It was the weekend of the Stoke by Nayland Arts and Literary Festival, and I had booked tickets for two talks. To my disappointment, both of them were cancelled. My friend Mark persuaded me to go to a different one, about a book on prehistoric Britain – more his line of interest than mine, but nevertheless I was easily persuaded, having heard and enjoyed the same person speak about oak trees a couple of months earlier in Norwich.
Both Layham and Shelley churches were on the way to Stoke by Nayland, via a slightly less direct route than driving through Polstead, but just as scenic, and, on balance, my preferred one.
I ended up at Hoo church in a rather roundabout way: via Kettleburgh, Brandeston and Cretingham. I went in search of lunch, and very nearly didn’t get any. At Cretingham, the only one of the three pubs to be open and serving food, I found the kitchen had officially closed two minutes before my arrival. But the lady at the bar took pity on me – she went to ask if they could make me a sandwich and came back with a much better answer: they hadn’t cleared up yet, and had kindly agreed to take my order.
After a somewhat chilly lunch (I was determined to stay outside although the wind had got up and drizzle was threatening), I continued down the road to Cretingham church. My excitement at approaching the light and friendly-looking church was short lived, as there were large pieces of wood lying on the grass outside the porch, by which I deduced that building work was in progress. Inside, the builders were having lunch, and I could see the tower was the subject of their attentions. Someone from the village – a churchwarden perhaps – was with the builders, and in answer to my query he informed me the work was bell-related. He started to direct me animatedly towards features of interest in the church, so I went in for a guided tour.
Soon after my walk along the Alde estuary from Snape, I fixed a date to visit Iken church with my friend Mark, as I had promised not to go there without him. I very nearly left my cello at home, feeling it was an uncomfortable companion for a hot day out with another person and Bob the dog. But, in the end, it seemed to me the cello was the whole point: the idea of the trip originated with the cello, Mark had asked to come when I was going to play there, and I was reluctant to miss a day’s practice in the run up to my recital. So along it came.
St Botolph’s, Iken
Iken church looks isolated as you approach it along the estuary footpath, or even along the road, but once you reach it, it doesn’t feel very remote. There is a small settlement around it, and even a sophisticated roadside stall selling water, jam and other disparate consumables.
My church trips seem to bring luck. On several occasions I have found, heard or seen new things before leaving home, or on the journey. Today it was newts: I caught sight of one in the front pond as I was opening the driveway gate, the first since I had found two in the flowerbed wall more than eighteen months ago. A Sainsbury’s delivery driver had spotted another one crossing the same driveway after dark last autumn. He thought it was a lizard, but I knew it was a newt.
This excitement of course delayed my departure: I had to make sure I wasn’t mistaken, and watch for a while to see if there was more than one, and whether I could tell which kind of newts they were. After half an hour or so, I had spotted four newts in one little sunny patch near the edge of the pond. At least one of them was a great crested newt. I am hopeful this small sample area indicates a healthy breeding population.
‘… and even now […] the summer mead shines as bright and fresh as when my foot first touched the grass. It has another meaning now; the sunshine and the flowers speak differently, for a heart that has once known sorrow reads behind the page, and sees sadness in joy. But the freshness is still there, the dew washes the colours before dawn. Unconscious happiness in finding wild flowers – unconscious and unquestioning, and therefore unbounded.’
Richard Jeffries, ‘Wild Flowers’ in The Open Air (1885) p.36
8/7/2017 I have a new-found appreciation for thistles: they flowered just in time to teach me a lesson. The day before Steve was due to arrive with his strimmer, I saw that the thistles, towering above my head and taller than I remember them in previous years, were covered in more bumblebees and butterflies than I have seen gathered together anywhere this year. The thistles were crowding over the path, so I would have to have them cut back a little for the welfare of paying guests, but otherwise, I decided, wherever they were not causing trouble, they were staying.
It was the day of the cello concert in Darsham for which I had been practising duets with Will, a cellist near Halesworth to whom I had recently been introduced. Without extending my journey by more than five minutes, I found I could pass through Charsfield on the way. Its significance to me was as the village of Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s ‘portrait of a Suffolk village’, published in 1969. The evening before, the 1974 film of the same name was shown at the Arts Picturehouse cinema as part of the Bury Festival, so, never having seen it or read the book, I decided to go.
The following Monday I had arranged to meet a friend, Cristina, to visit the Alde Valley Spring Festival at Great Glemham before a rehearsal in Rendham church. I left home in high spirits: I had just heard the tit chicks cheeping in the kitchen ceiling for the first time– the nest entrance was a hole in a wall beam – and the first ox-eye daisies were coming into flower by the driveway.
Unfortunately the morning’s adventures did not start off so well, as neither of us had remembered that the festival was closed on Mondays. Annoyed with myself for not registering this important piece of information when I looked up the website the night before, we came up with an alternative plan to park at Snape Maltings and go for a walk on the marshes – it seemed a promising location to find somewhere to leave my cello for an hour or two.
I love the Stour Valley. The steep hills and marshy ground near the river mean that more land is given over to small meadows for sheep and cattle than on the higher, flatter ground where I live. The hills also provide some of the best views in Suffolk. Of course, the river itself is the central draw: over the years I have felt an increasing compulsion to be near water, especially rivers.
As 10th May was my mother’s birthday, I decided that a church tour of the Stour Valley would be a fitting way to celebrate it for her. I also wanted to walk and enjoy the many bluebells– which grow in the hedgerows as much as the woodlands in this area – and so an overnight stay at a remote farmhouse I had discovered near Stoke by Nayland seemed the best and most enjoyable way to do both, especially as the weather forecast was good.
It was a little over a week since my walk in Captain’s Wood, and a visit to see the bluebells at Staverton Thicks was becoming more urgent. This time it wasn’t difficult to find an opportunity to combine a walk with church touring: my cello had developed an annoying buzz and I would need to leave it in Woodbridge for half a day to be glued back together. I arranged to drop it off one morning when I had time to continue to the Thicks, only 15 minutes beyond Woodbridge.
St Mary’s, Buxhall
The next morning I decided to try some local churches as I was only free until lunchtime. I had passed Buxhall church several times already since starting my project, but for some reason that I cannot now understand, I had been putting off stopping there. Perhaps it was precisely because of ‘passing’: I hardly ever thought of Buxhall as a destination, except occasionally to visit the dining pub, mostly when my parents were still alive, or once to buy a mower, which was not exactly on my list of exciting outings. Today, I decided, that would change.