I sometimes have the tendency to think that poetry and art – sometimes even music, although I grew up immersed in it – do not speak to me, that I do not have the ability to appreciate them. My father used to sigh deeply, in half-comic despair at having a philistine daughter, when he would quote poetry to me and I could not tell him who wrote it – nor feel it in the way he did. But then I happen across a work that does speak to me, and I realise I am wrong. Perhaps he would not despair of me after all. And in fact, of all art forms, poetry may be the one I would choose first to express my emotional response to the natural world.
Approaching an old church induces a similar effect in me as approaching an old pollard oak. The closer I get, the more my daily preoccupations melt away into insignificance. Touching the tree, climbing into it, or entering the church, I become part of a greater, more worthy existence, no longer a small, flawed individual. In the presence of an immovable, grand and beautiful structure that has stood in this spot for centuries, awe and peace replace racing thoughts and mundane worries. I become aware of the speck that is a human life span. It is a fact often difficult to make peace with, but these giants administer the harsh truth with a large dose of comfort.
There are also historical and structural parallels of course. Hardly a church has not been partially or almost entirely rebuilt since its original construction in medieval or even pre-Domesday times1. A pollard oak, where the tree is cut some two or more metres off the ground and new shoots sprout from the stump or cut branches, often lives longer than a ‘maiden’ uncut tree. A coppice on the other hand, cut at ground level and resulting in a ‘stool’ from which hundreds of new shoots grow, can become gigantic and may live indefinitely, certainly for millennia…
While talking about what adventures should follow our latest one in search of ancient pollard oaks in north Suffolk, a friend of mine mentioned Staverton Thicks. I had a vague memory of having heard the name before but I didn’t really know where or what it was. Out came the Ordnance Survey map which revealed that we had driven straight past it, to the east of Rendlesham Forest, on our way to Orford Ness a couple of months before.
I looked up the Thicks on the internet, but there was little beyond the basics to be found. The most extensive account of it was a blog post which consisted mainly of photos, but neither the words nor the photos particularly captured my imagination, beyond making me think I would just have to go and see it for myself. I had been given strict instructions by my friend, Mark, not to go without him, although I didn’t realise at the time he had been there before. But, weekend after weekend passed with one or other of us unavailable or the weather uncooperative, until I reached a bright and mild Saturday early in December when I needed to get away from home and couldn’t wait any longer, so went alone.
This plan of a full-moon pilgrimage around the official start of winter fitted in well with another intention of mine: for the last few years I had been wanting, but somehow failing, to celebrate the winter solstice, which would fall on 22nd December this year.
Every year that I live in the countryside, the more connected to the seasons I feel, and the more natural and logical it seems to celebrate with the Earth: the solstices and equinoxes, the first day of spring (falling on the spring equinox, by the astronomical calendar), the first duck’s nest found in the garden, the arrival of the swallows and swifts, my first duckling sighting, the bluebell woods in bloom… There are hundreds of excuses for celebrations throughout the year. An additional excuse for celebrating this particular annual event is that it is my name day: Yalda means the ‘birth of the sun’, and is a Persian festival celebrated in Iran on the winter solstice.
My third visit to Staverton Thicks was in mid April, on the third anniversary of my father’s death. I wanted to go back to Staverton Thicks to see spring arriving, and I wanted to do something fitting to remember my father on this day. I would have liked to have taken him there. But I also like to imagine that perhaps he took me there as a small child and I do not remember it.
Despite the dreary forecast, by the time I reached the Thicks it had turned into a beautiful, warm spring morning. The oaks were just beginning to glow yellow-green at their tips and I was excited at the prospect of seeing them coming back to life – for their many-hundredth time, but my first.
During my literary meanderings, from Ronald Blythe to Hugh Farmar to George Peterken, I discovered several details about the Thicks that I hadn’t yet found out through visiting it myself. Aside from the fact ‘Staverton’ means ‘staked enclosure’ (Blythe, 2013), and that it contains or contained what was thought to be the tallest holly tree in the UK (at 22.5 metres in 1969), I read about Butley stream and possible marshes or wetland to the northeast of the Park, and Butley Priory approximately a mile to the southeast. Founded in the 12th century, the Priory was once the owner of the Thicks. Only ruins and the Priory Gatehouse remain, both marked on my Ordnance Survey map. Lastly, the cottage Hugh Farmar lived in, Shepherd’s Cottage, was not the one along the road to Butley I first took it for when I saw his photograph of it: there was another, almost identical, thatched stone cottage in the northeast corner of Staverton Park, a mile or so from any road.
31/10/2016 I have Wyken Vineyards to blame for my addiction to Brahma chickens, amongst other things. I first saw them in the orchard at Wyken Hall, along with peacocks, turkeys, guinea fowl and other chicken breeds. I couldn’t stop laughing: when they walked (read: waddled) or ran, they reminded me of somewhat overweight matronly housekeepers in full 19th century gear. Ridiculously fluffy, heavy chickens with trousers on. ‘I absolutely have to have some of those!’ excluded all other thoughts, and the search began that evening.
It is my favourite Suffolk garden open to the public, and not only because of the animals. It is a beautiful place, and one for dreaming in, which I have only lately come to realise is an indispensible element of my life. £12* is no price at all to pay for a season of inspiration and unlimited dreaming opportunities…
17/9/2016 There are many places in Suffolk that no guide book, and hardly even a local, will ever direct you to. Many of them I don’t know the names of, if they even have names. But because they are anonymous, ‘mundane’ – taken for granted as part of the landscape – or hidden away out of sight, they possess a peculiar attraction to me. Apart from the fact that they are simply beautiful and idyllic. I could easily take my bike, thoughts or a book and while away a few minutes or hours sitting in the grass at any of these places and arrive home feeling like I’ve had a holiday, as I have done on many occasions. I often also return in possession of some inspiration or a solved problem. There will no doubt be many more secret spots to add to this collection over the months and years to come…
10/9/2016 I think I should start making more decisions based on location. A first meeting with an accountant in Knodishall, near Aldeburgh, was not, shall we say, top of my list of things to get excited about. However, it did have the advantage of giving me a perfect excuse for a day, or at least afternoon, out on the coast. I was exceptionally lucky: the promised warm, sunny day turned out to be a gloriously hot one, and after surviving the dull pain of an only-just-comprehensible discussion about tax returns in an office with no opening windows (but far better views at least than the average office), I headed to Dunwich Heath with half a hope of catching the heather still in flower. I feared I might be too late, but I need not have worried. It was probably just past its best but still more than good enough for me.
14/6/2016 During my ‘book journeys’, I had now come across three references to an apple tree buried in the shingle beach near Aldeburgh. The origin of this tree is unknown but suspected of being the result of a fisherman’s picnic lunch. This, along with the fact I had never seen Maggi Hambling’s sculpture, ‘Scallop’, apparently not far away from this tree, was ample excuse to set out for Aldeburgh on an excursion – despite the forecast of heavy downpours.