Suffolk churches 4: Butley, Burgh and Coddenham (April 2017)

Approaching an old church induces a similar effect in me as approaching an old pollard oak. The closer I get, the more my daily preoccupations melt away into insignificance. Touching the tree, climbing into it, or entering the church, I become part of a greater, more worthy existence, no longer a small, flawed individual. In the presence of an immovable, grand and beautiful structure that has stood in this spot for centuries, awe and peace replace racing thoughts and mundane worries. I become aware of the speck that is a human life span. It is a fact often difficult to make peace with, but these giants administer the harsh truth with a large dose of comfort.

There are also historical and structural parallels of course. Hardly a church has not been partially or almost entirely rebuilt since its original construction in medieval or even pre-Domesday times1. A pollard oak, where the tree is cut some two or more metres off the ground and new shoots sprout from the stump or cut branches, often lives longer than a ‘maiden’ uncut tree. A coppice on the other hand, cut at ground level and resulting in a ‘stool’ from which hundreds of new shoots grow, can become gigantic and may live indefinitely, certainly for millennia…

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Suffolk churches 3: Thornham Magna, Burgate and Wortham (April 2017)

I went back up to north Suffolk the day after the Lavenham concert. I was eager to visit other churches in the area, and I had intended to go to Thornham Magna on my first trip, but this was preceded spontaneously by Thornham Parva and I didn’t get round to a fourth. Three churches – fewer than I anticipated – seemed to be a comfortable number to manage in one trip without getting too tired of all the lugging, setting up and packing away, as well as fitting in some meaningful practice between church-gawping and photo-taking.

St Mary’s, Thornham Magna
Thornham Magna churchThornham Magna was my first stop. The church was just down the road from Clay Street, where one autumn I had gone looking for pollard oaks mentioned by Roger Deakin in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, and had found not a single one. The walk was not in vain, however: on following his described walk down the lane (not a street by any stretch of the imagination) and turning off onto a footpath, I did eventually find some huge, extremely impressive and ancient pollard oaks in a patch of tangled woodland which was probably once a medieval deer park.

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Suffolk churches 2: Pakenham, Beyton, Felsham, Polstead and Lavenham (April 2017)

St Mary’s, Pakenham; All Saints’ Beyton and St Peter’s, Felsham
My second outing, just under a week later, took me first to Pakenham church. I had hoped to sit and write for a while by the pond at Pakenham Mill, Suffolk’s last working water mill, but it was Easter Monday, and discovering on arrival that an Easter egg hunt was in progress, the plan seemed destined for failure and so I turned round and headed for the church. I thought I knew where it was but had some trouble discovering its location at first and had to ask directions. It was worth the effort: I found a cruciform church with an octagonal tower and spring-filled churchyard. Wanting to enjoy the sunshine before venturing indoors, I sat on a bench next to a row of flowering cherries, all satisfyingly full of buzzing bees. Both tree and bench were dedicated to Anne Browne, 1962-1987. Everywhere there are people trying to learn to live with death, absence, loss – and in the inexplicable and exhilarating presence of buzzing cherry trees and life exuding from every corner. No wonder there has always been a religion-shaped hole in the human heart.

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Suffolk churches 1: Harleston, Mellis and Thornham Parva (April 2017)

Please note: this blog has no ambitions to provide comprehensive descriptions of Suffolk churches – this work has already been carried out wonderfully by Simon Knott at www.suffolkchurches.co.uk, where you will find further information and photos if you are interested in learning more.

The real decision to start touring Suffolk churches with my cello was, in the end, not really a decision at all. After several weeks of mulling it over, unsure whether it was too unrealistic an ambition even to begin, I discovered suddenly that I had been approaching the idea from the wrong set of circumstances. The question was not would I like to take my bulky, heavy cello on a tour of Suffolk churches (well… not particularly), but rather, if I had to do a lot of cello practice, probably more than I’ve done in 15 years, would I prefer, and be more motivated, to do it at home or in different churches around Suffolk?

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Suffolk churches: Introduction (March 2017)

My earliest memories of Suffolk churches are from visiting them with my father. I’m sure we went by car when I was little, but as I got older we would go on bike rides punctuated by village churches. My mother had forgotten how to ride a bike, and no doubt she had good reason to keep it that way in order to maintain her most convincing excuse for a peaceful afternoon without the children.

Sorting through floor-to-ceiling bookshelves after my father died, I found a large number of church guides from around the county. Many of them I had no memory of visiting with him, and perhaps I never did: the guides could easily have predated my birth, or my joining of his expeditions with my three older brothers. Just as likely, though, we may have visited some of them when I was too small to remember.

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Swallows

7/4/2017 I put off going to my parents’ grave. I still rebel against the reminder that they are in the ground while spring is in the trees. And although I feel I should look after the flowers and shrubs on their tiny patch of ground with as much diligence and attentiveness as the larger version not two miles away, it is too painful and I cannot. A green slate headstone and small patch of ground honouring their deaths; a green slate worktop and large patch of ground honouring their lives.

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Staverton Thicks Part 1: Autumn

While talking about what adventures should follow our latest one in search of ancient pollard oaks in north Suffolk, a friend of mine mentioned Staverton Thicks. I had a vague memory of having heard the name before but I didn’t really know where or what it was. Out came the Ordnance Survey map which revealed that we had driven straight past it, to the east of Rendlesham Forest, on our way to Orford Ness a couple of months before.

I looked up the Thicks on the internet, but there was little beyond the basics to be found. The most extensive account of it was a blog post which consisted mainly of photos, but neither the words nor the photos particularly captured my imagination, beyond making me think I would just have to go and see it for myself. I had been given strict instructions by my friend, Mark, not to go without him, although I didn’t realise at the time he had been there before. But, weekend after weekend passed with one or other of us unavailable or the weather uncooperative, until I reached a bright and mild Saturday early in December when I needed to get away from home and couldn’t wait any longer, so went alone.

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Staverton Thicks Part 2: Winter

This plan of a full-moon pilgrimage around the official start of winter fitted in well with another intention of mine: for the last few years I had been wanting, but somehow failing, to celebrate the winter solstice, which would fall on 22nd December this year.

Every year that I live in the countryside, the more connected to the seasons I feel, and the more natural and logical it seems to celebrate with the Earth: the solstices and equinoxes, the first day of spring (falling on the spring equinox, by the astronomical calendar), the first duck’s nest found in the garden, the arrival of the swallows and swifts, my first duckling sighting, the bluebell woods in bloom… There are hundreds of excuses for celebrations throughout the year. An additional excuse for celebrating this particular annual event is that it is my name day: Yalda means the ‘birth of the sun’, and is a Persian festival celebrated in Iran on the winter solstice.

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Staverton Thicks Part 3: Spring

My third visit to Staverton Thicks was in mid April, on the third anniversary of my father’s death. I wanted to go back to Staverton Thicks to see spring arriving, and I wanted to do something fitting to remember my father on this day. I would have liked to have taken him there. But I also like to imagine that perhaps he took me there as a small child and I do not remember it.

Despite the dreary forecast, by the time I reached the Thicks it had turned into a beautiful, warm spring morning. The oaks were just beginning to glow yellow-green at their tips and I was excited at the prospect of seeing them coming back to life – for their many-hundredth time, but my first.

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Staverton Thicks Part 4: Summer

Oak branch

During my literary meanderings, from Ronald Blythe to Hugh Farmar to George Peterken, I discovered several details about the Thicks that I hadn’t yet found out through visiting it myself. Aside from the fact ‘Staverton’ means ‘staked enclosure’ (Blythe, 2013), and that it contains or contained what was thought to be the tallest holly tree in the UK (at 22.5 metres in 1969), I read about Butley stream and possible marshes or wetland to the northeast of the Park, and Butley Priory approximately a mile to the southeast. Founded in the 12th century, the Priory was once the owner of the Thicks. Only ruins and the Priory Gatehouse remain, both marked on my Ordnance Survey map. Lastly, the cottage Hugh Farmar lived in, Shepherd’s Cottage, was not the one along the road to Butley I first took it for when I saw his photograph of it: there was another, almost identical, thatched stone cottage in the northeast corner of Staverton Park, a mile or so from any road.

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