St Mary’s, Ickworth
Still enjoying the novelty of being within a day trip of each other following her move from south London to Hertford, I arranged to meet my friend Rachel at the National Trust’s Ickworth Park to play in the church there in the run-up to Christmas. There was an additional motive in this meeting: Rachel had recently confessed to me that she couldn’t bring herself to play the oboe in her local church, even though she’d been to sit there a few times and no one had ever come in. She felt it would be presumptuous, and that the oboe has the potential to offend more than the cello does. I tried to persuade her that if no one was there, there was no one to offend; and besides, if an instrument is played well, it never offends. More importantly, she would be doing the building a service by filling it with music. This wasn’t only my opinion, after having played in 437 Suffolk churches; it was also the opinion of most of the people I had spoken to along the way, whether religious, unreligious or anti-religious. But I couldn’t convince her with words alone, so I decided she needed breaking in gently, in Suffolk churches instead of Hertford ones. Perhaps after that, I thought, she might feel differently enough for me to accompany her to her local church with my cello.
Holy Trinity, BungayTo celebrate the end of Lockdown 2, I planned a visit to two churches whose opening times were provided online: Holy Trinity, Bungay, and Beccles. It was a cold, drizzly day, but I wasn’t going to let anything so trivial put me off.
I was please to discover Holy Trinity felt more like a village church than a town church, in contrast to St Mary’s just across the road – where I had given a concert in August 2017 – due to its size and perhaps its round tower, which, now I think about it, I had never seen in a town before. A question of money, no doubt: towns were probably always able to fork out for their churches in a way villages weren’t, and square towers must have been more expensive to build because they require large cut stones not available locally.
St Mary’s, Rickinghall Superior
Unusually, I’d had some extended trouble trying to gain entry to Rickinghall Superior: it was kept locked, with a keyholder address given on the door. But with no postcode and no phone number, I was relying on the road name, which was to be found neither on my OS Explorer map nor on Google Maps. I had no luck acquiring help on this matter until I was contacted by a CCT Local Community Officer hoping to arrange a few concerts, and I managed to get Rickinghall Superior on the list. In the wake of the season’s concert cancellations, I asked if it might be possible to go alone instead. To my delight and surprise, I was informed that the church was now open on weekends, so after arranging a visit on the same afternoon to its neighbour, Rickinghall Inferior, I drove northwards on another bright day feeling satisfied at the prospect of being able to tick off the two remaining churches in the area.
The Suffolk Historic Churches Trust’s ‘Ride and Stride’ event on 12th September was going ahead, but my concert in Lowestoft remained cancelled, apparently due to having to leave the church locked for 72 hours before the Sunday service. I have since learnt that the fundraising total for the SHCT event far outstripped last year’s: perhaps more people than usual were desperate to get out on their bikes, and awareness of the increased financial pressure on village churches in 2020 was widespread.
Buoyed up by my concert in Trimley St Mary, I decided to make the most of open churches – as I did with Aspall in 2019 – making successful contact with several in the area around Clare where I had a few left to visit. Not expecting to fit in more than two or three before I had to get back home for the arrival of B&B guests, I set off on a sunny morning conducive to feelings of hopefulness. For the first time since March, I was managing a satisfying number of church visits. I thought it might be my last chance for a while: I was shortly going on holiday, and the virus restrictions were already starting to move upwards again.
St Mary’s, Poslingford I received a warm welcome in Poslingford from one of the churchwardens who met me on the road as I tried to park in a tight space in my usual clumsy fashion. But there was no one manning the church and I was glad to have it to myself for a while. I didn’t expect this to last, but it wasn’t until I was packing up that another churchwarden arrived with a camera, followed by Don, with whom I’d been in contact, and Jean, his wife, clutching takeaway coffees from goodness knows where – Clare, most likely. They seemed to be settling for a little concert and so I duly took out my cello again and played them my favourite Irish air.
St Mary’s, Trimley St Mary My planned July concert at Trimley St Mary church – now the Two Sisters Arts Centre – was moved to September, with a limited live audience and a larger virtual one. I changed the programme and my co-conspirators: Rachel and Steve would join me on oboe and bassoon respectively. It needed to be easy to arrange and relatively pressure-free for all of us, and, most importantly, I wanted to be in the company of good friends. I needed to rediscover the joy of practising, rehearsing and performing even in the context of arm troubles and my accompanist’s, James’, absence.
31/12/20 It’s not so easy as you might think to identify a buzzard-sized raven in flight simply by size, unless there happens to be a crow mobbing it. And then you have to be certain that is a crow rather than a jackdaw or rook.
It has taken me a few years of experience and research to become confident in my identification of ravens. The first time I saw them must have been on a primary school trip to the Tower of London. As far as I know, I never saw or heard one again until I started walking the Southwest Coast Path. Making slow progress over the steep Cornish cliffs, I was alerted to the presence of an unfamiliar bird by a cronk: a deeper, gentler, altogether more beautiful and friendly sound than the caw of a crow.
Its voice is distinctive, but its pitch can vary, and this confused me at first. Sometimes the cronk is unmistakably low and sonorous; sometimes it is higher and sounds more like a gentle version of a crow. This is still the most reliable method of identification, however, along with its tail – if you manage to get a look – which is diamond-shaped (usually described as wedge-shaped), in contrast to the crow’s fanned tail. It has taken me many sightings and hearings, both at home and in the surrounding countryside, to be sure – absolutely sure – that the visitors to my garden the day after the winter solstice were a pair of ravens.
15/12/20 I have been waiting three years for hoar frost. It was at the top of my list when I started writing my seasonal treasures in December 2017; but there was no hoar frost that winter, nor the one after. This year it came early, on 8th December. With the mist and cold that day, it was still going strong when I went for a walk at lunchtime.
I often think hoar frost is prettier than snow. I definitely prefer it. Seeing snow when you open your curtains in the morning can feel exciting, but I also find it disturbing: a familiar view becomes unfamiliar. The world looks, sounds and smells different, and you don’t know how long it will be before it returns to normal. You feel slight disappointment if there is not enough snow and it turns sludgy by mid-morning; but if there is too much, you face the prospect of disruption and cancellation of normal daily life. This can be fun for a few days, if you manage to enter into the spirit, but it can also be problematic and unsettling.
30/11/20 Until I planted a new mixed hedge along my garden boundary, there was only one spindle tree – strictly speaking, shrub – in my garden. This is the spindle my dad used to teach me its name: easiest in autumn, when its fruits make it impossible to confuse with anything else. They have a bright pink outer casing which opens to reveal orange seeds. This is the only context, I think, in which orange and pink don’t clash, but enhance each other to create a crazy, joyous, unique autumn sight.
There are a few weeks in autumn when it is harder to spot the fruits because the spindle’s leaf colour competes; and, knowing it is in possession of these fruits, it is hard to appreciate the leaf display as much as if they belonged to a different plant. Once the leaves are gone, however, the fruits once again hog the limelight.
St Peter’s, Creeting St Peter It was a beautiful afternoon when I drove to Creeting St Peter church, which had been left open for me. It took me a while to find it: for a church so near both Stowmarket and the A14, it was well hidden away.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of the acoustic: the church was crowded and dark. But I found a ray of sunshine at the front of the nave and set up there, and found the acoustic beautiful, as well as the wall paintings which I could see well enough in the dim light. It felt so precious to be there on my own, and once I was warmed up the pain in my left arm subsided. I had organised a concert in Trimley St Mary church near Felixstowe that week with friends, so practice was a necessity. I felt the obstacle to playing was as much psychological as it was physical – the diagnosis was cubital tunnel syndrome, a compressed nerve at the elbow – and that I needed to do this concert for my own sanity as much as anything. If the programme was lightweight, I hoped it wouldn’t do any damage.
20/10/20 Two weeks ago I arrived home from a walking holiday in Cornwall and Devon to find the landscape transformed: I had left in warm late summer, and I was arriving back in the midst of autumn. The air was cool, the ground was wet, the trees were turning and leaves lay on the ground. One of the first things I needed to do in order to ground myself in this new season and my home landscape was to go for a walk. My hoped-for walk on arrival was swept aside by an emergency vet trip, as were most of my positive feelings about arriving home. But in the short period before panic and anxiety set in, I had already felt the relief and joy of arriving back to a place in which I was glad to live. In my desperation to get away in the preceding months, it was easy to forget that. The desperation had nothing to do with attachment to my home and local landscape; it was about getting away from chores and having a mental rest, which I was finding difficult to achieve without altering my surroundings.
My walk was delayed until the next day. I went to The Hobbets, where I spotted hiding in the long grass beside the path a single large shaggy ink cap. One of my favourite mushrooms. No: my favourite mushroom. I greeted it enthusiastically, without checking first there was no one in earshot – I have got used to people happening upon me mid-conversation with some animal, plant or tree. I looked around for others, but found none. I hoped more would appear in the next few days.
On my way home, I started to wonder why I love shaggy ink caps so much. Was it because they were one of the few mushrooms I could identify without any doubt? No, it wasn’t that: I could identify shaggy parasols, giant puffballs, common ink caps, honey fungus and fly agarics. Not a huge selection, but better than nothing. It was definitely to do with their appearance, I decided, and perhaps their name. I love the word shaggy, as well as what it signifies. They are shaggy, of course, and also beautifully white, unmistakably themselves in their distinctive shape even when they are only just starting to poke through the grass. They are a friendly autumnal sight; there is not the slightest hint of malice about them.