21/6/2018 I am so late with my last two spring treasures that they have spilled over into summer. I mustn’t use this as an excuse to abandon them though; they have been flitting around in my head, even if they have not alighted until now.
I thought pyramidal orchids would be my choice of penultimate spring treasure. They grow in my wildflower meadow – though I have only found one so far this year – and there is a forest of them at the Hobbets. In the end, however, I realised it isn’t just the orchids I love, it is their context: the sheer abundance of them at the Hobbets amongst the oxeye daisies, meadow vetchling and black medick. What’s more, there isn’t just one species of orchid there, but two. At first I thought they were a variation of the pyramidal orchid – which is known to range in colour from pale pink to deep pink-purple – but now I know better. They are marsh orchids. To my shame, I haven’t yet identified which type of marsh orchid they are, but I will make the time this very week and take along my plant identification guide.
St Mary’s, Withersdale Street
Outdoor temperature: 22.1˚C; indoor temperature 17.4˚C, humidity: 65% Karen and Nick, at whose B&B I was staying, had told me the previous evening that there was a lovely church a mile or so down the road which was walkable via a footpath. Since then I had been tempted by the idea of my first ever cello hike. It was such beautiful weather, and I felt it was a short enough distance for a trial. So, after buying some lunch supplies at the village shop and sitting for a while in the sunshine, I emptied my bag of everything I didn’t absolutely need – including my music stand – and set off for Withersdale Street, in the knowledge that I could always abort the operation if it turned out I was being overly optimistic about the lightweight qualities of my new cello case.
The following Monday I had arranged to meet a friend, Cristina, to visit the Alde Valley Spring Festival at Great Glemham before a rehearsal in Rendham church. I left home in high spirits: I had just heard the tit chicks cheeping in the kitchen ceiling for the first time– the nest entrance was a hole in a wall beam – and the first ox-eye daisies were coming into flower by the driveway.
Unfortunately the morning’s adventures did not start off so well, as neither of us had remembered that the festival was closed on Mondays. Annoyed with myself for not registering this important piece of information when I looked up the website the night before, we came up with an alternative plan to park at Snape Maltings and go for a walk on the marshes – it seemed a promising location to find somewhere to leave my cello for an hour or two.
I love the Stour Valley. The steep hills and marshy ground near the river mean that more land is given over to small meadows for sheep and cattle than on the higher, flatter ground where I live. The hills also provide some of the best views in Suffolk. Of course, the river itself is the central draw: over the years I have felt an increasing compulsion to be near water, especially rivers.
As 10th May was my mother’s birthday, I decided that a church tour of the Stour Valley would be a fitting way to celebrate it for her. I also wanted to walk and enjoy the many bluebells– which grow in the hedgerows as much as the woodlands in this area – and so an overnight stay at a remote farmhouse I had discovered near Stoke by Nayland seemed the best and most enjoyable way to do both, especially as the weather forecast was good.
It was a little over a week since my walk in Captain’s Wood, and a visit to see the bluebells at Staverton Thicks was becoming more urgent. This time it wasn’t difficult to find an opportunity to combine a walk with church touring: my cello had developed an annoying buzz and I would need to leave it in Woodbridge for half a day to be glued back together. I arranged to drop it off one morning when I had time to continue to the Thicks, only 15 minutes beyond Woodbridge.
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.