St Margaret’s, Lowestoft I’d arranged a full weekend of church visits in and around Lowestoft, with the result that I was giving at least two concerts, if not more, in two days. I’d slightly lost track of which ones were concerts and which weren’t. I took pains to stress they would be very informal: I was out of solo performance practice and my stamina wasn’t up to a full recital. But I knew that if there were more than a handful of people attending, they would feel like concerts anyway.
St Mary’s, Bramford I was particularly excited about this church visit, number 450, as it was the penultimate milestone of my tour – unless of course the total ends up exceeding 500, which isn’t impossible. The arrival of this milestone came more than a year after I anticipated it, but was all the more welcome for the delay.
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.
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.
16/6/20 Sometimes I wonder whether sorrow and celebration are compatible, or if they are in fact so closely intertwined that celebration is hardly meaningful unless it is goes tightly hand in hand with its opposite. Hearing on Sunday night of the death of a musical colleague and friend, from whom the excitement of my musical future in Suffolk seemed barely separable, part of me was in no way inclined to continue with the celebration of bee orchids that I had begun a day earlier. But June has been a month of loss for me since my mother’s death a decade ago. There is an irony, and pain, in the contrast between the joy and busyness of the season and the emptiness of grief, but in some way I have also become accustomed to it; to the extent that it may be the cause of my being even more attuned to the small wonders going on around me every day. It somehow feels more important than ever to celebrate the little bee orchid. Perhaps it seems more of a miracle, more beautiful, than it did before.
Last June I was excited to find bee orchids growing in the field verge nearest my wildflower meadow. This year in March, my friend Mark spotted a bee orchid in my front lawn. I was dubious; but after a few seconds’ contemplation of the greenery around my feet, I replied, ‘well, if that is a bee orchid, so is this!’ And so a microscopic examination of the front lawn began, with a stick placed beside each orchid so that it wouldn’t be mown over. He was right, of course: they were bee orchids, and there were a lot of them. He also found what we now believe to be a common spotted-orchid (complete with oddly-placed and possibly controversial hyphen), having first thought it an early purple – which, incidentally, has also made me realise that the supposed marsh orchids at the Hobbets that I mentioned two years ago are more likely to be common spotted-orchids, though the two hybridise readily. If and when it flowers, we will be able to confirm its identity.
30/5/20 Yesterday I went on a walk with a friend, her first outing alone since lockdown. She asked me if I thought it was true there was more wildlife and more birdsong since lockdown, or whether we were simply noticing them more. I have heard many people say it, and seen many videos of wild animals wandering care-free down empty high streets, but the question of there being more wildlife, objectively speaking, needed logical consideration. It was probably a subject for the radio programme More or Less.
When she began describing the things she’d noticed, it was clear to me that most of it was just a matter of hearing birds where traffic noise would normally drown them out or encourage them to move elsewhere; or birds and other animals being happy in places they’d usually avoid. Fewer people, less traffic and less noise all mean that animals may be considering raising a family or looking for food where they never would have before. People have also slowed down, are spending more time at home and probably more time walking and cycling in their neighbourhood; therefore they are most likely seeing and hearing things that usually pass them by. But I don’t really see how there can be more wildlife already. Perhaps there will be at the end of the season, if nesting is more successful or more widespread this year. Perhaps some plants and animals that are sensitive to air quality will also benefit, though I can’t imagine the effects would be noticeable just yet.
15/3/20 Although it seems not to get as much as attention as flowers or blossom, pussy willow is for me – and many others – a highlight of late winter. Quite strangely and uniquely, it is a name that is over-specific and under-specific at the same time. It is not one species of willow, but several; and it is not a permanent name for these species, but a season-specific one. They are only referred to as pussy willow at the time of year when their male catkins emerge, covered in soft, silver fur.
I realised only a few weeks ago that they couldn’t all be one species, because the pussy willows I have seen near my house have shorter fur than the ones near Lavenham, which are as much fluff as bud, and glow when the sun is behind them. For five years I used to drive past them every week, but I rarely have a reason to go that way any more, and the road they line is not enticing. It is fast, bendy and not easy to stop on. Still, I have been wondering if I might not be too late to go looking there this year.
I resumed my winter treasures this year thinking that there were only two or three subjects I had had to leave out in 2018. But as the month of February progresses, I find, again, that I am having difficulty deciding what to include. January brought aconites and snowdrops, and the start of February saw my first violet and periwinkle sightings as well as the first blackbird, thrush and skylark songs, all within 24 hours. The mild winter has brought out the blackthorn already, as well as daffodils and early-spring-flowering plums and cherries. The hawthorn in my roadside hedge is already sprouting, and weeping willows are starting to glow green-yellow. It is easy to trick oneself into thinking March is already underway, but I have no desire to wish away this most unloved month of February. Part of the pleasure is in knowing what lies around the corner, and savouring the hints of something not yet arrived. I wouldn’t want to lose a month of anticipation; nor would I want to lose a month of calm in which to continue my slow but steady and satisfying progress on long-neglected jobs.
So, instead, I am thinking back to December and January afternoons, and choosing a topic that applies to the whole of this season of low sun: the quality of light and shadow on a sunny day. It is glorious in the morning, but the afternoon brings a special orange glow. It is the kind of oblique light chased by artists and photographers, and not easily found in summer, except at sunrise and sunset.
A little over a year ago, I completed my year of weekly ‘seasonal treasures’. I started the project as a form of self-medication: I suspected that I had some form of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and that winter would always make me feel low, even though I had learned – consciously – to like it. Now I am not sure I was right. I wonder if it was in fact a combination of difficult circumstances for several years running that formed unconscious, bodily associations of winter with physical and emotional difficulties, and that these associations required a concerted effort to break, by replacing them with more positive ones. Whatever the problem was, my self-prescribed concoction of daily walks, a daylight lamp, more frequent social and musical engagements and, perhaps most importantly, weekly writing about highlights of the season, was more successful than I ever could have hoped.
I enjoyed the writing so much that I continued my seasonal treasures through the whole year. It wasn’t only the process of writing that had such a positive effect: it was the necessity of noticing, and dwelling on, the beauty around me, in order to choose something to write about. In fact, I ran out of weeks to include everything I wanted to. So the following year I thought I would continue, if less frequently, in order not to leave out anything important. But my intentions didn’t materialise. As time went on, I realised that without a self-imposed schedule, my more pressing writing engagement with Suffolk’s churches took over, and the seasonal writing was left by the wayside.
Monkey Chicken’s example was followed to the letter this autumn, with a Very Big Party to begin the season. I have never attempted anything so chaotic before, and have my friend Rachel to blame for her encouragement of the mad idea of a camping party. Approximately 30 adults and children came to camp in my garden for the weekend – although a few of them opted for a bedroom instead – and even more came to join us for a barbecue on Saturday lunchtime. With hot, sunny weather – no sign of autumn – live chamber music in the background for at least half the weekend, and Winnie becoming officially the Luckiest Pigeon in Suffolk by having a piece of music written especially for her by Rachel, I couldn’t have hoped for a more special start to my new decade… We were even serenaded by tawny owls after dark.