‘There is very often a warm interval in February, sometimes a few days earlier and sometimes later, but as a rule it happens that a week or so of mild sunny weather occurs about this time […] These mild hours in February check the hold which winter has been gaining, and as it were, tear his claws out of the earth, their prey. If it has not been so bitter previously, when this Gulf stream or current of warmer air enters the expanse it may bring forth a butterfly and tenderly woo the first violet into flower.’
Richard Jeffries, ‘Out of Doors in February’, in The Open Air (1885).
20/2/2018 When I discovered this essay at the beginning of winter, it struck me that Jeffries was right about February. At least, I remembered such days of warmth and sunshine last year, and in some previous years. Certainly, the first opportunity of the year to sit in the sun on the terrace usually occurs in February. There is nothing more delicious than that first sensation of unambiguous warmth and brightness falling on your face for the first time – properly – in several months. But it might as well have been several years.
16/2/2018 Shingle Street is the other place in Suffolk that I prefer in winter. Like Staverton Thicks, I first visited in December, on a misty and mysterious afternoon. This winter I took my Christmas visitors there for a Boxing Day walk before our picnic in the woods.
It is a remote, wild and deserted-feeling place, suited to the cold, wind, mist and lack of human activity in winter. It is also one of the few places I have found in Suffolk where, temperature aside, change is barely seasonal. A few colonies of flowering coastal plants live on the stable area of shingle near the Coastguard Cottages, but otherwise change happens on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, according to the tides and winds rather than the tilt of the earth.
St Mary’s, Letheringham
Outdoor temperature: 6.5˚C; Indoor temperature: 7.4˚C, humidity: 63%
My obligatory return trip to Monewden to take photos had an unexpectedly beneficial side effect: it provided the impetus to go out with my cello. If it hadn’t been for that semi-reluctant, semi-long-distance drive, I might not have discovered that playing in churches in January can be enjoyable, despite the cold.
4/2/2018 The viburnum is one of the very few winter blossoms I have in my garden. Usually the only one, in fact, unless the weather is unseasonably mild and spring blossom arrives early. I know next to nothing about shrubs, but I have managed to identify it with a fair degree of certainty as Viburnum x bodnantense, ‘Dawn’, a large deciduous shrub (bordering on small tree) that produces sweetly fragranced clusters of light pink flowers from autumn to spring.
St Leonard’s, Horringer
Outdoor temperature: 11˚C; indoor temperature: 10.1˚C, humidity: 62%
It was the winter solstice. I try to celebrate this day in some way, as it is my ‘name day’. But this evening I had a concert to play in – a repeat of the Great Barton concert, in St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds – so I’d had my little celebration the day before. Still, I had to practise the cello for the evening’s concert, and I decided that visiting a church would be a nice way to mark the day, especially as the weather was a mild. I was, of course, going to play at a church in the evening anyway, but St Mary’s was familiar to me, and the last time I played there was a sad occasion: the funeral of a friend, Penny’s husband Jeremy. It was also the birth of my church tour idea, however; and my experience of playing at the funeral was so much more calming and uplifting than I ever would have expected, that the memory has a little silver lining amongst the sadness.
Horringer church is located at the entrance to the National Trust’s Ickworth House and Park. For a long time I didn’t realise it was a parish church, thinking it was linked to the estate, even though I knew there was another church within the grounds. After confirming with Penny that it was in fact Horringer village church, and being told by Sam, her son, that it was heated all year round (which I found hard to believe), I decided it was time to pay it a visit.
All Saints’, Hitcham
It was the Sunday a week before Christmas, and for the fourth year in a row, I was due to play the cello at the village carol service. I was also in the choir, but singing the right notes at the right time is about all I can claim for my singing talents. Will and John were joining me for another performance of the Handel trio sonata, and I was mighty glad that the unusually early cold weather had passed, as I didn’t fancy another numb finger episode.
My personal connection to the church – apart from the fact I live in the village, and have rather amusingly (for someone allergic to meetings) been roped in to the Friends Committee – is that both of my parents are buried in the churchyard, and my grandparent-substitutes and old next-door neighbours, Jack and Doris, have a memorial stone and bench there (they were cremated rather than buried). After my experience at Combs church, I plan to ask the rector how I might go about obtaining permission to put up a bird box in their memory.
28/1/2018 I think my eyes are slowly becoming more attuned to winter goings on. I noticed catkins on the hazels before the end of December, and early in January I went up to examine them at close quarters. They were brown, small and hard. Only a few days later, however, amongst the hard catkins I started to see just as many long, floppy, yellow-green ones, which caught the sunlight and lit up the hedgerows better than any Christmas lights. I didn’t remember hazels flowering in the middle of winter, and I wondered briefly if they were a different species of hazel, or perhaps not hazel at all. Apparently, a tree that I took for granted around my garden and in the hedgerows was a mystery to me as far as its flowering habits were concerned. Research was clearly required.
St Michael’s, Framlingham
On the first Saturday in December, I had an appointment at Framlingham church to play music at their Christmas Tree Festival. They had asked me months in advance, but it wasn’t until a few weeks earlier that I had come up with a suitable plan for providing seasonal, fun ‘background’ music for their event: solo cello music wouldn’t work, nor cello accompanied by piano. Finally, I had an idea: it occurred to me that several cellos might be the answer. Carols are usually harmonised in four parts, and if I could get hold of a book of carols (first port of call: the Hill Music Library, ie. my friend Penny’s house), and two or three other cellists, it might just work out.
I mentioned my idea to a cellist friend, Mandy, and she kindly agreed to play. She managed to rope in an ex-pupil of hers, and Penny gave me not only the music but the contact details of a cello-playing colleague; and, bingo! We had a cello quartet. I had only met one of the players, but I was confident we would have no trouble playing carols together.
St John’s, Elmswell
I heard about the theft of roof lead from Elmswell church from a friend. It happened shortly before Remembrance Sunday, and the rain got in. My friend suggested I contact the church and offer to play the cello there, to help with their fundraising efforts or simply for moral support, and within a couple of days I had fixed with the rector that I would go and play something at a comedy, poetry and music evening which was taking place the following week. It was unrelated to the roof incident, but it sounded fun, and I hadn’t been to Elmswell before.
21/1/2018 Most of my chickens are hybrids, bred to lay eggs all year round – except for a few days or weeks here and there, when they are moulting, broody, or think it’s too cold and dark to consider such a thing. They generally lay slightly fewer eggs in winter, but I still have a daily supply.
I have a few pure breed chickens that are less regular in their laying habits, however; and two of them – called Cream Legbars – lay blue eggs. They are just over two years old, and each year they have stopped laying in September or October. I was mighty disappointed the first time they didn’t lay a single egg the rest of the year. I had no idea when they would start laying again – my best guess was early spring – but this year I was better informed. I hadn’t made a note of the date, but I thought it was roughly around the end of January to the middle of February.