I felt odd this morning. Part of me was sorry to be going home today, not knowing when I might get out again; and part of me was anxious to get back to the safety of home. I had intended to go for a walk and leave late morning, but a phone call from my friend Joost changed my plans: he had suddenly panicked that London would be locked down by the weekend and he wouldn’t be able to leave, so he had decided to pack his bag and get on a train. He had already missed the opportunity to get to the Faroe Islands where his partner and dog live, and felt a horror of being stuck in London for an indeterminate period without any work. We had discussed it a few weeks previously, and I had offered him the option of ‘self-isolation in Suffolk with goats’, which seemed to him a far preferable alternative.
I told Joost I would be passing Stowmarket station mid-afternoon and could pick him up, so he booked his ticket accordingly. Despite my lack of walk, it was too late to fit in four churches: I now had a time limit and was also slow to set off, distracted by the whole strange situation. Still, I thought it would do me some good to blot out the world for a while with some cello practice.
St Margaret’s, South Elmham
St Margaret’s was the very last of the ‘Saints’ churches, so called because the 11 villages – as I thought – of Ilketshall and South Elmham, in northeast Suffolk, are named after Saints. But I have now read that Homersfield church is also called St Mary’s, South Elmham, bringing the total to 12. All the Saints have their own church, apart from St Nicholas’ church which has disappeared. Although you might more accurately say that the villages only exist insofar as they each have a church: most of them consist only of a few scattered houses.
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.
St Margaret’s, Sotterley
I had delayed visiting Sotterley church more than once: this was a church to enjoy in warm, dry weather, as it was a mile’s walk or so from the road, in the middle of the Sotterley estate. I would have gone in winter, had a bright day presented itself while I was in the area, but it didn’t, and so I waited.
The start of the path was obvious; after that, I had to scan the oak trees and field edges for white signs with black church symbols to find the next section of my route. I felt the thrill of a child on a treasure hunt. Before long I saw the grand house through a gap in the hedge on my right, across a pond, or perhaps more likely a moat (see header photo), and I knew I was nearly there. Sure enough, at the next sign on a small bridge across a ditch – the River Blyth, apparently – I could see the tower of the church poking above a dense cluster of trees. I’d stopped a couple of times to give my shoulders a rest, but yet again I was glad of my lightweight cello case: it was worth every penny I’d spent on it, and made walks such as these not only possible but delightful.
On my way to Wingfield church, I saw a café whose name I recognised from Instagram. On a whim, and not without some misgivings over whether it was strictly sensible from a virus point of view, I stopped. But I would arrive too early at my accommodation even if I visited two more churches, as the owner had asked me to come after 4.30pm. I passed a chicken residence, then stables and an animal supplies shop, and found the café beside some horse paddocks: certainly a novel setting. I poked my head through the door to check it wasn’t too busy, and that I could sit at the required distance away from other people. Only two tables were occupied; one by a group probably above the age of 80 who seemed entirely unconcerned about the threat to their health, and another by a man with tattoos all over his face and head (not to mention the rest of his skin that was visible) and his companion. I found a corner to sit in, answered the usual questions about my cello – some from the tattoo man, who was very genial – and treated myself to a piece of coffee and walnut cake.
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.
23/4/20 I thought I had forgotten to write my final winter treasure in the turmoil that was the month of March. I had to look back through the list of blogs on my website to check. It was a relief to find I hadn’t forgotten to do it; but slightly worrying that all recollection of it had since deserted me.
This month I did forget, until a few days ago when I realised we were approaching the last week of April. I’m not entirely sure how we got here.
Having made a huge effort over the last few weeks to achieve something I never would have had the confidence to attempt even a few years ago, I have been feeling exhausted. Apart from the first day, this has not been the kind of exhaustion where I can’t drag myself off the sofa because my limbs feel like lead, but more a mental and emotional sort where I feel I have used up a year’s worth of ‘sticking my neck out’, as a friend put it, and now my mind is intent on shutting itself down. Doing anything other than being entirely passive is too much effort.
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.
St Mary’s, Farnham
The only Farnham I was aware of, until I examined my church map closely, was in Surrey. I was just as ignorant of the fact there was an accessible church so close to Stratford St Andrew, which I attempted to visit once about two years ago, forgetting it had been converted into a house. It was a good job no one arrested me on suspicion of trying to break in. If I’d known about Farnham, I would certainly have been delighted to cross the road and leave the A12.
St Andrew’s, Boyton
The following morning I went back to where I had left off, on what Simon Knott – but no one else I have heard – calls the Bawdsey Pensinsula. Boyton was first. Driving around the little lanes of this sandy area of Suffolk is a pleasure: it feels truly rural. This makes sense, of course, as you would never be ‘passing’ on your way anywhere. There is nowhere to pass to. I met only tractors on my journey; thankfully no large ones or the roads would have struggled to accommodate us.
St Mary’s, Bawdsey
The following morning I decided to drive to the end of the peninsula and work backwards: Bawdsey was my first stop. I found the church within a park-like, dripping churchyard. It was a pity it was too wet to enjoy exploring thoroughly: it is difficult to choose clothing suitable both for outdoor wet weather exploring and practising the cello in churches. Bawdsey possessed an outsized, stumpy tower, and a body that clearly once used to be larger: the roof had been lowered and there was a series of blocked archways on the north and south walls, within which windows had been placed. According to Simon Knott, this church, similar to Covehithe, was a small church built in the ruins of a larger one1. This would also explain the outsized – though shortened – tower, but I found no evidence of ruins.