The following morning was perfect and un-forecast. It was a day for walking in the marshes, and I set off for Blythburgh. Without any thought beforehand as to whether I would go inside the church – I had visited on a few previous occasions, the last accompanied by my cello – I found when I arrived that I had to. It is impossible to walk past such a building.
It was no less bright than on the May afternoon of my last visit. I sat down on the step of the font and absorbed my surroundings. This might be the only building I know that the same effect on me as a beautiful outdoor landscape. If any church could make me believe in God, I thought, this was it.
I accidentally left my walking boots at Nick’s house, so I went to fetch them the following morning and was easily persuaded to stay for a cup of coffee. I was driving back towards Westleton Heath for a walk afterwards when I saw a sign for Darsham Marshes on my right and changed my mind.
It wasn’t a large nature reserve, so my walk was short, but I was glad to discover it. As I was nearing the end of the loop I met a group of three women looking at something on the ground and talking excitedly. I stopped and asked them what they’d found.
It was otter poo, they told me. ‘It’s not often one meets people getting excited about poo,’ I said. The lady who had identified the droppings held up a piece and put it under my nose: I was slightly taken aback, unsure how I felt about sniffing poo, and certainly never having had any presented to me at uncomfortably close quarters by a stranger before.
She reassured me. ‘It doesn’t smell bad! You can tell they are otter droppings from the smell.’
‘They apparently smell of jasmine,’ one of the other ladies explained. I could only detect a very faint fishy odour, but I was amused by the idea. ‘What a very lucky creature to have poo that smells of jasmine,’ I said, feeling our conversation was getting more surreal by the second. I asked where the path led across the boggy ground, said goodbye and continued on my way.
7/10/2018 For a number of years I have used walking as a therapy without really being conscious of what I was doing. I knew that it relieved stress, helped me solve problems and generate ideas, but I wasn’t aware that on occasions when I was at a loss as to how to cope with what I was feeling, particularly after my mother’s death in 2010, instinctually I turned to walking.
Early last year, something I read at the difficult start of a holiday on the Isle of Wight made me begin to pay attention to the physical, psychological and emotional effects walking had on me. Before the end of my holiday I had concluded that, as well as being a physical relief, it was one of the most effective remedies for emotional and psychological pain I have yet encountered1.
Of course, walking is not just an autumn gift. Thankfully it is a year-round one. But this specific walk – from St Ives to Penzance along the South West Coast Path – has been a particular gift to me, now, in autumn.
29/9/2018 Blackberry picking became a fixture in my calendar when I moved to Suffolk. To begin with, only simple enjoyment was involved. I revelled in the knowledge that this was my new life. Instead of crossing a city on the underground for the purposes of recreation, I could step out of the house and go for a walk in the countryside. I was finally ‘in place’.
There was no need to grow blackberries myself, as I could find them without even looking, and the hedgerow variety taste infinitely better. The individuality of each blackberry is startling: one soft, one slightly crunchy, one huge, one tiny, one too sweet, one so tart it makes me flinch, one tasting of autumn so much more strongly than the next…
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…