Although it seems not to get as much as attention as flowers or blossom, pussy willow is for me – and many others – a highlight of late winter. Quite strangely and uniquely, it is a name that is over-specific and under-specific at the same time. It is not one species of willow, but several; and it is not a permanent name for these species, but a season-specific one. They are only referred to as pussy willow at the time of year when their male catkins emerge, covered in soft, silver fur.
I realised only a few weeks ago that they couldn’t all be one species, because the pussy willows I have seen near my house have shorter fur than the ones near Lavenham, which are as much fluff as bud, and glow when the sun is behind them. For five years I used to drive past them every week, but I rarely have a reason to go that way any more, and the road they line is not enticing. It is fast, bendy and not easy to stop on. Still, I have been wondering if I might not be too late to go looking there this year.
St Mary’s, Farnham
The only Farnham I was aware of, until I examined my church map closely, was in Surrey. I was just as ignorant of the fact there was an accessible church so close to Stratford St Andrew, which I attempted to visit once about two years ago, forgetting it had been converted into a house. It was a good job no one arrested me on suspicion of trying to break in. If I’d known about Farnham, I would certainly have been delighted to cross the road and leave the A12.
St Andrew’s, Boyton
The following morning I went back to where I had left off, on what Simon Knott – but no one else I have heard – calls the Bawdsey Pensinsula. Boyton was first. Driving around the little lanes of this sandy area of Suffolk is a pleasure: it feels truly rural. This makes sense, of course, as you would never be ‘passing’ on your way anywhere. There is nowhere to pass to. I met only tractors on my journey; thankfully no large ones or the roads would have struggled to accommodate us.
St Mary’s, Bawdsey
The following morning I decided to drive to the end of the peninsula and work backwards: Bawdsey was my first stop. I found the church within a park-like, dripping churchyard. It was a pity it was too wet to enjoy exploring thoroughly: it is difficult to choose clothing suitable both for outdoor wet weather exploring and practising the cello in churches. Bawdsey possessed an outsized, stumpy tower, and a body that clearly once used to be larger: the roof had been lowered and there was a series of blocked archways on the north and south walls, within which windows had been placed. According to Simon Knott, this church, similar to Covehithe, was a small church was built in the ruins of a larger one1. This would also explain the outsized – though shortened – tower, but I found no evidence of ruins.
St Mary’s, Dallinghoo
It was the week of my solo cello concert in London, and having anticipated both being in a panic about it, and needing some quiet time after a non-stop 10 days of B&B and 2 concerts, I had booked myself 3 nights in Orford to visit churches and practise the cello. While looking at my map to decide which churches to stop at on the way, I remembered a recent conversation in which Dallinghoo was mentioned. The ‘Hoo’ villages fascinate me simply because of their amusing names, and so no more consideration was needed: I located it on the map and found it conveniently near my route.
St Edmund’s, Hargrave
Due in Gazeley church for a concert the next evening, I decided to visit one of the churches in the area to practise beforehand. My intention was Denham, as I had checked it was likely to be open. But somewhere along the way the names got muddled in my head, and I thought I was looking for Depden. I only realised my mistake once I arrived in Chedburgh, where I decided to stop, on the offchance, not really expecting to find it open. It wasn’t, and since I was now so close to Depden, it seemed silly to turn around without trying that too. Soon I found myself at the end of a narrow driveway with a list of keyholders, which provided enough evidence that Depden, too, would be locked. Frustrated, and realising now that Hargrave was now closer than my original destination, I set off for that village instead, thinking the likelihood of my getting into any church now was slim.
Nearly an hour after leaving home, ready to give up if Hargrave was locked, I drove up a grassy driveway with a sign stating, ‘no cars: please park on the grass’. My disobedience was due as much to the fact I couldn’t determine on which patch of grass I was supposed to park, and had run out of patience, as to the diminishing number minutes I had left in which to practise the cello.
To my great relief, I found the door unlocked. It was a lovely little church: quite Victorian, but with a proper atmosphere of a small village church. I decided immediately that I wouldn’t take any photos today: I knew I would feel better if I used all my time on practice.
St Margaret’s, Cowlinge
On a cold and drizzly bank holiday Monday, I set off westwards cross-country to Cowlinge church, near the border with Cambridgeshire. But this was a special, somewhat surreal journey: beside me was not my cello, which had been relegated to the back seat, but Carolina, a Belizean friend whom I had known for 20 years, since she was 8, but she had never been to England before. I had been dreaming of having her to visit almost since I first knew her. Her older sister, Gloria, had been over twice, but circumstances had prevented Carolina from coming. I stayed with her family – four girls and three boys – for two months while helping at her village primary school on my gap year. I got to know the girls best as the boys were already teenagers doing their own thing. Their house had no electricity or running water and we used to walk down to the river every day after school.
All Saints’, Acton
Indoor temperature: 11.1˚C, humidity: 62%
I had arranged in advance to visit Acton church after going to try out a newly restored cello in Great Waldingfield, having agreed to give a concert on it. Christopher, the keyholder, said he’d leave the church open for me and would return after his meeting to give me a tour of the church.
I had tried to visit Acton church early in my tour, when I didn’t know it was kept locked. I hadn’t tried to visit again until now, nearly two years later. The warmth with which my request was received on this occasion immediately banished from my mind any lingering reservations caused by its state of lockedness. This warmth continued on my arrival, despite the church being empty: I found a chair set out for me in front of the chancel, with a welcome note on it. It made me smile.
19/6/2019 Last time I looked it was April: I’m not sure where this spring has disappeared to. I have been willing it to rain so that the irises in my rapidly drying pond might have the chance to flower before the goats ate them all. My wishes were in vain: but somehow a few flowers managed to escape their jaws nevertheless. The rain came too late for the irises, but the vegetables and fruits are thankful, as am I, for having far less watering to do than last year. And for the absence of moral dilemmas: my water butts are being filled regularly, so the hose is rarely called for.
After a slow start with bookings, this spring has been all about B&B, vegetable gardening and music, to the neglect of my new bathroom which has been waiting several months to be painted. But that is a winter job, and it will just have to wait: I have learnt that ruthless prioritising is the only way forward in spring. Meanwhile, the vegetable beds were mended and cleared in February with the help of a friend, and I finally got round to repairing, cleaning and goat proofing the greenhouse – only two years late. So both are in full green swing, prompted and encouraged by my friend Steve, who has been passing on spare seeds and plants and acting as my vegetable growing consultant. ‘What do I do about the potatoes which have been squashed by a crow that got stuck in the vegetable enclosure?’ ‘Will my Brussel sprouts recover after having nearly all their leaves broken off?’ (The rabbits and goats were happy with their dinner after that mishap.)
Meanwhile Dusty and Malteser have been specialising in cuteness; Winnie the Wood Pigeon is as gorgeous as ever and will soon celebrate her 2nd birthday; the goats took full advantage of their one opportunity (and I shall ensure it is their last) to break into the beautifully fenced rhubarb bed and leave a scene of devastation behind them; and my new rescue chickens, Cheeky and Monkey (Monkey is below centre) – no need to say more – have settled into Crossways Farm life as though they never knew anything else.
There was another benefit to staying away an extra night: I was on the cusp of reaching 300 churches, which I had arranged with myself I would achieve by 11th April, the second anniversary of the start of my church tour. Having an extra day to visit churches now, a week earlier, meant I might reach the milestone sooner. There was no rush, of course, but I was excited about the prospect. I was on 296 and wasn’t completely sure I would manage 4 churches that day, but I would try. If I was successful, I would also have covered nearly all the churches on the Felixstowe peninsula; at least, all the villages, if not the town itself and its suburbs.