12/4/2018 Just as blackthorn is one of the first spring blossoms to burst its buds, weeping willows are one of the first trees to break dormancy. Rather than losing their orange glow in spring like the crack willow in my garden, the emerging translucent green leaves increase the radiance of their flowing branches, and from a distance the two colours blend into gold. Add sunshine into the mix, and Rapunzel could barely compete.
7/4/2018 My belief that spring might have arrived was premature. More than a week later, there is still barely a green leaf to be seen, barely a ray of sunshine to be felt. The meadows along the Brett Valley are flooded, and my garden pond is encroaching on the lawn. It hardly seems feasible that exactly a year ago I saw my first swallows of the season: I expect I will be waiting a good few weeks longer this year.
Perhaps the feeling of extended winter has been partially responsible for my slowness in choosing a second spring treasure. Busyness over Easter accounts for another part of the delay, and the remainder – the biggest obstacle – has been caused by at least five changes of mind over which particular spring wonder to settle on. The unusually slow progress of the season means that many delights of early spring, which usually take place consecutively, are coinciding this year, and choosing between them is nearly impossible. I feel like a bumblebee buzzing from flower to flower, too excited about the appearance of so many different food sources at once, and unable to decide which nectar I like best.
Last week I opted out, but I feel it is high time to commit myself. A sunny day finally arrived a few days ago – the first since I last wrote – and sitting on the terrace in the sun was more conducive to forcing myself into a decision.
I chose blackthorn. A blossom that I was half expecting to include in my late winter treasures, and the first to put some colour back in the hedgerows.
5/3/2018 The creatures and I are happy to report that, after an uncertain start, this winter has been a vast improvement on last year’s, despite several spells of icy and snowy weather which at times has dissuaded even the chickens from going in the garden – but they have gradually got braver!
Since welcoming friends from Spain on Christmas Eve, the season has been, on the whole, a positive one. It got off to a good start: we, the humans, had our first experience of a Boxing Day picnic. Dexter the rabbit had his first experience of an open fire, and soon made it clear that he didn’t see any sense in ever leaving the fireside. Winston the wood pigeon looked on jealously through the sitting room window, so I relented and gave him his own short spell of indoor warmth-bathing…
St Mary’s, Letheringham
Outdoor temperature: 6.5˚C; Indoor temperature: 7.4˚C, humidity: 63%
My obligatory return trip to Monewden to take photos had an unexpectedly beneficial side effect: it provided the impetus to go out with my cello. If it hadn’t been for that semi-reluctant, semi-long-distance drive, I might not have discovered that playing in churches in January can be enjoyable, despite the cold.
28/1/2018 I think my eyes are slowly becoming more attuned to winter goings on. I noticed catkins on the hazels before the end of December, and early in January I went up to examine them at close quarters. They were brown, small and hard. Only a few days later, however, amongst the hard catkins I started to see just as many long, floppy, yellow-green ones, which caught the sunlight and lit up the hedgerows better than any Christmas lights. I didn’t remember hazels flowering in the middle of winter, and I wondered briefly if they were a different species of hazel, or perhaps not hazel at all. Apparently, a tree that I took for granted around my garden and in the hedgerows was a mystery to me as far as its flowering habits were concerned. Research was clearly required.
13/1/2018 By the front pond is a giant crack willow. The tree is magnificent; and its magnificence is greatest in winter. The twigs turn bright orange and its luminous canopy is the highlight of my garden on a sunny winter’s day. I watch it with curiosity every spring, thinking, surely its twigs can’t actually change colour; it must be an illusion created by the branches becoming gradually invisible beneath the growing leaves. But I swear that as soon as the buds start to break, the twigs lose their glow.
Friends and tree surgeons have all expressed their concerns about this tree and have urged me to either have it cut down completely, or pollarded. One large branch has already snapped off, a few years ago in a gale, and every time a new storm arrives I go outside the next morning to check it is still in one piece. Pollarding is a more acceptable option to me (in any case, cutting it down ‘completely’ would only turn it into a labour-intensive coppice), but despite the perennial anxiety it causes me, I cannot yet bring myself to lay a hand on its splendour.
6/1/2018 Staverton Thicks is one of two places in Suffolk that I like best in winter. Part of the reason may be that my first visit was in December, and the memory of that exhilarating discovery will always stay with me. But there is also a stillness about it in winter. It is not just that fewer people walk there, as I have barely ever encountered anyone in Staverton Thicks, at any time of year. Rather, the stillness is of a wood in hibernation.
The main reason for my preference, however, is that its beauty lies greatly in its quality as a quite extraordinary, walk-in, living sculpture. Its shapes can be appreciated better in winter when the ground and the branches (apart from holly) are bare: more light reaches the woodland floor, and the tall, dense bracken has died back, allowing a clear view of the weird and wonderful forms to be found everywhere in this truly unique woodland.
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.