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.
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…