7/5/2018 This highlight should really have appeared two weeks ago, but due to the arrival of ducklings and swallows it had to be postponed. There was no question of leaving it out, however: new horse chestnut leaves are my second favourite spring leaf behind the one I hope will be featured next week, if nothing unexpected happens to delay it once more.
In contrast to the weeping willow, whose early spring glow I enjoy best from a distance, I have to get up close to appreciate the horse chestnut’s new leaves. I love seeing the sticky buds burst open and the leaves slowly break free of their spider’s-web-like covering; but my favourite stage is when the leaves are larger and have become more recognisably those of the horse chestnut. They point downwards like drooping hands. They are light green, almost translucent and oh-so-soft: touching and stroking them is impossible to resist. I can feel my heart leap when I do so.
I had missed a weekend over Easter, and I was also in desperate need of some serious cello practice for a concert in less than two weeks’ time, so I decided to treat myself to two nights away visiting churches. A friend’s parents who had recently moved from Felixstowe to Metfield – about an hour’s drive from my house, near Harleston on the Norfolk border – had asked me to let them know when I was planning to visit Metfield church as they wanted to come along to listen. I didn’t realise until later that they had moved to, and were going to run, a B&B in the village. What could be better than combining a stay there with church visits, I thought; so after lunch on a Tuesday, I set off, intending to visit Athelington on the way. It was a church which I had planned but failed to visit after Redlingfield the previous week.
St Mary’s, Horham
Outdoor temperature: 18.1˚C; indoor temperature: 12.8˚C, humidity: 62%
4/5/2018 Ducks seem to have an uncanny ability to combine sense with silliness.
I had made up my mind that the first urgent garden job to be undertaken when the weather became more clement was to weed the rhubarb bed. I could barely distinguish rhubarb from weed, but I knew it must be nearly ready for picking by now. So, as soon as the sun appeared, I made my way through the fencing designed to keep out goats but almost as effective in keeping out humans.
But before I had done more than cut out a couple of brambles, I bumped into a duck. Almost literally: I didn’t see her until I was standing right next to her, and she barely moved even then, except to lift up her head and look at me in slight alarm.
So much for that, I thought, after I had recovered from the surprise. But then I realised, as long as I kept my distance and left her plenty of cover, I could probably start weeding from the other end without disturbing her. As I started on my task, I reflected on her choice of nesting location. Sensible duck, I thought: she has chosen a well-hidden spot with extra fencing protection against predators. I’d never have found out she was there if I hadn’t tried to weed the rhubarb bed. Silly duck, I thought: how on earth is she going to get her ducklings out?
The second year of my church project began as I hope it will continue: with cello, churches, chickens and a quite a few laughs.
While I was practising the cello at home, I suddenly had a flash of inspiration.
‘I’ve just come up with the most inspired excuse yet to get more chickens’, I texted my friend Jo.
You may be wondering what chickens have to do with cellos, or churches for that matter. The answer is quite a lot, if I have anything to do with it. But before I continue, a few pieces of background information may be required. The first is that my ‘creature maths’ is notorious for roughly observing the pattern of the Fibonacci sequence: if one chicken dies, no fewer than two new ones are needed to compensate for the loss. The second is that my friend Jo is the reason I started keeping chickens; third, she is a bishop; and fourth, she christened my three trousered and ridiculously fluffy-bottomed Brahma chickens Knicker, Bocker and Glory. (Photo right: foreground, a Glorious bottom; background left, white chicken with black tail: Bocker; background far right, grey chicken: Knicker)
My explanation to Jo continued: ‘I use the coins from my egg sales to leave donations in the churches I visit, and I keep running out of coins. I need a more constant supply of coins = I need a more constant supply of surplus eggs to sell = I need more chickens. How about that for good maths!’
30/4/2018 I love swallows. I could tell you what I love about them: their chattering, aerial acrobatics, colours and streamers. I cannot think of their migration to and from Africa every year without a sense of awe – almost disbelief. I look forward to their arrival in spring, feeling that they carry the new season on their wings, regardless of the weather – and we are shivering in yet another cold and rainy spell.
But none of this really explains my feeling for them: they are far more than the sum total of their characteristics. They carry a whole world of delight and symbolism within their weightless bodies; they are the stuff of poetry and folklore. One day – if I can work out how to do it, and make my peace with libraries – I would like to create an anthology of swallow literature.
St Michael’s, Occold
Outdoor temperature: 12.7˚C; indoor temperature: 11.1˚C, humidity: 63%
In hope of inspiration for an afternoon’s destination, I scanned the photocopied map of Suffolk churches stuck on my fridge door. It took me only a few seconds to choose Occold, simply because I thought it had an odd name. It was in an area near Eye that I didn’t know, and there were plenty of other churches to visit nearby. I have now just looked up the name and discover that it simply means ‘oak wood’. Not so strange after all.
22/4/18 I had all but chosen my next spring treasure – a task which I am finding to be no mean feat – when on Friday morning, sitting on the terrace doing admin, I heard a duck approaching the terrace from the driveway. I realised that the sound she was making could signify only one thing: she had babies with her. I was kept in suspense for only a second or two longer, before fifteen tiny egg-shaped fluffballs appeared under the gate. Their size and shape alone indicated they had hatched within the last day, but their huddling together and falling over their feet as they walked left no doubt.
St Mary’s, Badwell Ash
Outdoor temperature: 17.9˚C; indoor temperature: 11.4˚C, humidity 62%
I went back to the same area on my next excursion. I don’t often do this on consecutive outings, but it wasn’t too far away from home, and there were several churches in the vicinity that I hadn’t yet been to. The main reason for my choice, however, was instinctual not logical. Only with some thought have I worked out that the drive and the area have pleasant associations for me, of days out and adventures. With few exceptions, I have taken this route only for leisure purposes, so the journey itself feels relaxing rather than a chore.
Butterfly rescues: 3 As it turns out, there is an unexpected hazard involved in visiting churches in early spring – in fact, three. Who would have thought butterflies coming out of hibernation could singlehandedly create so many? The first is that instead of practising the cello, I spend my time trying to rescue butterflies fluttering helplessly in church windows. The second is that I risk ending up in A&E with some injury caused by less-than-sensible attempts to reach butterflies at high altitude: it’s all very well getting up there, but you also have to get down again with both hands in use as a butterfly trap. The third hazard is that, inevitably, there will always be butterflies out of reach, causing me no small amount of heartache. Perhaps I will have to invent the world’s longest extendable butterfly net specifically for rescuing butterflies trapped in churches…
St George’s, Stowlangtoft
Outdoor temperature: 11.6˚C; indoor temperature: 10˚C, humidity 53%
My first butterfly rescue of the afternoon was an easy one: it was on the floor of Stowlangtoft church. It looked sleepy but I thought a little sunshine and nectar might revive it, and I put it on a primrose outside the chancel door through which I had entered. I could do nothing to help the other butterfly which was fluttering at the top of a window.
16/4/2018 Richard Jeffries suggested the skylark should be considered a representative of winter: instead of cold and darkness, he thought, why not ‘a sign of hope, a certainty of summer?’ It was his essay that helped me to think of winter in a different way.
I half expected to include the skylark in my winter treasures; after all, I have heard skylarks sing over the fields around the Hobbets on many a clear, mild day in February. It just happens that I didn’t hear one until April this year. It is likely I simply wasn’t in the right place at the right time; but the longer wait and the circumstances of my first skylark song were part of what made it so special.