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.
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.
Holy Trinity, Barsham
Outdoor temperature: 4.1˚C; indoor temperature 6.1˚C, humidity: 51%
I hadn’t planned to visit another church in the morning before setting off for Stansted airport, via Bury St Edmunds to drop off my cello at a friend’s house. But before I went to bed the previous evening it occurred to me that it would be possible, if I was a little organised about packing up. 7 churches felt like a respectable total for a stay of less than two days.
St Andrew’s, Mutford
Outdoor temperature: 6.6˚C; indoor temperature: 7.1˚C, humidity: 51%
First thing next morning I left Beccles for Mutford, switching my ‘waterproof’ boots for my walking boots, hoping for slightly drier feet today. I arrived at a pretty round-towered church, which I was disappointed to find locked. But help was close at hand: I rang the first number on the noticeboard for the key, and Ivan – the churchwarden whose wife I had just spoken to on the phone – appeared a few minutes later to let me in. I offered to return the key afterwards, but he said he’d prefer to wait; so, feeling a little awkward, and guilty for interrupting his morning, I hastily took out my cello and played a couple of movements of a Bach suite. It was only the second time someone had waited for me in order to lock up afterwards, and the previous time was by prior appointment. By the time I left the church, however, I would have reason to feel thoroughly glad that our paths had crossed.
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.
I had a lunchtime appointment with Tiffer, the rector of the benefice which includes Hitcham, Brettenham, Rattlesden and Thorpe Morieux, to go up the rood stairs at Rattlesden church. With a comprehensive verbal disclaimer of course. I was excited: it was the first item on my church ‘wish list’ that I had managed to arrange.
It was a little vertigo-inducing, with no barriers or supports to provide reassurance. How anyone would dare to take a Henry Hoover up there is beyond me, and I had politely declined the offer of high-altitude music making, fearing both the cello’s fate and mine. But once I’d reached the rood loft, I was able to hold on to one of Jesus’s companions and enjoy my novel perspective without any wobbles, physical or psychological. Coming down again was another matter, but I made it safely to the ground, and after thanking Tiffer for his time and willingness, I left for Wetherden, the nearest church that I hadn’t yet visited.
St Nicholas’, Stanningfield
I had been looking forward to returning to Stanningfield church since passing by in late summer and finding it locked. I had forgotten how stumpy its tower was, but it looked sweet and suited the character of the church. For a moment I feared my second visit might also be unsuccessful, seeing that I had arrived before its advertised opening hours; but the door submitted when I turned the handle, and I was thankful that the timetable wasn’t obeyed too precisely.
25/2/2018 I admit it. I cheated. Slightly. In December, worried that I might struggle my way through to spring, and thinking it prudent to book a holiday after the dreaded tax returns and before the new B&B season got underway, I arranged to visit friends in Alcalá de Henares, a university town near Madrid. It is not necessarily the first place that comes to mind for winter warmth, lying at an altitude of nearly 600m and with much more unpredictable winter weather than southern Spain; but nevertheless I knew there was a much greater chance of sunshine than at home, and that by February the Spanish sun would feel warm regardless of how cold the air was. In any case, a change of scene and some restful time with friends would be just as good a tonic as sunshine.
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.