Suffolk south of Stowmarket is wonderfully rolling country with lots of quiet lanes threading their way through a patchwork of fields. This is not the intimate countryside of the very south of the county where it joins Essex, the Suffolk of steep hills and half hidden lanes lined with steep banks crowned with bejewelled hedges that always remind me of Devon. This is the Suffolk of open space and expansive views.
I started my journey from the village of Great Finborough, its church sporting an unfeasibly tall steeple, a landmark for miles around. I have had a soft spot for this village since my first visit many years ago. I was walking on a very hot summer’s day and called into the small village shop to buy a cold drink. While I was waiting to pay I heard a distinctive voice and turned to see one of my great heroes, John Peel, the legendary disc jockey, radio presenter and much more besides. The man who championed unknown musicians and gave them airplay.
We had a chat outside the shop about walking in the countryside he clearly loved and he left in his old Mercedes telling me he would have loved to have had a walk too rather than sitting in a sweaty studio in London. Sadly, he died in 2004, at the same age I am now, and the village shop is no longer there too.
I cycled through villages stacked with beautiful old houses, painted in all manner of pastel colours, in a way that my own county is not. Depressingly similar however was the bowling green monotony of fields of winter wheat, with nary a variation in that colour to be seen. The monotony was broken only by fields of yellow, so intense as to burn the retinas: Oil Seed Rape.
I could smell its pungent, nostril burning scent well before it came into view. The other noticeable smell was the equally pungent odour coming from the field opposite where a tractor was launching a chemical attack on any wildlife or plant that deigned to make a home there. The stink was noxious and the resulting boring monoculture it created depressing to see. I remember the smaller fields of my childhood, worked by teams of men with primitive equipment in comparisons to the Transformer like machinery of today, each bordered with a hedge of many species, and each glowing with a multitude of colourful wildflowers.
It was the roadside verges that captured my attention.
Cow Parsley grew tall and waved in the breeze as I passed, as if sending a greeting. Bursting through the multitude of juvenile grasses, seizing its moment before being overwhelmed and shaded out, a clump of Greater Stitchwort, Adder’s meat, dazzling white in the sun, a member of the carnation family.
On closer examination, the petals have thin green veins striping them and the stamens glow yellow.
On the tops of banks where the vegetation was shorter were Cowslips, that iconic plant of early springtime. Most were past their best and the beautiful flower tubes were burnished brown as they had served their reproductive purpose, but a few persisted in all their golden glory. Once common across traditional hay meadows in particular, these beautiful, nodding yolk yellow flowers growing in great profusion are a rare sight, as their traditional habitat has been swept away in the name of agricultural efficiency, but they survive on the field margins where they are not persecuted out of existence.
I passed a tall copse of trees surrounded by a hedge, an island in a field of wheat, and saw the roof of a church peeking above it, like the gingerbread house which lured Hansel and Gretel into the clutches of the witch. I followed the track leading to it for a hundred yards to find myself at the gate of St Mary’s, Little Finborough, pressed close by tall Yews. I entered and found myself in what can only be described as an oasis in the arable desert.
The little church, towerless in all its long history, and its exquisite collection of eighteenth century gravestones, thin and finely carved but softly clad with cushions of lichen, looked as if they had grown from seeds, like the profusion of wild flowers which clustered around it.
Towering flower spikes of Bugle, like frozen fountains of Lapis Lazuli, reached upward in small colonies. Scattered around were the delicate pink inflorescences of Lady’s Smock, their petals veined a darker pink, looking like fine cracks in bone china. This plant of damper soil is also known as the Cuckoo Flower as it flowers at the time as those indolent migrants arrive from South Africa. Their call is the heartbeat of early summer but there were none to hear today.
The soundtrack of small summer migrants was as loud as their presence was invisible in the Hawthorn, now in full leaf and bearing a rich brocade of creamy flowers.
Not for nothing is this tree also known as May as it never flowers before that month. Somewhere close by I heard the soft, sibilant purr of a Turtle Dove. Absolute jewels of the Columbidae, and becoming rarer by the year, they are often heard but seldom seen, preferring to sit tight in the densest vegetation.
Scattered among the graves the golden flowers of the Common Buttercup, with their shiny, waxed petals, radiated light like small torches.
A few Common Daisies studded the grass, waiting for children who no longer come to weave the starbursts that are their flowers into long chains. As we move forward in time many of the old ways slip into the shadow of lost memories.
Speedwells are among my preferred wild species and my favourite, Germander Speedwell, was present among the grassy carpet. Long considered a lucky charm for travellers, to speed them on their way, it seemed appropriate for me to find it this morning. Its tiny blue flowers remind me of little enamelled brooches, the colour of a blue sky in high summer.
Close by the slaked bricks of the old church the tall stems of Ribwort Plantain rose triumphantly from the green rosettes of leaves at their bases. Balanced precariously on their tops the stretched eggs of their flower heads, each with a delicate garland of tiny white flowers flickering gently in the merest breeze.
An immortal Yew, dark green and casting deep shadow, formed an arch into the more recent annex to the churchyard. Beneath its shade, like green Starfish, a dense group of Sow Thistles choked out any plant that dared to germinate in their midst. Soon, their turn to push out their yellow flowers will come. An Elder with fresh, pungent smelling greenery was staking claim to a patch of ground by the Yew and just beyond I found myself entangled in the low trailing stems of Cleavers, their hooked hair stems and leaved grasping me like the arms of an Octopus.
I tore myself free and removed the debris from my trouser legs. The time had come to leave this special place and continue my journey through the cultivated Empty Quarter which dominated the remainder of my route.