to play to the bed-bound elderly mother of an acquaintance, and I intended to fit in two churches on the way. Although all the music I was playing today I had played before, I hadn’t spent quite long enough on them lately to feel comfortable performing them, so I was glad of some practice time.
St Mary’s and St Lambert’s, Stonham Aspal
Outdoor temperature: 10.3˚C; indoor temperature: 12.8˚C, humidity: 72%
It was the weekend of the CelloAid concert in Darsham church: an all-cello concert, all ages and all standards, in aid of Suffolk Refugee Support. I was heading to Sibton Green the day before for a rehearsal, and had arranged to spend the night there with friends, as Darsham was only a few miles away.
I had driven past the ‘church open’ sign outside Stonham Aspal church many a time on my way coastwards. The sign seemed the most enticing thing about it: the church was tucked back behind some trees, looking rather cramped and dark in the middle of the village. Driving past west to east, its tower was invisible to a car driver, so that I didn’t realise it had one until I stepped into the churchyard.
24/12/2018 It seems only right that, having completed a year of weekly seasonal treasures, I should reflect on the reasons I began.
Rereading the introduction I wrote a year ago, I was surprised. I had almost forgotten that I planned to choose one subject for each week of winter only, and I can barely recognise the emotions I was experiencing then, so different do I feel now.
I started the project as a kind of therapy for winter, a way to help me live more in the moment and appreciate what was around me even when I was struggling, whether due to cold and dark, dealing with difficult circumstances or events, or my own inexplicable moods. I found the therapy so effective and enjoyable that I didn’t want to stop. No matter what time of year it is, there are always times when we are so bound up with our busy-ness or daily problems that we can fail to notice things in front of us; forget to be grateful for simple gifts. I found that forcing myself to stop to think and write about them was so beneficial to my mental health, regardless of how low or upbeat I was feeling, that the original purpose of the task was overtaken by a multitude of positive effects. In this way it reminds me of my church tour which I began in April last year, for just three or four vague reasons. The outcomes so far, perhaps ten times that quantity, have been beyond anything I could have imagined.
23/12/2018 It took me months to attract the first goldfinches to the garden with nyger seeds. When they did arrive, I would see one, and then have to wait several weeks to see the next one. Still, I was thrilled with the odd sighting, and wished I could tell my father they were here. Like kingfishers, they look too exotic for England; and also like kingfishers, it only takes a glimpse to know which bird you have seen.
20/12/2018 It very much still feels like autumn, and I’m glad about that. I can carry on enjoying walks and garden jobs accompanied by chickens and goats without having to brace myself too often to go outdoors. I know I will warm up soon enough with activity, but that doesn’t stop me putting off going out in the cold…
Autumn seems to be the quietest B&B period. More so than winter. I think once New Year has passed, people start needing to think about their next long weekend or holiday in order to get them through till spring. I don’t mind having a quiet period: it gives me a chance to catch up on all the long overdue tasks of mending, sorting, tidying (indoors and out), admin, getting myself generally a little more organised than usual, and even decorating. And this year I actually feel as though I’ve made the most of the time available, to the extent that three years after building work was completed, I am finally getting round to decorating the animal room and finding a way to permanently rodent-proof the wattle and daub walls, which are slowly but surely being transferred to the floor by chewing chinchillas and excavating rats… I am also well on my way to having a new bathroom (the last time it was done was likely in the 1950s) along with other smaller but equally essential renewals or additions, such as paving improvements and a proper fence for my rhubarb bed that I defy even Ilo and Felicity to breach…
17/12/2018 When I first heard reports from friends and neighbours of bluebells sprouting in December, I thought they must be mistaken. I have rarely noticed snowdrop shoots in December, and that seemed far more likely than bluebells. With a large dollop of doubt and no first-hand evidence to settle the matter, I soon forgot about it.
Until last year, when I actually paid attention to what was under my nose.
St Mary’s, Erwarton
Indoor temperature: 13.7˚C, humidity: 79%
For a whole year, Erwarton church had been at the back of my mind: a friend from pottery who lives in Holbrook nearby had offered to take me there. She had mentioned it was one of her favourite churches. Finally I got round to suggesting a date, and on the second attempt we made it happen. I had a friend staying with me, and so the two of us set off for the Shotley peninsula.
I had visited only one church there so far: Tattingstone. I’m not sure why it took me so long to go back. Perhaps because I didn’t fancy tackling the A12 around Ipswich. It was only a short distance, and didn’t involve crossing the Orwell Bridge – which must be my least favourite stretch of road in the whole county due to the scary side winds that sometimes blow over it – but nevertheless it was sufficient to delay my return. There was an alternative option of going through Wherstead, but the smaller roads are windy (of the other kind) and indirect, and I don’t feel confident finding my way. Not to mention the latter associations I have of the area involving locked church frustration and an upsetting encounter at Copdock. But recently I have discovered a third route: to head southeast directly to the Essex border (the Stour estuary) and take a left turn at Brantham. It might take a little longer to reach some churches closer to the Orwell estuary, but I think this is the best solution, especially as I have now found a ‘partner in crime’, a friendly bassoonist with a twinkle in his eye who lives in Stutton, near Brantham, and has offered to join me for duets in the remainder of the Shotley peninsula churches.