31/5/2018 I have resorted to partial cheating again. May possesses so many treasures that I could only get round to writing about a few of them, a problem that was exacerbated by the late arrival of so much that ordinarily belongs to late winter and early spring. But then growth and flowering caught up, and many weeks of flowers and blossom were condensed into just a few. This year there were barely two weeks, instead of two months, between the last of the blackthorn blossom and the first of the hawthorn; a very strange state of affairs.
May isn’t only the month of cow parsley, but also of wisteria, laburnum, wild garlic and bluebell woods, all of which I love. Due to bad weather, time constraints and timing misjudgments, I didn’t make the most of the woods this year. Bull’s Wood is my favourite place to go for oxlips in late April and wild garlic from April to early May, but despite my good intentions, I didn’t manage to get there. Bluebell woods are to be found in many places in Suffolk: Priestley Wood in Barking, Captain’s Wood in Sudbourne and Dollops Wood in Polstead (photo right), to name just a few. This year I went to Dollops Wood, but I forgot that my garden’s seasons are usually at least a week or two behind everywhere else. My bluebells were at their peak, so I thought I would be in time to catch them in the woods, but as soon as I arrived I realised they were on their way out. There were still enough flowers for me to enjoy them, but the blue haze would have been far more luminous a week earlier.
23/5/2018 On the radio the other day I heard cow parsley and nettles being referred to as the ‘thugs’ of the wild flowers. Apparently they thrive in the countryside and on road verges to the exclusion of other wild flowers due to added nitrogen from car fumes and agricultural fertilisers.
I was immediately indignant. On reflection, however, logic has permitted me to accept that this may be so. But it doesn’t stop me loving cow parsley. My garden, which has never been fertilised – except perhaps by goats and chickens in the last few years – has always grown into a jungle of cow parsley in May and June, reaching above my head as a child, and nothing makes me happier than seeing it everywhere in the May countryside. Without it, spring almost wouldn’t be spring.
7/4/2018 My belief that spring might have arrived was premature. More than a week later, there is still barely a green leaf to be seen, barely a ray of sunshine to be felt. The meadows along the Brett Valley are flooded, and my garden pond is encroaching on the lawn. It hardly seems feasible that exactly a year ago I saw my first swallows of the season: I expect I will be waiting a good few weeks longer this year.
Perhaps the feeling of extended winter has been partially responsible for my slowness in choosing a second spring treasure. Busyness over Easter accounts for another part of the delay, and the remainder – the biggest obstacle – has been caused by at least five changes of mind over which particular spring wonder to settle on. The unusually slow progress of the season means that many delights of early spring, which usually take place consecutively, are coinciding this year, and choosing between them is nearly impossible. I feel like a bumblebee buzzing from flower to flower, too excited about the appearance of so many different food sources at once, and unable to decide which nectar I like best.
Last week I opted out, but I feel it is high time to commit myself. A sunny day finally arrived a few days ago – the first since I last wrote – and sitting on the terrace in the sun was more conducive to forcing myself into a decision.
I chose blackthorn. A blossom that I was half expecting to include in my late winter treasures, and the first to put some colour back in the hedgerows.
26/3/2018 It is hard to believe it is nearly the end of March and signs of spring are only just beginning. Apparently deciding after the last icy spell that they had waited long enough, all the flowers and blossom appeared all at once: blackthorn in the hedgerows, carpets of primroses, daffodils in earnest, violets and periwinkles. I saw the first green leaf on my hardiest hawthorn plant this week, and a moorhen made up her mind to settle in her nest on the front pond.
But still there is far less in the way of spring than was to be found at the beginning of March last year. Mowing the lower lawn is still a good fortnight or more off – I would sink into a mole tunnel-ridden bog if I were to try it now – and I have yet to find a white or mauve violet, celandine or Siberian squill in my garden. The daffodils are only just beginning to think about showing their faces.
13/3/2018 Everyone loves snowdrops. They are the first ubiquitous flowers that signal the lengthening days and slow approach of spring. They are pretty and delicate, and their colour is fitting for the time of year.
I love them too. I was thrilled to spot my first snowdrops of the year in a churchyard in the middle of January, though the ones in my garden were barely above ground yet: they didn’t come fully into bloom until a mild, sunny spell in the middle of February. A month later, they are still going strong, and the daffodils show no signs of taking over from them.
‘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.
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.
Crippling indecision and a pile of chores had turned my intended four days’ break into barely two, and I left home in a bad mood. I was going to Westleton, near the coast, as the accommodation options for other destinations I’d considered had gradually dwindled the longer I dithered, and somehow I found my cello once again in the passenger seat. It was an easy opportunity to arrange a cello duet rehearsal on my way home, as Will, the other cellist, lives not too far from Westleton. Still, church visiting was otherwise not amongst my plans.
All Saints’, Saxstead
Passing through Saxtead proved too much of a temptation: I had missed the church on a few occasions because I spotted the sign too late. This time I was prepared: I remembered in time to look out for it and take the turn down the driveway. It wasn’t until I walked up to the churchyard gate that I realised, to my surprise, that the church didn’t have a tower. From the road, and even from the car park in front of the gate, the view was almost entirely obscured by trees.
St Mary’s, Nedging
The sum total of my experience of Nedging and Naughton was, until now, passing through ‘Nedging with Naughton’ on the main road between Bildeston and Needham Market. I didn’t like it. I remembered having once looked at a little cottage to rent there, and decided against it because of the location. Looking at the map, however, I discovered that away from the main road were two distinct villages: Naughton, just off this road, and Nedging, nearer Bildeston. Nedging church was in fact much nearer than I realised, and therefore, due to time constraints, was the one I decided to visit today.
My plan to go north once more to visit Yaxley and Thrandeston churches via Gislingham was not entirely without ulterior motive: I would pass Thornham Parva on my way. I was itching to revisit that little treasure now that my ‘church eyes’ were sharper, and I was also on the hunt for a gravestone: I had found out not long before, by one of those curious coincidences, that one of my first cello teachers was buried there.
As I drove through Suffolk, I noticed the unmistakable yellowing of the countryside that had begun only in the last week. I was pleased by this confirmation that my chosen calendar, the astronomical rather than meteorological, was the more accurate one to follow: summer, as far as I am concerned, begins on the solstice. Of course, the reality is that seasons are constantly on the move and there is no sudden beginning or end to any season. In one year of early heat and dryness summer might seem to begin in May, and in another, it might seem to begin in July.