IT SEEMS an odd thing to do in October, but I have just watered the geraniums and roses which grow in tubs on the terrace, the water having been left over from some other task. It arrives at the old farmhouse from a series of springs and catchments. The days are mild, and the horses graze on the hillside in a way that might suggest April.
At matins in the chancel, we sing Philip Doddridge’s “O spread thy covering wings around”, and I think of the, to me, inexplicable crowds being dispersed at Calais.
My wanderings ceased long ago. Now and then, I defend myself from being a stay-at-home. Once, in Australia, my sister and I found a little wooden church where the books were scattered about and the lectern Bible was open at the readings for the saints and martyrs of England. With Sydney now only a day from us, the old homesickness can no longer exist. I remember a governess’s wife in the 19th century sitting on a point where she could see the mail boat from England breaking the far horizon. The longing for letters was profound, almost a sickness.
Meanwhile, coming from matins in the Stour Valley, I observe some teenagers with mobiles clamped to their ears. Soon it will be the feast of Christ the King, and Advent, and I will wish I could be in my stall at St Edmundsbury Cathedral. The cathedral was built to house the pilgrims to St Edmund’s shrine: a place of healing. I think that the long walk often did the healing. People would spring-clean their houses, then walk to Bury, or Canterbury, in Maytime, telling stories, laughing, singing. Chaucer’s masterpiece echoes these eloquent travellers and hopeful seekers after cures.
David, the orchard man, has just left. He is the master of apples, of old hedgerow fruit-trees, damsons and crabs. I sometimes forget to visit my huge crab-apple tree and am full of guilt when it carpets the ground with its fruit. The habit of my old trees is to miss a year and then fill a year.
Aunt Agnes had an apple room where keepers and eaters were set out under sheets of the East Anglian Daily Times. The gate to her orchard was padlocked — although who was likely to steal a few in a Suffolk groaning with apples every other year? At the moment, my orchard has just been scythed, all except the butterwort, which is falling on its face.
We are soon to remember Abbess Hilda of Whitby, who ruled a community of both men and women, where there was glorious singing. One of her singers was Caedmon. I once heard of a west-country church choir singing as Thomas Hardy would have listened to it, slow, and entirely male. And from the back of the church. It was a great choir of shepherds and ploughmen, servants and boys, lifting the roof with “Teach me to live, that I may dread The grave as little as my bed.”