30/12/2017 The replacement of the blackbird’s song with the robin’s is the first sign for me that summer is coming to an end and autumn is approaching. The blackbird’s song seems made of water; the robin’s, of ice. There is usually a pause between the two songs: the blackbird stops singing in July, and the robin begins towards the end of August. In fact, I have recently learned, robins sings all year round except for a few weeks in summer, during moulting.
My little friend hasn’t yet returned to claim his (or possibly her) winter territory in the courtyard. Sadly, it is quite possible he is no longer alive, as apparently robins rarely live for more than a year or two. Last year he kept me company most of the winter, appearing whenever I scattered seed for the chickens, and hopping to within a foot of me, so that I thought he might eat out of my hand. When I went to sweep out the goat shed, he would sit on a beam above my head, singing quietly.
‘Ought not winter, in allegorical designs, the rather to be represented with such things that might suggest hope than such as convey a cold and grim despair? The withered leaf, the snowflake, the hedging bill that cuts and destroys, why these? Why not rather the dear larks for one? […] Put the lark then for winter, a sign of hope, a certainty of summer. Put, too, the sheathed bud […] Put, too, the sharp needles of the green corn […] Nothing despairs but man.’
Richard Jeffries, ‘Out of Doors in February’, in The Open Air (1885).
30/12/2017 When autumn approaches, I find myself thinking frequently about the season, and often in the context of oncoming winter. Sometimes these thoughts get as far as turning into writing. And yet I rarely write about winter itself. By the time winter arrives, my struggle with the changing seasons seems to have come to an end, and along with it, my imagination. Last year I bought Autumn: an anthology for the changing seasons, and started it before autumn had even got underway, in an effort to embrace the coming season. I did the same with the winter anthology; and yet, less than a quarter of the way through the book, I stopped reading it and didn’t pick it up again before spring arrived. Though I may yet do so for different reasons, I felt no urge to buy the spring or summer anthologies: my emotional and imaginative engagement with those seasons hardly needs encouragement.
It was high time I branched out into west Suffolk, I thought, but I had no idea where to start. Once again, serendipity came to my aid: just a few days earlier, when I was looking up the location of Troston church, a friend asked me if I knew where Denston was. Now that I had a map of Suffolk’s churches stuck to my fridge door, it was much easier to ‘browse’ locations, and to remember to look up places that people happened to mention to me. Although perhaps not the quickest method of finding them – unless you know in roughly which area to look – on this occasion it took me only a few seconds to find Denston conveniently located in the area to the north of Haverhill that I had so far entirely neglected. Even better, the short entry for Denston in Cautley’s book, Suffolk churches, led me to expect wondrous things. It was just the hook I needed to draw me into an area of Suffolk I didn’t know at all.
A friend lent me an article about the medieval graffiti in Troston church, which I had been reading with great interest without actually knowing where Troston was. For weeks I had been meaning to look it up, but remembering this and being in a convenient location to do so didn’t coincide until I put up a photocopied map from Cautley’s Suffolk churches on my fridge door, showing all but a few churches in the corner north of Lowestoft that belong to the Diocese of Norwich. I found Troston in the north of the county, not far from Ixworth. It was one of several areas that I had not been to at all – in fact, I had barely crossed the A143 between Bury and Diss, not realising how much of Suffolk existed there, at the western end at least. So, on my first proper day off in more than two weeks, I was excited to have a pressing reason to do so.
St George’s, Wyverstone It was only by glorious chance that I ended up at Wyverstone. I had a lot of practice to fit in before the beginning of November, so, while it was warm enough, I knew church visits would be the order of the day in any free time I had. After a few weeks’ break from my church touring, I was keen to find a special, out-of-the-way-but-not-too-far-away church to make my outing memorable – and particularly in case the plodding cello practice became a little too plodding. But I couldn’t think how to find just the right church without spending a long time looking on the internet, which I had no inclination to do. Remembering vaguely that someone had mentioned medieval wall paintings at Bacton church, a twenty-minute drive from home, I thought it would do, for want of a better idea. Bacton village itself does not inspire me – it is a large sprawl of mostly modern houses – but the little green and fish pond outside the village shop provided enough of a sparkle in the image for me to settle on its church as my destination. Better still, there was a tea room not far off where I could do some writing afterwards.
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.
2/12/2017 Autumn began in a promising manner. On the equinox I boarded a train down to Cornwall for a holiday, and returned home two weeks later with some important resolutions: more writing and more walking. Felicity and Ilo (the goats) and the ratties all made their own resolutions: more mischief and more food. Dexter the rabbit decided on more relaxation. (They tell me it’s all about work-life balance). Winston the wood pigeon’s resolutions were to grow all his adult feathers and stay firmly at home – preferably sitting on my head – and the chickens, generally the most amenable of my fluffy friends except where broodiness is concerned, decided that a moult was the best solution to the problem of summer coming to an end. I am pleased to report that all of the Crossways Farm residents’ resolutions are either complete or still being followed religiously.
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.
I always wondered where the grand brick gateway led, on the bend of a country lane apparently in Edwardstone, wherever Edwardstone is. I have recently somewhat tentatively concluded that perhaps Sandy, my pottery teacher, lives in the middle of the village. Although her house is next to the mobile home-like village hall, it is one of just a handful of houses at a three-way junction of small lanes, which I reach after passing a sign to tell me Edwardstone is in this direction, but none to inform me that I have arrived.
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.