WALKING with mother long ago, lopping the heads off flowers as
we went, I was told what a pity it wasto have given birth to such
an unkind boy. As Mary and I drove to church, we slowed down to see
a fine patch of snapdragon in Barn Hall Lane. Why didn't I join the
Wild Flower Society, she said. This I did, and became immensely
learned. Only the learning, like the snapdragon (Linaria
vulgaris), stays patchy.
A few years ago, I listed all the plants that grew on the once
70 acres of Bottengoms Farm, walking them before breakfast and
after supper, and carrying a notebook. It was the tie of set-aside,
when fields went untouched for three years; so I hoped I would find
some ancient flower from the Middle Ages. But all I discovered was
what used to be called the aftermath - the growth that softened and
coloured the land after harvest. Poppies, pimpernels.
The Wild Flower Society sent me its register. Yesterday,
mid-January, I found that primroses at Bottengoms bloom all the
year round, that catkins are showing in the track, that the grass
is sodden in a kind of livid green, and that the hellebores
(Christmas rose), both white and pink, need to have their muddy
leaves clipped for their full glory to be manifest.
Pottering about in the winter warmth, I prayed for the flooded,
for New Yorkers, for those without winter flowers - botanical and
spiritual. "You are sheltered down here," visitors say.
There was a John Bottengoms who perished in 1375. I see him
taking shelter from the cold - the plague, maybe - judging the
weeds, crossing himself as he prays to St Benedict (12 January),
plodding two miles to mass, bothered by purgatory, envying his
betters their ability to pay for a short stay in it.
As one grows old, aspects of belief wither and fall away like
petals, leaving a stout centre. Prayer becomes Herbertian,
"something understood", and not a religious bothering. Best of all
is holy quietness. And then there is gratitude.To have got this
Benedict for January. He did wonders in the north, until the
last three years made him an invalid. His faith and his creativity
wore him out. But what a life! A librarian, a singer, a builder, a
traveller, gifted with restlessness and inspired by Christ, he
perished in winter, leaving behind him a wonderful warmth. He
taught Bede, the first known writer of English prose - and, they
said, a light of the Church. Bede is also the only Englishman in
Dante. Benedict would have applauded.
When I read these old writer-saints, I hear music in
snowstorms.I feel that they would have been uncomfortable with my
present winter - and horrified by my central heating. As for the
new radiators in Little Horkesley Church, words would fail them. My
Georgian ancestors in Suffolk put straw in their box pews, and
fastened themselves in for long sermons.
The parson in his lofty pulpit stared down. There they were, his
flock. There stood he, their shepherd. Breath floated around the
church when they sang - possibly a hymn by Bede which hadn't got
lost. "Sing we triumphant hymns of praise." But more likely slow,
An old neighbour, now with God, lacked patience with those who
expected to be warm in church - "Put more clothes on!" Archaeology
reveals arthritic bones in the monastery garden. Some years ago, I
discovered a fitted carpet round a Tudor font.