Today marked a significant change in my church-visiting journeys around Suffolk; a change which had been taking place almost imperceptibly over recent months, and had finally reached a turning point. I found myself able to listen to music again, for the first time in years.
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.
All Saints’, Ellough
Outdoor temperature: 7.8˚C; indoor temperature: 6.8˚C, humidity: 60%
The forecast of unrelenting rain led to a last minute change of plan: instead of spending two days walking in the Chilterns, I decided to choose a far-flung corner of Suffolk, stay two nights there and visit churches instead. Having characteristically left my decision till the last minute, my choice of destinations was limited. But I found pleasant accommodation beside the River Waveney in Beccles after a short search; so, without allowing myself any further opportunity for procrastination, I booked it and set off the next morning.
This particular trip had an added excitement: I had just bought an ultra-lightweight cello case made of carbon fibre – weighing 2.9kg in comparison to my previous 8.7kg – with rucksack straps enabling far more convenient and less back-breaking cello carrying. The idea was prompted by the prospect of taking my cello to London with me on the train for a chamber music session (I am not keen on long-distance driving); but once it was in my possession, I couldn’t believe I’d done without one for so long, and I was impatient to put it to the test.
St Andrew’s, Norton
Outdoor temperature: 9˚C; indoor temperature: 8.4˚C, humidity: 66%
My mind was on an imminent return trip to Woolpit and Great Barton for photographs. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long for a sunny and mild afternoon when I had time to make an outing of it: I was keen to resume regular church visiting, and Norton and Thurston lay conveniently between the two; but I was also still slightly wary of the cold.
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.
All Saints’, Hopton
Outdoor temperature: 12.1˚C, humidity: 92%; indoor temperature: 9.3˚C, humidity 56%
I could see Hopton church was unusual at first glance: its clerestory – the upper part of the nave with a series of windows – was the only part built of brick. Entering the church, its full glory struck me at once. The roof (see header photo) and clerestory were built in the late 15th century, and paint was only added to the roof in the late 19th century1 – though in the absence of a church guide, I only found out these facts afterwards. The painting was done by the five daughters of the rector at the time. They were braver than I would be.
13/1/2018 By the front pond is a giant crack willow. The tree is magnificent; and its magnificence is greatest in winter. The twigs turn bright orange and its luminous canopy is the highlight of my garden on a sunny winter’s day. I watch it with curiosity every spring, thinking, surely its twigs can’t actually change colour; it must be an illusion created by the branches becoming gradually invisible beneath the growing leaves. But I swear that as soon as the buds start to break, the twigs lose their glow.
Friends and tree surgeons have all expressed their concerns about this tree and have urged me to either have it cut down completely, or pollarded. One large branch has already snapped off, a few years ago in a gale, and every time a new storm arrives I go outside the next morning to check it is still in one piece. Pollarding is a more acceptable option to me (in any case, cutting it down ‘completely’ would only turn it into a labour-intensive coppice), but despite the perennial anxiety it causes me, I cannot yet bring myself to lay a hand on its splendour.
6/1/2018 Staverton Thicks is one of two places in Suffolk that I like best in winter. Part of the reason may be that my first visit was in December, and the memory of that exhilarating discovery will always stay with me. But there is also a stillness about it in winter. It is not just that fewer people walk there, as I have barely ever encountered anyone in Staverton Thicks, at any time of year. Rather, the stillness is of a wood in hibernation.
The main reason for my preference, however, is that its beauty lies greatly in its quality as a quite extraordinary, walk-in, living sculpture. Its shapes can be appreciated better in winter when the ground and the branches (apart from holly) are bare: more light reaches the woodland floor, and the tall, dense bracken has died back, allowing a clear view of the weird and wonderful forms to be found everywhere in this truly unique woodland.
I knew that St Stephen’s Chapel wouldn’t officially count towards my church total – perhaps because it was built as a private chapel – but I was determined to include it nevertheless, for its ancient atmosphere and unique setting. Located near the Essex border at Bures, it was consecrated in 1218 by the Archbishop of Canterbury and lies nearly half a kilometre from the nearest road, on the western edge of the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is also believed to be the site where the coronation of King Edmund took place in 8551, which makes me wonder why it was dedicated to St Stephen and not St Edmund2.