More than two weeks passed before I visited another church. But a break can be helpful, and – when I drafted this account, not all that long ago – I was no longer worried about fitting in the remaining churches before September, thinking it would require little more than a few extra bursts of effort, and some additional advance-organising. Now, of course, life looks very different. Who knows when my next church visit will be, let alone whether concerts will be back on the menu by September. It is a pity, but entirely insignificant in the context of the international crisis we find ourselves in. I will simply resume when circumstances allow. In the meantime, I have plenty of churches still to write about, and once I’ve caught up, then perhaps I can get ahead a little on the planned book… Not to mention cello practice. I feel myself even luckier than usual to have these things in my life, as well as a large garden and lots of animals, which between them carry the potential of indefinite mental, physical and companiable occupation.
St Margaret’s, Southolt
I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get into Southolt church, as I had read it was a redundant, locked church in the care of its village. But I was going to be in the area, so I thought I’d try anyway, as the Suffolk Churches website had kindly informed me that almost every house in the vicinity of the church was in possession of a key.
St Martin’s, Nacton
Outdoor temperature: 11.9˚C; indoor temperature: 15.8˚C, humidity: 56%
I had booked two nights away at the beginning of April in an area of Suffolk that I barely knew: the Felixstowe peninsula. I hadn’t visited a single church there. It was an idyllic spring morning, and driving to Steve’s house accompanied by sunshine, blackthorn blossom, daffodils and one of my favourite Mozart piano concertos was almost too much for me. Heaven is on Earth, if only we would stop long enough to realise it.
Despite my best efforts to be punctual, the daffodils outside my front gate had distracted me on departure and I was 1.5 minutes late for coffee at Steve’s house. We both exclaimed this simultaneously when he opened the door. It was an ongoing joke between us, after he told me early on in our acquaintance that coffee was served at 11, which I found – perhaps unreasonably – hilarious. ‘Do you have a butler?’ I responded.
Mandy’s funeral was fixed for the following week in Darsham church. It wasn’t many weeks since I was there playing in a cello concert she had organised. Darsham was just down the road from Westleton, where I was staying, and I thought it would make things easier if I paid the church a visit in advance, to check the acoustic and to have time alone in the space where I would be doing my utmost to play perfectly for her and her family.
St Peter’s, Stutton
Indoor temperature: 10.2˚C, humidity: 78%
I had made a Saturday morning appointment with Steve, a bassoonist with whom I had played recently in two orchestral concerts, to visit his village church. I had first met him a year or two previously in his official capacity as a woodwind instrument repairer: I went to his house to meet a friend of mine, Joost, who had just come up on the train from London to drop off his bassoon at Steve’s house. Joost had raved about both Steve and his vegetable garden, and had asked if I could have a tour. I was kindly invited to coffee and cake as well. His vegetables were indeed impressive, as was his baking, and he was quite as friendly and lively as Joost had led me to believe.
So, when we met again, we quickly got chatting about all sorts of things, including, of course, churches. I was delighted when he offered to join me at Stutton church, and I was impressed that he was up for the challenge of church playing at this time of year: any rural musician will be partially used to playing in cold churches in the run up to Christmas, but I think not many would choose to do so just for the fun of it.
24/12/2018 It seems only right that, having completed a year of weekly seasonal treasures, I should reflect on the reasons I began.
Rereading the introduction I wrote a year ago, I was surprised. I had almost forgotten that I planned to choose one subject for each week of winter only, and I can barely recognise the emotions I was experiencing then, so different do I feel now.
I started the project as a kind of therapy for winter, a way to help me live more in the moment and appreciate what was around me even when I was struggling, whether due to cold and dark, dealing with difficult circumstances or events, or my own inexplicable moods. I found the therapy so effective and enjoyable that I didn’t want to stop. No matter what time of year it is, there are always times when we are so bound up with our busy-ness or daily problems that we can fail to notice things in front of us; forget to be grateful for simple gifts. I found that forcing myself to stop to think and write about them was so beneficial to my mental health, regardless of how low or upbeat I was feeling, that the original purpose of the task was overtaken by a multitude of positive effects. In this way it reminds me of my church tour which I began in April last year, for just three or four vague reasons. The outcomes so far, perhaps ten times that quantity, have been beyond anything I could have imagined.
5/12/2018 It’s strange. I’m enjoying autumn more than ever, and yet of all the seasons this year, I am struggling to choose subjects to write about. I have had many ideas, but few have lodged in my mind.
I’ve been trying to figure out why. Since I got back from holiday, my autumn has been characterised by activity. A good proportion of it is seasonal – tidying up in the garden and lighting bonfires, splitting firewood, making jam, apple picking with goats (a sometimes inconvenient but certainly entertaining version of the activity), rushing to stew and freeze all the apples before they rot… Even those parts that aren’t exactly seasonal have benefitted from the darker nights and colder days: indoor activities such as planning refurbishments and repairs, decorating, tidying and sorting, finding time to work through an enormous pile of B&B ironing which I can never bring myself to do when the sun is shining (most days since late spring this year), and cello practice. There has been sociable fun too: concerts, meeting new people, going for walks with my neighbour, and inviting people round for tea or supper.
28/11/2018 This autumn has been a lot about people and activity as much as the season. I have had a strange but wonderful week of meeting people with round-about connections through friends or family, and of unexpected contact with people from more than 20 years ago. Some were initiated by me, some by others; some were pure chance, others prompted by dreams.
I have felt the last few years that my life is divided into two parts. So much so that I sometimes refer to the first part – half jokingly, half seriously – as my ‘past life’. Most of it I prefer not to think about. The second part is the life I have now, where I feel I have finally found my corner, and am in the right place doing the right things with the right people. My happier, more peaceful self.
7/10/2018 For a number of years I have used walking as a therapy without really being conscious of what I was doing. I knew that it relieved stress, helped me solve problems and generate ideas, but I wasn’t aware that on occasions when I was at a loss as to how to cope with what I was feeling, particularly after my mother’s death in 2010, instinctually I turned to walking.
Early last year, something I read at the difficult start of a holiday on the Isle of Wight made me begin to pay attention to the physical, psychological and emotional effects walking had on me. Before the end of my holiday I had concluded that, as well as being a physical relief, it was one of the most effective remedies for emotional and psychological pain I have yet encountered1.
Of course, walking is not just an autumn gift. Thankfully it is a year-round one. But this specific walk – from St Ives to Penzance along the South West Coast Path – has been a particular gift to me, now, in autumn.
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.
31/12/2017 I wondered if this should be the first item on my list – after all, according to the astrological calendar, it is the first day of the season. But it is not the first sign of winter; and this year, oblivious of our prescribed arrival and departure dates, winter appeared well before the solstice.
I have a particular connection to the winter solstice: it is the meaning of my name. Yalda, meaning ‘birth of the sun’, is a Persian festival celebrated on the longest night of the year with poetry and food – in particular pomegranate and watermelon, whose colours symbolise dawn and the glow of life. Interestingly, I have only just learnt that the origin of the name, literally meaning ‘birth’, was the Syriac Christian word used in a religious context to mean Christmas. There are obvious parallels with the idea that the date of Christmas may have been adopted from the Pagan festival of the winter solstice.