WAKING early, I can smell that frost has performed its secret ministry, as Coleridge put it. The scent of it is indescribable. Jack Frost has not filled the window-panes with his artistry; so I look out on to white pastures and rose beds. It is not as cold as the radio insists.
The embers of last night’s logs will blaze at a touch of the bellows. Soft white ashes have a spark or two in them, and the brick surround is warm to the touch. When I shake hands after the service, some are permanently icy, some always warm. The cold ones accompany a little apology; the warm ones a little smile.
From my desk, I can see women walking the skyline. They are in silhouette, cut paper shapes balancing between two parishes, their joyful dogs as well. The January garden is April-like with flowers, primrose, and stubby bluebells below the greengage trees. But no birdsong to speak of. A mild winter we may have of it, but wild creatures take no chances. There is a time to be dormant, and a time to rub one’s eyes and emerge. Which is not January.
Country people no longer say things such as: “We shall pay for this!” Or “We need a good freeze to kill everything!” And walking is not what it was. Not even after Sunday dinner, now called lunch. I hazard a bit of weeding. The white cat and Jean’s horses hazard nothing, and keep a weather eye open for the unpredictable turns of nature.
At matins, I preach on the ascent of the disciples to apostleship. They were to leave all that was familiar to them, and take Jesus’s teachings out into the world. It filled them with dread. Some of my neighbours go nowhere, and yet have a comprehensive view of life. Some take the village with them, no matter what distance, and the places they see are grateful for it.
Peggy Cole, who played more than a part in my film Akenfield all those years ago, has died. She was a perfect example of that wonderful regiment of women which orders England’s village life. Her garden was the old classic mixture of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, and her home-made-wine and -jam shed was a rebuke to the recent measuring out of how much we should drink or eat and its thimblefuls.
The Collect for Plenty in the Book of Common Prayer would have suited Peggy. Her flower beds and fruit cages romped together, her runner-beans and sweet peas were glorious mixed marriages, her rhubarb and salads hid every inch of soil, and she gave away anything we wanted, along with excellent advice, given in a kind Suffolk voice. Women’s Institutes throughout the land heard it.
Her husband, Ernest, and I were churchwardens when we were at Charsfield. Should I visit it these days, I like to wander through the memorials inside and out, giving goodbyes and greetings, a friend’s car and not my bike at the gate.
The Virgin’s monogram is clean-cut on the tower. Tall grasses part in summer to reveal it. Small red-gold Tudor bricks hold firm. Most of us have a not-at-all-spectacular shrine in our history to which we can return, counting our few holy footsteps. It was here that I preached my first sermon — on the Lord’s Prayer — to an encouraging Irish canon and half the churchyard.
Shortly after leaving this Suffolk village, I helped to edit the New Wessex Edition of the works of Thomas Hardy, and I saw him in my mind’s eye, dreaming in his Dorset churchyard, putting two and two together.