Suffolk churches 108: Middleton, Benhall and Wherstead (December 2018)

Holy Trinity, Middleton
Outdoor temperature: 10.9˚C; indoor temperature: 8.9˚C, humidity: 78%
Middleton
It was another glorious morning. Middleton was the neighbouring village to the south of Westleton, which I had left until now because there were fewer churches in the vicinity, and I had visited most of them already. Today, I only had time for two church visits on my way home. I was looking forward to it: I didn’t know Middleton at all.

So I thought, but when I arrived, it looked familiar: I must have driven through once or twice before. It is odd that I didn’t remember its name, because it is a distinctive and friendly-looking village, with pub, church, and many houses clustered around a village green of just the right size to give a sense of both space and community.

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Autumn treasure 13: Goldfinches

23/12/2018 It took me months to attract the first goldfinches to the garden with nyger seeds. When they did arrive, I would see one, and then have to wait several weeks to see the next one. Still, I was thrilled with the odd sighting, and wished I could tell my father they were here. Like kingfishers, they look too exotic for England; and also like kingfishers, it only takes a glimpse to know which bird you have seen.

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Autumn treasure 11: Tawny owl hoot

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10/12/18 The sound of tawny owls isn’t restricted to autumn, or even to night time. They are usually not far away at any time of year, and a few years ago there was a period when I would hear them in the garden more often at about 11am than any other time of day.

Recently I noticed I had been missing them. Autumn nights are not complete without that most magical of sounds: a sonic reproduction of alpaca wool. It is a sound I could snuggle in. What a contrast to the bird that produces it! Loose-feathered and beautiful as tawny owls are, I am under no illusion as to their cuddliness. One glimpse of those piercing eyes and deadly beak and claws instantly corrects any mistake on that front. Their babies are another matter, however. Perhaps the sound is of owlet fuzz rather than alpaca wool. It certainly has the same effect on me as looking at a photograph of a baby owl.

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Summer treasure 13: Grandchicks

Winnie30/9/2018 Many of you know the story of Winston the Wood Pigeon. But you may not know the latest developments. Beginning with the fact that Winston is now Winnie. And no, she is not confused about her gender.

Winnie and her sibling came to live with me aged approximately two weeks. Becoming a pigeon parent was a steep learning curve, and sadly Winnie’s sibling didn’t make it. But Winnie was a tough old bird, and when she took her maiden flight on the day I visited Winston church in August last year, her name was decided.

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Summer treasure 11: What are YOU doing in my kitchen?

11/9/2018 It is the first time in my life that I have been given a fright by a tiny ball of fluff.

I put out my hand to turn on the kitchen tap, and pulled back in alarm. There was something behind it, moving ever so slightly. It was spherical, and for a moment I couldn’t tell what it was. Then I saw a few tail feathers sticking out at one end and realised it was a baby bird.

Goldcrest ballBut it wasn’t any baby bird I had seen before. Part of my confusion as to the identity of this apparition was caused by a bright yellow-orange streak amongst the grey, gold-green and black. Indignant, it took its head out from under its wing when I picked it up, and I saw that the colour was on its head. It was almost weightless.

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Summer treasure 10: Wasps’ nests

cedar wasp nest9/9/2018 The discovery of an exquisitely beautiful wasps’ nest hanging in a cedar tree in my garden yesterday prompted me to think again about these much detested creatures. I wouldn’t exactly put wasps at the top of my list of favourite animals, and I admit they make a nuisance of themselves towards the end of summer when, unemployed and in a drunken stupor, they wander about looking for sugar. But I become extremely angry when I see people killing them.

I have lost count of the times when, forbidding a visitor to kill a wasp in my garden, I have been asked, ‘but what is the point of them?’ To my shame, the only answer I have been able to give is, ‘if wasps disappeared from the planet tomorrow, you’d know about it. And not in a good way’. The truth is, though I was certain wasps did have a point, I was only guessing at their ecological importance. I believe there is no creature on the planet that has no purpose; it wouldn’t exist if it didn’t. Certainly no insect, anyway. I am not always so sure about humans – except perhaps as the only creature capable of appreciating the miracle that is our planet. We have a funny way of expressing it though, so intent do we seem on destroying our only home…

It is time to extol the virtues of these poor creatures, beyond that of providing a free cleaning service for my fences and garden furniture. My love for hornets is greater than for wasps – they are, after all, regal in their size and colour, and don’t bother humans even in late summer – but I feel more urgency in expressing my support for wasps.

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Summer treasure 8: The comma butterfly

Comma2/9/2018 I have been waiting since the spring for a sighting of this beautiful creature. In early summer I caught a glimpse of that orange-brown glow fluttering past at a distance, but too briefly and too far away for me to get a proper look – though I was fairly certain it was a comma. No other butterfly shares its rich colour. But finally, a few days ago, one came onto the terrace, and sunbathed on the window long enough for me to get a photo on my phone.

I think we all know that butterfly numbers have taken a nosedive in recent decades. When I was a child, our lavender bushes were almost invisible beneath the clouds of white butterflies enjoying the flowers. The buddlejas were always covered in tortoiseshells, peacocks, cabbage whites, brimstones, red admirals and the odd painted lady, comma or fritillary, if we were lucky. I am now sadly privileged to welcome only the occasional visitor to my garden. The small whites are the most numerous, but sometimes large whites, meadow browns, skippers, gatekeepers and common blues, amongst all the previously numerous buddleja frequenters, come too. Now, instead of the buddlejas, patches of head-high thistles around the garden – though proving somewhat problematic in their seemingly infinite spreading capacity – seem to provide the most attractive food source to my insect friends. I am torn between attempting to prevent them taking over entirely, and wanting to provide for as many creatures as possible in my little oasis.

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Spring treasure 12: The Hobbets

pyramidorchid
Pyramidal orchid

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.

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Rhubarb ducklings

4/5/2018 Ducks seem to have an uncanny ability to combine sense with silliness.

I had made up my mind that the first urgent garden job to be undertaken when the weather became more clement was to weed the rhubarb bed. I could barely distinguish rhubarb from weed, but I knew it must be nearly ready for picking by now. So, as soon as the sun appeared, I made my way through the fencing designed to keep out goats but almost as effective in keeping out humans.

But before I had done more than cut out a couple of brambles, I bumped into a duck. Almost literally: I didn’t see her until I was standing right next to her, and she barely moved even then, except to lift up her head and look at me in slight alarm.

So much for that, I thought, after I had recovered from the surprise. But then I realised, as long as I kept my distance and left her plenty of cover, I could probably start weeding from the other end without disturbing her. As I started on my task, I reflected on her choice of nesting location. Sensible duck, I thought: she has chosen a well-hidden spot with extra fencing protection against predators. I’d never have found out she was there if I hadn’t tried to weed the rhubarb bed. Silly duck, I thought: how on earth is she going to get her ducklings out?

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Spring treasure 6: The Return of the Swallows

30/4/2018 I love swallows. I could tell you what I love about them: their chattering, aerial acrobatics, colours and streamers. I cannot think of their migration to and from Africa every year without a sense of awe – almost disbelief. I look forward to their arrival in spring, feeling that they carry the new season on their wings, regardless of the weather – and we are shivering in yet another cold and rainy spell.

But none of this really explains my feeling for them: they are far more than the sum total of their characteristics. They carry a whole world of delight and symbolism within their weightless bodies; they are the stuff of poetry and folklore. One day – if I can work out how to do it, and make my peace with libraries – I would like to create an anthology of swallow literature.

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