January 2023

The dog and I are just back from our end-of-month chore of delivering village magazines to the outlying farms and houses as far as the village boundary. The dog, like a milkman’s horse, knows the round by heart, turns off the road without being told, and sits quietly while the month’s issue is deposited in the correct receptacle.

It is not really an onerous task. The walk back, having shed our burden, is a scant 2.5km, but the delivery round itself is far longer, for we are up and down paths, drives, farm tracks, and round the back of houses. The instructions are various: the magazine to be placed in the box where clothes pegs are kept, to be put on the ledge on the right-hand side inside the lobby, in a (former) litter tray inside a chest, in an old drainpipe attached to a gate with string. Don’t forget which places must have two copies… The newer houses (farm bungalows mainly, or barn conversions or extensions) of course have letterboxes, some at the base of the door requiring me to get down on all fours; some where you have to push against a draught excluder with all your might; some which want to take your hand off as they snap shut.

Cottage in a cornfield – John Constable

Most of the dwellings attest to the agricultural past – and present – of the area. We go to many farms, mostly 16th or 17th century in origin, one with a smart Georgian frontage tacked on. The smart ones have been taken over by those who have moved to the country (the obligatory 4x4s shiny in the drive), the ramshackle ones still working operations; and there are farm cottages, some thatched; farm bungalows; converted barns (holiday lets).

One particularly lovely building, grade II listed and dating from the 16th century, has stood empty now for more than three years. A mix of sadness and anger wells up as we trudge up to the door. A couple from London, she a poet and librettist, lived there. They were not married, and he died suddenly in 2019, intestate. His adult children turned her out, and the place is still not sold. But of course, we never know the full story. I saw the son once when I was delivering a couple of years back, and he told me to keep putting the magazine through the door each month. Why? For the unhappy ghosts?

There are many thatched roofs locally, their ridges ornately patterned from the thatcher’s own portfolio with long straw, whether or not the rest of the thatch is Norfolk reed (more durable) or also in long straw. Master thatchers will often grow their own straw to ensure continuity of quality, and it is reaped and treated by hand. An expensive business! Long straw thatch in the region has the most diverse visual feature detail characteristics, which are predominately characterised by the gable ends, and I gather one would know pretty much where you were in East Anglia by the gable ends. How do you tell if a thatch is reed or long straw? See below…

On the way back we passed an orchard with daffodils in flower. They trumpeted “Spring is coming! Spring is coming!” as we walked by. There are snowdrops and aconites in gardens, and I have seen a crocus. The heart lifts a little from the mud and mire.

Yes, spring no longer seems an impossibility. The deep dark of the year is done with. At the end of January, a month which goes on for about nine weeks, there is a shift, a marked change in the quality of light. I don’t mean because the days are sensibly longer (seven hours 48 minutes of daylight on 1 January, and nine hours on the 31st), but because the landscape is now seen through the pastel screen of early spring.

There are other signs: there is a definite, if limited, chorus of birds in the early morning. The monotonous two-note song of the Great Tit has started up, and once more larks are singing high above the flat fields. The leaves of primroses are visible, and their shy pale flowers will not be long in appearing.

And good riddance to January with its lengthy gloom. The only relief (for those of us afflicted by dark and drear days) came during another week of intense cold, when once again the fields were concrete-hard, and the ice on the pools on the Common withstood my weight. Then there were magical frozen mornings when there was a hoar frost and every tree, leaf and blade of grass was coated in powdery sugar icing, the tracery of the trees producing intricate fan-vaulting against the sky. These I entirely failed to capture in photography, and have borrowed this picture by a local environmental group.

With thanks to the Frenze Beck Nature Reserve group

It was some compensation for the long days of rain, which has turned the Common into a water land of shining pools.  Even now, though, the ponds and ditches have not filled after last year’s drought, and more is needed. Maybe February fill-dyke will oblige. I am conflicted: it is a real necessity…but those morning walks, slipping and sliding through the mud and wet and darkness.

To live in the country is to be fully sensitised to the creeping change, the barely discernible shift, of the advancing year, alert to every mood of the weather. To be both a countryperson and a Catholic is to have one’s year marked out and timetabled not only by the seasons and their proper occupations, but also by the Church, its rhythm of feasts and fasts, of saints and of ‘ordinary’ time. Both these calendars ruled the lives of our ancestors, and we are losing something precious, in the perma-lit concrete of our cities, and the increasing ignorance of a world punctuated by saints and holy days. The year-round hot cross buns, the advertisements which tells us that chocolate eggs are the “true” meaning of Easter…I would hope it were possible to celebrate the growing diversity of our country without losing sight of the richness of our western European heritage, the culture of a Christian past. I was shocked recently when a friend, a life-long churchgoer from the more Protestant end of the C of E continuum, did not understand a reference to St Sebastian, full of arrows.

And here I must pay tribute to an online friend of a hagiographical bent, who has created a social media page devoted to ‘the Feast of Insignificant Saints’, which treats us daily to a (usually) obscure saint – an unpronounceable Celt, or some martyred Roman virgin. There is much to be learned. On the day I write this, for example, we commemorate Metranus, an Egyptian martyr in Alexandria, sometimes called Metras, who was killed in the year 250 during the reign of Emperor Trajanus Decius. Who knew?

Photo: Geoff King

I had not intended to continue this chronicle, having taken it up again, with any regularity, but it seems to have sprung unbidden this month. One note, which will demonstrate that, despite the occasional week of frost, our climate is incontrovertibly changing. On 4 January, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, a butterfly…It ain’t right.


A glimpse of old Suffolk

I haven’t put the digital equivalent of pen to paper in this blog since the end of September 2021. People ask me why not, and the answer is simple: I have nothing to say. I still do not, but it is a given of the denizens of Facebook that they believe themselves and their photographic records to be worthy of note. Mine is not, but it is the ongoing story of an elderly widow in rural East Anglia.

I started in summer 2017, and there are only so many times one can say something fresh about the changing seasons or rhapsodise about the beauties of Suffolk land and shore. I could of course write on personal despair about what our country has become, or the increasing constraints of age, but I was frequently accused of being too gloomy (though some fans appreciate an elegiac tone), and one reader begged me to write only on sunny days.

Had I obeyed this injunction I’d have been busy at my keyboard during 2022, a year characterised here in Suffolk by lack of rain and an abundance of sunshine. It is likely to be the warmest year here since records began. Dry winter was followed by a dazzling and drier spring, a searing summer which lingered into an autumn of such warmth that flowers bloomed out of season and little birds rashly nested. It was an unrivalled year for fruit and nuts. Under every oak was a crunching carpet ankle deep in acorns. The leaves clung to the oaks till December brought a freeze of an unusual severity in this  warming climate. Earth was indeed hard as iron, and I had to teach the dog to drink indoors (normally she will drink only from watering cans, buckets, and foul ditches) as the ice was too thick to break.

Readers acquainted with this chronicle will know that I am most frequently out walking in the purity and innocence of the very early morning, and this year has brought daybreaks of heart-aching beauty. I thought nothing could equal them. Could my remaining days offer more? But there I go again…

So I present here a pictorial canter through 2023 in north Suffolk, with brief excursions elsehwere.

January at Dunwich

During the winter I had two portrait commissions – both unusual – to keep, as they say, the wolf from the door. One was to create a portrait from old photos of the great-uncle of an acquaintance, a major in the Rifles during the South Africa campaign and during the Great War. The other was done from sittings via Zoom (not easy – colouring and contours eliminated by the computer camera): one of us in Suffolk, the other in Canada. I believe the sitter now to be a dear friend, and we finally met in October when I handed over the picture. I loved doing these.

Spring brought more opportunities for painting: a chance to paint a Suffolk Horse (inaccurately called ‘Punch’) an endangered breed; and then – on a rare wet day – in Walberswick.

In rural Suffolk there is virtually no choice but to heat an old house by oil, with the moral angst engendered by the use of fossil fuel. In early summer I ordered a year’s worth, which cost me well over 10 per cent of my entire annual income. Disquiet and anxiety about the cost of living were somewhat allayed by the surprise offer of work: to help deliver the Kent Pilgrims Festival which would take place in late September. The work was far more than anticipated, and kept me chained to my computer and dripping sweat on the keyboard throughout the hottest part of the year. But it paid the bills.

And no rain fell, and no rain fell, and the mercury climbed ever higher. The dog and I were out by five each morning to savour the relative cool, but by seven the heat was too much. There were dire warnings on the radio and tv – old people must stay indoors during the heat of the day. The dog did not need telling; she refused to put her nose outside the door, and had to be coaxed to drink ice cubes.

Six o’clock on an August morning

My own harvest also came early. Many crops had suffered from the drought, though copious watering took hours each evening. Tomatoes flourished as never before.

Autumn brought little relief, rainfall was still almost non-existent here in Suffolk, and temperatures remained high. But it was exceptionally lovely.

A spectacular autumn

In November the dog and I went for our week’s holiday in Northumberland. It is worth the long car journey and the cost to see her delight as she races along the broad beaches, plays with other dogs, frolics in the sea. But even there, the most northerly county of England, in the penultimate month of the year, the temperatures were abnormally high, the sea a deep sapphire, the sky cerulean …and I regretted bringing my thermals.

A Mediterranean North Sea in Northumberland

And then, quite suddenly, we froze. I wrestle with inner conflict – I love the crisp cleanliness, the lack of muddy paws, the winter sun rising over a landscape of frost, the possibility of walking off piste across fields before sunrise. Yet always present is the knowledge that there are those sleeping rough, those who cannot afford heating and whose children must go hungry.

Et in Arcadia ego… The Four Horsemen ride over our land, their pace is faster, more menacing. Did their dark presence cast a more-than-usual brilliance onto the beauty of nature? War, famine, pestilence and death are not far away. Throughout the year there has been a growing sense of unease and foreboding. There has been war in Europe, and our screens nightly show us destruction and death. A flood of refugees left Ukraine in the early months of the war, welcomed – for the most part – by compassionate people all over Europe and beyond. But they are white and fair and look like us. Not so the sad and desperate who pay extortionate amounts to the passeurs to be ferried in sinking inflatables across the Channel, only to be herded -if they escape drowning and hypothermia – into stinking disease-ridden detention centres, and threatened with deportation.

The heat and drought of which I have written will, the meteorologists say, become the norm. Even in England there have been destructive wildfires.

Famine stalks many southern lands, the result of unprecedented drought. Hunger and its child war will increase the flow of refugees travelling north. We have known pestilence over the past three years, bringing death at worst and isolation at best. At the time of lockdowns I dismissed the effects on mental health – for me at least, as I am used to and at ease with my own company. Yet I know now that – although I must be one of the very few in the country never to have had Covid – that it has changed me. The facility for being with people (never my strong suit) has been corroded. The outside world and its denizens can seem like the enemy. I doubt Covid has finished with us yet: worrying variants have been detected in Asia, and the precipitate ditching of the Zero Covid policy in China may unleash the tail of the dragon upon us.

Here, and particularly in the east of the country, another plague rages – avian influenza. The poultry farms of East Anglia have been decimated, farmers have had their stock wiped out; many will go out of business. My supplier of Christmas turkey, three fields distant, lived a knife-edge existence after there was an outbreak a kilometre away. For those who do survive it will change their method of husbandry.

And death. There is always death. At my age one is aware that it creeps ever closer; so many funerals to go to. And of course one death in 2022 stands out – that of the Queen. You do not have to be a monarchist to have felt its effects. For most people in this country Elizabeth Windsor was the only monarch they have known. I vaguely remember her father dying and the sombre feeling that descended, if not on our household then certainly on that of my maternal grandparents who used to stand, loyally, throughout the Crown’s Christmas speech. Her passing, though of course not a surprise, was a shock. It still is, and throughout the political chaos of the last quarter of 2022 I have wanted her to come back, with her steady calm when it felt as though there were no hand on the tiller.

I must mention, though it pains me to do so, the constant backdrop to the year in the UK. From the grubbiness and sleaze of Partygate through the sexual shenanigans of various Tory MPs to the lunacy of the Truss-Kwarteng budget which brought the markets and the pound crashing down; through five education secretaries, four chancellors, three prime ministers, two Tory leadership coups…the list – the omnishambles – goes on.

But I will end with a photo of what, or rather who, banishes this gloom and despair and disquiet: my companion, and my constant joy.

Happy 2023 to everyone.

December at Dunwich

September 2021

And late to the party came summer. Very late. A last-minute arrival. But she came, and dressed in gold.

For almost all the month golden day succeeded golden day of cloudless skies. It was warm, it was still, almost no breath of wind. The nights, though they came early, were summer nights. With the warmth my tensions and stresses disappeared; with the sun energy levels rose. Dark and gloom were forgotten.

Such stubble fields as remained were bleached white and striped with green where fallen grain had germinated. The plough as it slowly swallowed them sent up clouds of dust from the bone-dry earth.

Although my own energy flooded back, the windless anticyclonic weather contributed to an acute shortage of power in this country. Wind power failed, after one of our least windy summers since 1961.The UK’s wholesale energy markets reached record highs after a global surge in demand for gas following a cold winter that left gas storage facilities depleted, plus a rebound in post-lockdown energy demand across Asia. A race to refill gas stores before the return of colder temperatures caused market prices to surge. But then came a series of nuclear reactor outages and the shutdown of a major power cable that brings in electricity from France. Energy prices rose; suppliers went bust.

Then came a panic over petrol supply because there are not enough tanker drivers, occasioning more price rises Nor are there sufficient HGV drivers to stock shelves in shops. And nor are there workers for our farms. Nor are there the carbon dioxide supplies needed for abattoirs or freezing and chilling food. No turkeys for Christmas, no toys either, we are told. On the day I am writing this the Covid furlough scheme ends; there will be unemployment. In a week the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit payments will be withdrawn.

Photo: The Guardian

A winter of Dickensian misery and poverty awaits many, the result of Brexit, Covid, and an almost unbelievable mix of incompetence and insouciance on the part of our government. So much was predictable, even if a pandemic was not (though in truth it could, and should,  have been foreseen). I find it hard to moderate my anger, and equally hard to know how to help, other than contribute to the food bank and support aid agencies. Aid agencies! In the country that pioneered the Welfare State! What have we become?

I did not take this photo…

One hot sunny day saw me driving to the West Midlands to deliver a painting commission (of which more in a moment). Summoning up my courage, I had no choice but to take the drive of death that is the M6, and I find it hard to believe that there is a shortfall of truck drivers. It would have been hard to fit in many more on some stretches, as they weaved in and out of motorway lanes at high speed. I returned the next day, back and shoulders tensed and sore from the stress, and shaky from fear. But return I did, and filled my car with petrol minutes before the first news broadcast enjoining drivers not to panic at potential shortages of petrol deliveries. Days of queues at petrol stations followed, with pumps running dry, and people not able to get to work.

To sum up: we’re in a mess, and worse is to come.

So why was I risking life and limb to drive to Wolverhampton and back? A former colleague of mine from long ago is an expert on John Singer Sargent. Sargent ( 1856 –1925) was perhaps the most successful portrait painter of his era, as well as a gifted landscape painter and watercolourist. His society portraits are notable for the way he depicts fabrics, and the use of light upon these, comparable with the work of Sorolla, his contemporary in Spain. Towards the end of the Great War he was commissioned by the British War Memorial Committee to document the war, and as a result of time spent on the Western Front in 1918 he produced the great (in both senses) “Gassed.”

A departure from society and war work was Sargent’s mighty “The Dogma of Redemption”, a huge frieze now in Boston (US) public library, and which centres on a plaster relief of a crucifix flanked by Adam and Eve receiving the sacrament of Christ’s blood into chalices. Sargent did many studies for this, and the work was in turn much copied.

 My erstwhile colleague had written a little treatise on Sargent’s Crucifixion with Adam and Eve, called “Redemption Achieved.” He then conceived the notion that he would like his own version, backed by a wood panel with text of his own choosing, to hang on his stairs. It was not an easy commission, for many reasons, partly because the angle at which I had to work gave me a stiff neck and a headache each day, and also not least because I was instructed to solve the problem of Eve’s impossible physical contortion. After some long cogitation, I turned her round in a pose resembling a page three girl. My colleague said he liked the solution, and had nothing against breasts …

The crucifix and the panel with text now hang on his stairs. They would look better on a darker wall, and – in my opinion – the whole thing would look better without the blue wood panel. But he who pays the piper calls the tune.

The parish to which I belong has a new priest. The previous incumbent departed, ending more than 350 years of association with the English Benedictine Congregation as the parish is handed over to the Diocese of East Anglia.The Waveney Valley is one of the oldest post-Reformation Catholic missions in England, as the first Benedictine priest, William Walgrave, arrived at nearby Flixton Hall in 1657. The line of service was unbroken since, with a Catholic church first being built in Bungay in 1823.

So now the monks have gone, and our new priest requested that three members of the parish pastoral council accompany him to view and record the state of the enormous Victorian presbytery, vacated only that very morning. What a powerful metaphor for the state of the Church it was: vast, with many rooms stretching out along corridors, cluttered and uncleaned, with filth and cobwebs, untouched for 150 years. Files of confidential material had been shoved into cloakrooms and left, and the heavy old cupboards and wardrobes disgorged bundles of stained bedding as their doors were opened. Maybe this Gothic horror was not only a metaphor for the Church, but particularly of the Benedictine community of Downside which served the parish for decades, and which is now tainted with the evils of child sexual abuse. I have written of the IICSA report before (see August 2018), and it was dominating my mind as we explored the dark horrors of the building.

The beauty of this September and the purity of the early mornings have tempted me twice to the coast at dawn to watch the sun rise over a tranquil sea. The dog and I walk north along the beach from Dunwich, the Southwold light ahead of us winking its warning over the mist. I throw stones into the sea and the dog plunges in to search. She is eternally puzzled by their disappearance. We turn inland over the Walberswick marshes and back along the edge of Dunwich forest. We are utterly alone in paradise.

But now as I write with the new month nearly upon us summer has left abruptly with no lingering farewell. Suddenly it is autumn, with cold nights, rain and gales. Darkness comes not long after six, and in the mornings I need my torch as we set out. “Adieu vive clarté de nos étés trop courts.” I know – I say it every year….

And to emphasise the parlous state we are in here in Britain I just heard a farmer interviewed on the BBC say that he has had to plough in five million (five million!) broccoli and cauliflower heads, for lack of both cold storage (CO2 shortage) and workers to pick them. And next year, he said, less will be grown, and again there will be empty shelves. To trash food when so many people are slipping into poverty is not just a heart-breaking waste, it is a sin; I can find no other word. Welcome to post-Brexit Britain.

August 2021

Reader, I have been taken to task, reprimanded, for my despondency. Could my next post, I was asked, please be written on a sunny day?

And to my detractor I reply: chance would be a fine thing! After months of grey and wet, the weather forecasters told us pressure was rising. My hopes rose at the same time. But no, East Anglia is now doomed to what is known as anticyclonic gloom – the poor visibility caused by broad, low and persistent sheets of strato-cumulus cloud. In other words, it scarcely gets light, and the sun shuns us, as he has all summer. For those of us sensitive to lack of sunlight it not only depresses, but provokes physical aches and pains.

Often, when we go out at night, the sky has cleared, and the stars and planets blaze from perfect skies: Jupiter and Saturn low in the south east; Altair high above; Arcturus, who has nearly finished his summer run, in the west. This clarity can, sometimes, just spill over into the first hour after sunrise, and some mornings have rejoiced the heart. But the promise is unfulfilled, and soon the cloud rolls in from the sea, and the cold north wind blows. On bank holiday Monday I lit a fire.

So I hope my readers will forgive me. I am not writing this on a sunny day.

Pity the poor farmers. High pressure usually brings dry weather, but sometimes the cloud comes low enough to produce a wetting drizzle. And that’s enough to stop harvest for the rest of the day. They have had a difficult time of it. Lack of sun meant the grain of the barley did not swell, then cloudbursts flattened the crop. The wheat is looking good – as is the price – so there is some compensation.

Gradually, little by little, despite the setbacks, the fields are being cut, combines and balers working late into the night. All too often as soon as the bales are in, the field is mucked and ploughed, the shares thrusting deep into the ground, the earth violated before it has had a day’s rest. Not always, though; sometimes bales are stacked high, great monoliths that stand for a week or two like prehistoric stones round the field. The dog and I search out stubble fields. She gallops and gallops.

In recent years no-till or min(imal) till has become more popular with some farmers, but – generalising – the older ones tend to stick to the old ways. Min and no-till systems minimise soil disturbance and are claimed to sequester additional carbon over time, as organic matter increases and with it soil carbon levels. It can also lower the costs of machinery use in that less energy is required. There is less damage to soil structure, less risk of soil erosion, less environmental damage from nitrogen leaching and pesticide run-off from bare (ploughed) land, and environmental benefits such as increased soil fauna and habitats for birds.

What have I done with this cool drear month? Much work finishing a commission which I hope to reveal next month. I had my five minutes of fame interviewed by a local radio station when my parish won an environmental award. The days race past with work, painting, writing articles, parish and CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) stuff. Sometimes, on good days, I don’t notice that it is cold and grey.

I have, however, discovered a new weather saint: St Louis, whose feast is 25 August. He did not oblige this year.

Garden flowers have thrived, lasting longer without heat. Some crops too have done well, with record amounts of french beans and courgettes. But the fruit (tomatoes, figs) does not ripen, and everything lacks the sweetness that comes with sunlight. As do I.

Mid-month I had my bath resurfaced, and it was done by a Mr Baison. The aptronym rather pleased me, and set me thinking about nominative determinism. Google came up with some good examples: Dr Pam Graves, an archaeologist; Christian Guy of the Centre for Social Justice; Sara Blizzard, a BBC weather presenter; Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform; and Tom Kitchin the chef. It provokes the question whether they veered towards their chosen profession because of their name (nominative determinism), or whether it was mere coincidence that the name fitted the job. Apparently Jung believed that Sigmund Freud (=joy) was an example, since Freud wrote – inter alia – on pleasure. I’m not sure I am convinced by that. I will just mention two gems I know of personally: a firm of solicitors locally called Hazzard and Pratt; and also I was at school with a girl called Gay Tipple, but since I have had no contact with her since then, I cannot say whether she became either lesbian or alcoholic.

Perhaps the comments box will be full of examples of aptronyms this month. I’d love to hear them.

I have said several times now that it is time to draw these chronicles to a conclusion. In future I will post only when I have something to say which is not gloomy. Maybe there might be a sunny day in September…

July 2021

Do not be fooled by the azure sky. As I write, swathes of heavy rain race across the fields on a gale-force wind, veiling crops and trees, turning the colours of summer into a dull monochrome. It is the first named storm of the autumn. Yes, the autumn, for that is how it feels.

St Swithun has let us down this year: St. Swithun’s day if thou dost rain, For forty days it will remain. St. Swithun’s day if thou be fair, For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

It looked so promising after his feast day on 15 July: the sky was a deep blue, the breeze was gentle, the sun intense. The heat built and built. Some parts of the country received a rare amber warning for hot weather, though here on England’s eastern edge air from the sea tempers the heat. Summer had at last arrived after weeks of a grey dampness. But Swithun was teasing us. After ten days summer ended in the usual thunderstorm, and ever since it has been rain, rain, torrential rain every day.

Barley laid by heavy rain

So torrential that whole fields of crops were laid flat. The harvest, already late because of a cold and indifferent spring, had started with the barley and the oilseed rape during that brief snatch of summer, and for a few days the countryside hummed and roared with the sound of combines. The lane once again shook with heavy machinery moving at speed to the next field to be cut. But all is silent now, with only the sound of rain beating against the window pane.

My own harvest continues apace, and – despite this mediocre summer of 2021 – there is pleasure and gratification to be had in the picking, cutting prepping, freezing – and eating; the labours of spring and early summer translated into food.

So torrential was the rain that parts of London flooded. In Germany, Belgium, eastern France and the Netherlands a month or so of rain fell in a few hours. Many died. Last month parts of Canada and the US saw their hottest temperatures to date. China experienced devastating floods. Even damp and chilly Northern Ireland broke temperature records. Can anyone deny that this is more than just weather, and is now a pattern of change to the global climate?

Can the weather saints therefore no longer be relied on? There has always been so much truth in their lore. Mid-July so often sees a shift northwards of the jet stream, allowing high pressure to build and remain over the UK through till the end of August. In France St Médard on 8 June provides much the same service: S’il pleut le jour de Saint Médard, Il pleut quarante jours plus tard. This year it seemed Médard brought a heatwave in France, but heavy rain soon washed away this promise. Médard, a sixth-century bishop of Noyon, is often depicted with an eagle sheltering him from the rain, and thus he is venerated as the protector of those who work in the open air.

Swithun was a ninth-century bishop of Winchester. His connection with the weather, and particularly with the rain, may come from the legend that in his humility he asked to be buried outside his cathedral, where passers-by would step over his grave and raindrops would fall upon it. He is invoked in times of drought. He will not be busy this year.

Belgium has its own rainy saint, Saint Godelieve, of whom little is known other than that she was a holy woman in Flanders who was cruelly treated, and finally murdered, by her inhuman husband. Ever since her death in the eleventh century she has been venerated as a martyr in Belgium, and particularly in Ghent. The Germans ascribe a similar character to the day of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, 19 July.

This is the fourth July about which I have written in this blog, and the reader will deduce that I have little new to say. No poetic rhapsodies this month about Suffolk being a sea of gold as the sun beats down from a sapphire sky. All that beats down is the rain. I have less to say, maybe, than usual, for I still feel a sense of being locked down with its restrictions and anxieties, and although “normal” life is slowly creeping back, the virus still rampages. Life is becoming more social, but my world still seems shrunken and turned in on itself. There is no carefree jumping on a train to London to see an exhibition or go to a meeting. Even the doubly-vaccinated are falling ill, some quite seriously.

Earlier in the month the world came to me, in the shape of my family – daughter, granddaughters, son-in-law, and the house filled with the chatter of young people, and the bustle of cooking and clearing meals. I have almost forgotten how to cook, how to be in company. My elderly – and indeed not so elderly – friends tell me I am not alone in this. I resolved to put fear of contagion away from me during the visit, and hid the lateral flow tests I had acquired, but we have lived with the virus so long now it is hard to forget.

They came; we ate, we drank, we walked by the sea, we went to a pub, we played the usual family games, and then they were gone. The dog, insatiable, pines for the games of ball. The cat misses the sudden tsunami of stroking and petting.

And so the year pursues it course. The weeks rush past at a dizzying speed. And with the storm raging outside come premonitory signs of the end of summer, a summer which has scarcely begun. Our early morning walks are silent now, with only the lark and the yellowhammer singing. The last brood of baby birds under the eaves has finished the insistent cheeping. The mornings when it is not raining are misty, cool.

Or there is early sun, too bright, swiftly followed by gathering shower clouds.

How do I feel, now the year is growing old, now that daylight begins to shrink, and we drift towards autumn? This should be the time of ease and relaxation in the summer sun, a time of sitting out late into the evening under the stars. There is a sense of being cheated of something, of something lost never to return. How do we know how many summers there are to come? How do we know what is waiting for us round the corner? At my age, changes will come, moves will have to be made, friends will die. Cruel Covid has deprived us of much; this eternal grey wetness has taken away our summer. Live in the moment. There is always something good there.

June 2021

Dunwich beach at 5.30 on a morning just short of the summer solstice, the sun up over this most easterly point for more than an hour.  A premonition of the day’s heat hangs in the air, and beneath the still sea the lost city sleeps in peace. A grey seal shuffles down the shingle to the water’s edge. The dog stops, taken aback – what kind of creature is this?

Two weeks, dear reader, we had two weeks of summer, the sky a bright bowl of light, each day warmer than the one before. Two weeks, a thunderstorm, and back to drear dark days and rain. A friend posted these temperatures taken in southern England on the days of the winter and the summer solstice.

During that precious interlude of heat and light nature at last sprang into life, and colour flooded our world, wild flowers vying with cultivated garden blooms in beauty and vibrancy.

Our cold spring has created one of the most intense hay fever seasons I can remember, with grasses seeding all at once. Anecdotally I hear – and agree – that this scourge (for the non-sufferer I need to say this is not just a few sniffles; it means wanting to claw your eyes out; it means sweating and shaking; sometimes even a real fever) has become far worse and more debilitating in the past decade or so – another effect of changing climate. At its worst, for me, antihistamines don’t begin to touch it. NHS guidance says “Avoid pollens.” The dog says “I need long walks through the fields every day.”

And this explains why sometimes we get up with the dawn, and go to the coast for an hour or so away from chest-high seeding grasses. The dog cavorts in the shallows. On our way back along the beach towards 7am we see brave souls swimming in a North Sea whose June temperature barely reaches “bracing”.

Midsummer, and the solstice is past, and we begin that slow drift towards shorter days. I never see the feast of St John the Baptist on midsummer day, a traditional quarter day, celebrated here. All over Europe St John’s Eve is marked by the Fires of St John, Christianity having taken over the pagan rituals of the longest day, the warding off of evil by the fires which also serve as a holocaust to guarantee the harvest.

Few places can honour the tradition of St John’s Fire more than Catalonia, where La Flama del Canigó (the Flame of Canigou, the sacred mountain of the Catalans) is bound inextricably with both the culture and identity of this region. I know; I lived there.

On 22 June a group of young people take material for the great fire and carry the sacred flame, which has burned all year in the Casa Pairal in Perpignan, to climb the 2784m peak, where they light the fire and spend the night. Then they run the flame down the mountain, signalling the lighting of fires in every town and village on the night of the 23rd. There are fireworks, there is food, there is music, there is wine. When sufficient of the last has been imbibed the young, the lithe and the limber jump the fire. In my tiny village the then mayor, aged in his 80s, was known to demonstrate – if not his virility – then his enduring agility in leaping the flames, to the consternation and strong disapproval of his wife.

Even after circumstances had brought me back to England I spent many summers in French Catalonia, some of which were to take care of the house of a friend unavoidably absent at Her Majesty’s pleasure. The house had an unrivalled view of Canigou, and the fire on the peak was visible on that magical night. I have climbed Canigou three or four times with friends, not the “easy” way from the north, but via the dreaded “Chimney” from the south. I am not good with heights and steep drops, but – looking back – these were the best of times.

Which brings me to the matter of hiraeth. I suppose advancing years must engender this longing for what has been, a wistfulness for what is lost and can be no more. I wrote recently of my desire for one more long walking pilgrimage and the adventure and freedom of the ancient paths. And now, writing of Canigou, nostalgia for a place I called home for a while. More than that: my learning, culture, and language have been focused on France since my mid-teens. A cruel combination of Covid, Brexit and increasing age mean that this attachment is severed. My fluency has gone, and I can only dream of what was, and quote Villon: Où sont les neiges d’Antan? Or – more aptly in Catalan – on són les neus del Canigó?

Hiraeth lends a warm sunset glow to times and places of the past. If we examine these with a more honest eye we know that these too were not free from trouble or pain. But maybe we see that they offered us a future which too is now past.

Some who read this will be prompt to offer me a preachy “Count your blessings.” They can spare their breath, for I am well aware how very lucky, and blessed, I am here in Suffolk in midsummer, in my little house, with my garden, chickens, cat – and a mad young(ish) dog.

May 2021

“New month, new weather.” At the end of Siberian – though dazzling – April, with its drought, its hard frosts and its icy winds, the longing for something warmer and kinder was intense. Would the old saying hold good and a new weather pattern establish in May?

And indeed the weather did change as April ended. May blew in with a damaging gale (cue the “Rough winds do shake the darling buds” quote, but of course I should not be so obvious…), and low pressure and Atlantic systems established themselves – firmly. Was it warmer? Barely. Did it rain? A great deal. And all month long strong winds howled, grey and inky skies loured, hail and thunderstorms battered fields and garden.  

As May ends the saying holds true: the sun emerges, the sky has cleared to blue, and there is blessed warmth. Seedlings and infant plants, held paralysed for two months in shivering stasis, begin to grow at last. The fig trees in my garden are beginning to put out leaves:

When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh (Matthew 24, v 32)

But is this glimpse of summer to be trusted? In a parallel process the country, held in lockdown for so long, begins to be released. But the shadow of Covid still hangs over us, snatching our freedoms from us. Will they last? Will the sun go on shining? Maybe there is more chance of the latter, for once again oak came into leaf before ash, predicting a dry summer.

What positive can be said of miserable May? The continual cold caused the flowers of spring to last far longer than usual. The vivid yellow of the rape fields lasted the month long, and provided the only brightness we had some days. Wildflowers bloomed at dates more in keeping with seasons 30 or 40 years ago than with our recent globally-warmed climate. The green winged orchids on the Common put on a show unrivalled in many years, their vivid magenta juxtaposed with the gold of buttercups – another example of Nature’s complementary colour scheme. I can think of no word other than the clichéd “carpet” to describe their range and spread this year. Heated arguments raged on a local forum about whether their whereabouts should be publicised, lest people dig them up, but I have never seen this happen, and the Common and its location is well known as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

In mid-May the horses returned to the Common to trample down the seeding orchids. There are fewer this year, but two of the mares have foals. Our morning passage across it is less stressful than recent years, thanks to the absence of the aggressive grey mule. When she was there, no sooner was the stile crossed, or the gate opened, than her head would go up, and she would lead the herd menacingly towards the intruder. And if there happened to be an accompanying dog, however tightly on a lead, the intimidation would become intense. But this anxiety is no more. However, woe betide anyone foolish enough to park a car beside the criss-crossing roads: wing mirrors torn off, aerials snapped, bumpers dented.

I have learned something new. I was about to write about the other name for cow parsley, whose bridal frothiness is at its peak just now, and obscures the bends in the lane, making driving on our one-track roads adventurous. That name, I thought, was Queen Anne’s Lace, more dainty and descriptive than the prosaic cow parsley, which more strongly suggests its rural context. But these are not the same plants, and all my life I had thought they were. The (usually) omniscient Wikipedia tells me that cow parsley anthriscus sylvestris, known as wild chervil, wild beaked parsley, or keck, is a herbaceous biennial or short-lived perennial plant in the family Apiaceae, genus Anthriscus. It is also sometimes called mother-die, a name that is also applied to the common hawthorn. Queen Anne’s Lace, on the other hand, is daucus carota, though of the same family, whose common names include wild carrot, bird’s nest, bishop’s lace.

I am not surprised that the common hawthorn (or may) might be called “mother die”, for when in flower, as it is – somewhat late – at the moment its smell has a whiff of death about it, a slightly indecent decaying fishiness. The old saw “Ne’er cast a clout till may be out” certainly held true this year, but might more correctly be translated as “Stay in your winter woollies till the end of the month.”

In the paucity of new material for this chronicle, I am now going to write of the building work next to my house, and lay myself open to accusations of acute NIMBYism. I acquired this house some 18 years ago after a search for a home where I could live in silence. I don’t mean I do not wish to hear the sounds of the countryside, and tolerate quite happily the roar and drone of farm machinery. But what, since a child, rouses me to pain, and anxiety, and ultimately murderous fury (I now gather this is a thing: misophonia) is the noise of music and voices mediated electronically. You could put a symphony orchestra in the field next to me and I should not turn a hair, but play that on a radio or other means, and it becomes unbearable. Weird, yes, and it makes life difficult. It’s not something one can just “get over” or “block out”, and even headphones don’t cut it.

When I bought the house, there were fields both sides, and I was told it was agricultural land and could not be built on. Down the lane my elderly neighbours lived in a little cottage by the side of the road, but they are long gone. When they sold in order to move to a bungalow in a nearby town, the daughter of a local farmer snapped up both cottage and field at the asking price. The old cottage was deemed to be an agricultural building and thus could be replaced or rebuilt. I saw the plans: a Grand Design, a veritable palace, would go up in its place…but in fact not in its place, but set back from the road, directly overlooking my house.

In January 2020 the old cottage was demolished. Since then, every day (with a short break during the first lockdown) the lane has been busy with vans, trucks, diggers, cranes, constant deliveries. There have been pile drivers sending shock waves felt through the house, banging, drilling, beep-beep-beeping, and – of course – loud thumping music from radios (which to be fair they did turn down a bit when asked). The work is still ongoing.

It will finish one day. That is not the point of this diatribe. What is the point is that all of us who live locally find it an egregious monstrosity. Its size and ugliness dominate the landscape and the streetscape, visible all round in winter. Its Grand Design pretensions sit uneasily in its rural context. “Petrol station”, “detention centre”, “supermarket” have all been thrown at it by aghast villagers. One wonders at planners who permit these buildings, and yet who balk at replacing cement rendering with traditional lime on a 16th-century farmhouse.

I said that I lay myself open to accusations of NIMBYism. I wonder whether it has been always thus. I think of great houses locally. Did people gape at Heveningham Hall in its Palladian splendour in the early 1780s, and mutter that it was too big, too overbearing, too modern and out of keeping? Did they say the same a century earlier of Ufford Hall in Fressingfield where Archbishop Sancroft lived his last  years? Today we think these buildings magnificent, beautiful. I hope history turns a kindly eye on the “monstrous erection” next door. I am unlikely to. Grump grump grump.

The Waveney at Mendham Mill

What more to say of unkind May save that I think everyone is glad to see the back of it ? And now with the new month comes summer. It came just in time to spend some hours at Mendham Mill, where Munnings was born. I went with a group of plein air painters whom I join sporadically when I can. On a day at the very end of May under deep blue sky and a dazzling and burning sun, I sat in idyllic quiet beauty by the river Waveney. On the other side of the river was a meadow scene straight from a Dutch pastoral painting. The water sparkled, the foliage was still in its electric lime green of spring. There is nowhere on earth more beautiful, more splendid than Suffolk when the sun shines.

April 2021

There are two or three commonly-known but often misused quotations about April. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’  probably comes top –

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

The next, Browning’s “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’:

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England- now!

The third literary April I will come to later.

Even though here I am in England in April and in the country, these lines of Browning still wake a longing inside me: just stop, stop and hold April back a little longer, so this perfection of spring might last, so that the world stays new-born a few weeks more.

The weather seems to be going some way towards granting this wish. The month was characterised by a commentator on the BBC as “bright sunlight and brass monkeys.” The sun has shone gloriously, consistently, relentlessly from an azure sky, but the cold has been bitter, especially here in East Anglia. Each day the wind swings between north, east, north-east, north-north-east, east-north-east, always from the North Sea, and blows hard and icy across our flat fields. The strong April sun which should advance all the spring growth finds its efforts thwarted by this cruel cold.

The nights have brought sharp frosts, the sort which freeze water hard and thick, and turn the ground into iron. Spring planting is on hold, for no tender plant would survive the nights, and the earth is too cold for germination. Every available space and surface indoors and in my greenhouse are given over to the requirements of the nursery.

And in all this, not one drop of rain. A regular reader of these annals may be forgiven for thinking I am never satisfied. No sooner have I stopped the moaning about mud and constant wet than I start to say – in common with every gardener and grower – we need rain. We so need rain. The land dried swiftly and is now cracked, concrete hard. A spring drought is nothing new here, but this one perdures, exacerbated by the strong winds. What happened to April showers?

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.

But the rains of winter have produced bright jewels.

But set aside the frost and drought, and wrap up warm in a winter coat, and set off at sunrise, and the beauty of the morning, the pastel purity of the light, the innocence of the new day, the Magnificat that is spring birdsong, the flowers after the months of monotone, all this will kindle joy even in a wintry old heart. As the morning progresses and the sun rises higher the palette becomes a child’s poster paint set: the young crops deep emerald green; the sky sheer cyan; the endless fields of rape bright chrome yellow.

These sunrise walks bring sights that I think are not granted to those still in bed: a family of nine brown hares in a field, parents and leverets, the young playing as the young do – chasing and racing. My dog’s antennae twitch; she stiffens, her muscles tense, then she quivers. But she is on a lead…

The brown hare (lepus europaeus) is common round here, and regarded as a pest by farmers. They can be shot at any time of year including during the breeding season – and are – but they proliferate. In action they are beautiful, reaching 45mph at full speed. The dog wouldn’t stand much chance, though she is fast.

Last month I said that the passing of the seasons can be seen in the sky as well as in nature. The month’s frosty nights have been of a clarity through which the stars have blazed – Arcturus, Regulus, Procyon – companions of spring nights as I look to the south and west.

Looking upwards in daytime brings its rewards: a buzzard seen off by rooks, or four buzzards wheeling high. One descends for a closer look, and the late afternoon sun illuminates the underside of its wings into pure gold.

In April at Easter Tide
When flowers in grass spring to life
The lark at break of day does rise
And sings away with true delight,
With the sweetness of fresh greenery.
Early one morning I did rise,
And heard a little bird on a tree
His own song carolling on high.
I lifted my head to spy
What sort of bird he might be:
In the twinkling of an eye
Flocks of birds descend on me.
Orioles I hail,
And the nightingale,
Chaffinches I view,
And the merlin too,
God knows how many in the air,
Whose names I am lost among,
That roosted on the branches, there,
And began to sing their song.
I walked through that blossoming

Listening to love’s joy ring.
Over the meadow, riding slow,
I saw the god of Love pass by

(English translation of the Old French “En avril au tens pascour”)

Ten years ago on the fourth of April, my 64th birthday, I set out down a stony track from the hilltop town of Vézelay in Burgundy. Vézelay, where St Bernard preached the Second Crusade; Vézelay, one of the medieval gathering places for pilgrims journeying to the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela; Vézelay, with its renowned Romanesque basilica dedicated to Mary Magdalene. One of my favourite places in France, in the whole world.

I too was on my way to Santiago, some 1900km distant. It was a long-held dream, ever since I had discovered the ancient way across the north of Spain some 40 years before, and it was a retirement present to myself. For the first three weeks or so my way was completely solitary, and I met no other pilgrim. I walked through a glorious spring, in my inexperience carrying far too much on my back, encountering for the first time the hospitality and kindness of strangers that is, and always has been, a characteristic of the walking pilgrimage. I walked through the very deepest of la France profonde, its beauty and its ways of being little changed since I first set foot in France some 60 years before. For the first time I knew the excitement of each day’s adventure, the exhaustion of each day’s endeavour, the sacredness of putting my feet in the footsteps of so many down the ages, the liberty of the mind to reflect, think and pray, the peace of being, literally, in another place.

Vézelay, looking back after the first hour’s walking

Later, further, I met two French women, and we walked together as far as the Spanish border, and I learned the companionship of the Camino, the shared experiences of accommodation which ranged from château to the concrete floor of a village hall, of meals ranging from five courses to a shared packet of soup. Into Spain and I was bewildered by the sudden flux of crowds of pilgrims, everyone heading the same way. It seemed to me that this is what the kingdom of heaven must be – everyone with a single goal, different nationalities, races, languages, ages. There is an equality I have found nowhere else. Deep bonds are formed quickly, confidences exchanged, prejudices dissipate, mutual aid trumps self-reliance . In this atmosphere, so unlike the daily run, mindsets change. The journey assumes more significance than the destination. As in all life, the process is what counts.

I thought that this pilgrimage, planned over half a lifetime, would get it out of my system, but I had yet to understand that it becomes addictive, and each year the lure of the open road would call me back for more. And so, through my sixties and early seventies, I clocked up many thousands of miles through France and Spain, across Sicily, and in 2016 along the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, a journey which has changed my life in many ways.

And this brings me to the third April quotation, from Chaucer:

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes

(Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,

And palmers to go seeking strange strands,

To distant shrines well known in distant lands)

And I, too, this April long for the adventure, the openness to providence, the liberty, the distant shrines in distant lands. Alas, Covid put paid to any plans for one last Camino in 2020, and now – whatever course the pandemic takes this year – I fear my days of walking 25 miles in a day over mountains (or even 20 or so on kinder terrain) are probably over. An old knee injury, never properly healed, plus worsening arthritis, pain scarcely tolerated, and, well, anno domini combine to ground me. Must we accept these losses that come with old age?

…And yet, and yet…maybe one more? Sometimes I think I would crawl on my hands and knees to have, just once more, what those who have never lived it cannot know or understand.

But I think the dog might miss me.

March 2021

This is a picture of liberation. It was taken at Minsmere just after 6.30am on 29 March, the day the injunction to “stay at home” was lifted. Throughout the long and dark winter of relative imprisonment I have longed for a different horizon, and accordingly I set off with the dog the moment we could to the tiny hamlet of Eastbridge (whose tranquillity is soon to be despoiled by Sizewell C construction), and walked to the sea, then north along the coast – the Southwold light winking in the distance – and back through woodland and heath.

We saw not a soul, but our arrival was trumpeted by the boom of a bittern. I am a not infrequent visitor to this magical place, but had never heard a bittern before. I have certainly not seen this shy bird, and the photo may explain why, for it is a master of camouflage. Bitterns are members of the heron family with all-over bright, pale, buffy-brown plumage covered with dark streaks and bars, perfect for blending into the background. It flies on broad, rounded, bowed wings. It moves silently and secretively through reeds at water’s edge, looking for fish. The males make this remarkable and far-carrying booming sound in spring, like the far-distant report of a big gun or foghorn.

Walking back, we stopped to see how the Little People were getting on with their tree home, but alas it seems to now have become a receptacle for all sort of mementos, and its branches similarly adorned. Soon it will rival the Groby Tree.

March has showed us both its leonine and its lamb-like character. Early in the month fierce gales blew in, and blew out two 1m50 panes in my greenhouse, showering shards of glass all about. I was unaware of all this going on, being laid low with a virus (not the virus), and in bed for a week. This rare indisposition, which leached all energy from me for some weeks, is my excuse for the paucity of content in this month’s offering. However, I have been lately restored by a few days of exceptional beauty and warmth, which gave us the hottest March day for half a century.

This warmth and the lengthening days have caused spring to spread across the landscape in a great rush of greening. It would be impossible not to be moved each year by this explosion of nature and colour, the burgeoning, the bursting of buds, the intensity of birdsong each morning. The sun now both rises and sets north of east. This year all this has come together with our partial liberation from lockdown, combining into a feeling of hope and exultant joy.

It is not only the daylight, the fields and woods, the flowers and birds which tell out the glory of spring, but the night charts the advance of the seasons too. When the dog and I go out at night our prospect is south and south-west, and I see the steady progress of the winter constellations – Hydra, Canis Major, and above all Orion westward across the sky. Soon they will be gone, to emerge once more in the east in the autumn:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, the vault of heaven proclaims his handiwork, day discourses of it to day, night to night hands on the knowledge. No utterance at all, no speech, not a sound to be heard…” (Psalm 19).

Already the pale primroses, in flower since January, are being engulfed in a rising tide of green. Each year I think they are even more prolific and more beautiful than before. They must profit from wet winters… the violets too. On more open ground there are already cowslips and oxlips, and in the woods the dark green pungent leaves of wild garlic are thick beside the paths.

I say frequently at the end of a month’s chronicle that surely I must draw them to a close soon. In March the combined effects of an enforced eremitical lockdown existence and an even profounder withdrawal from the world brought about by whatever virus knocked me out, mean I have even less to say than usual. My life has shrunk. I can only hope the advent of summer and greater liberty to meet and speak to others will expand it again.

February 2021

It is one of those old country saws that as the days get longer, the cold gets stronger.

I had longed for snow, real snow, not just a wet covering here today and gone tomorrow. This is a yearning for the excitement of childhood, heedless of those who cannot get to work, or whose obligations to travel are thwarted. Snow changes not just the exterior but our interior landscape as well. Rules do not apply: fires can be lit during the day, sloe gin can be drunk at coffee time; in other words – school is out.

My wish was granted, and an amber warning for the easternmost parts of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex heralded a whole week of what felt like a holiday. A holiday from rain, from mud, and from the monotony of the quotidian. Snow came from the east, swirling, sweeping, wind howling. Thirty-six hours of it. Drifts formed immediately, closing the narrow lanes. These drifts were sculpted by the gale into fantastical shapes – castles, crenellations, cumulonimbus, battlements, billows, pillows, marshmallows, waist-deep and higher.

Round here ditches are deep, and the banks the height of a man. The first morning, when the snow is still soft and wet, the dog charges across what looks like level ground, and disappears, a good five foot down. She is lost to sight for a minute or two. I panic. Finally she scrabbles her way out. I’d have found it almost impossible to get down and rescue her, and then climb out myself. By the end of the week I too can walk across ditches on compacted snow.

The farmers come out with their JCBs to clear the lanes, and scrape the roads to a fine icy surface, impossible to walk on. They pile the snow high into walls either side, where it remains for a week or so, long after the thaw, getting grubbier by the day. The 4x4s creep cautiously along – the real farming battered 4 x 4s , not the shining four-wheeled fortresses, those must-haves of those new to country living. Towards the end of that week the wind rouses itself again to close off our roads with more drifts. A Tesco van is trapped; a John Lewis van is towed backwards to safety by a tractor. As I write, three weeks later, there is still snow in the ditches.

Walking is difficult, every step an effort with the cold gnawing at the throat and chest taking the breath away. The snow creaks under my boots. I see animal tracks – hares, rabbits, deer, and – alarmingly – all round the chicken enclosure unmistakably those of a fox.

from Pathé News

Those of us old enough to remember will tell those who are not that of course it is nothing like the infamous winter of 1962-63, when snow started to fall on Boxing Day, and the thaw did not set in till early March. The snow banks on either side of the roads were higher than the cars, reminiscent of scenes in the Monte Carlo Rally, which held us enthralled each winter on our little television sets in the Sixties. The lake near my home froze solid, and at weekends there were crowds out skating. I was 15, nearly 16, and I remember cramming my feet into Victorian skates with their dainty buttoned boots, belonging to my grandmother.

Gobions ‘Pond’ (photo: North Mymms News)

That lake had belonged to a a great house, Gobions, which had been a residence of the More family, and it is thought that Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, probably wrote “Utopia” there, then called More Hall (also known as “Gybynnes,” then “Gubbens”, then “Gobions”). After More’s execution in 1535 the estate reverted to the Crown, being restored to the family in 1607. Basil More sold the estate in 1693, it being purchased in 1708 by Sir Jeremy Sambrooke (d 1754), who made major improvements to the property. In 1730 Charles Bridgeman, the Royal Gardener (d 1738), was employed to make a ‘Pleasure Garden’ in Great or Gobions Wood. The wood – where I played as a child – contained various formal features, including a bowling green and canals linked by straight walks, enclosed by avenues crossing the adjacent fields and parkland. The lake on which I learned the basics of skating that winter was part of it. James Gibbs designed, c 1740, a temple facade to terminate the largest canal, together with the large Folly Arch, a three-storey gothic gateway, to terminate one of the main avenues at the southern boundary of the estate. Daniel Defoe, ten years later, called the place “one of the most remarkable Curiosities in England.” I well remember Folly Arch, which I cycled past on the way to buy bread in nearby Potters Bar. In my childhood what is now suburbia was rural.

If you are still reading, here comes one of those amazing six-stages-of-connection coincidences.

In the summer of 1968 a friend and I, having just graduated, were hitch-hiking round France. In Provence, in the Var département, we had had a lift with an elderly gentleman, who invited us to his beach-side house in Six-Fours-les-Plages for a meal with his wife. These things happened back then, and innocently. During the meal they of course asked where we came from, and I mentioned Brookmans Park, assuming they would have no clue other than my saying it was north of London. “Ah! come with me,” said the gentleman, and he led me into a dark backroom where an ancient lady sat in a chair: his mother, whose age he said was 100. As a girl this woman had been in service in the great house in the Gobions and Brookmans estate, belonging then to the Gaussens family, which had burned down in 1891. She named the landmarks for me, and remembered that lake where I had skated during the long cold winter of 1963. I remember nothing more of her story, save for this coincidence. Being so young myself I didn’t think to ask how a teenager from the Var had come to work in a grand house in Hertfordshire.

And now, suddenly, it is spring. After the snow the temperatures soared. The snowdrops are nearly finished; banks and ditches are star-spangled with primroses; daffodil trumpets proclaim the change of season, and daily the morning orchestra of birds swells and grows. The sun appeared after what seemed like months, and remained in a radiant blue sky for some days waking the energy in the earth – and in me. A spark of hope was lit, and flickers. There’s a long way to go yet.

I leave you with a stone found on one of our walks under a bench in the churchyard at Wingfield (see September 2019). I note the message.