Constable, being a south Suffolk boy (practically Essex!), may not have made it up to this quiet river valley tucked away in the northern reaches of the County but, if he had, I suspect he would find much today that was familiar. The river, slow and meandering through reedbeds and marsh, low hills of farmland and pasture, plenty of sky and the extraordinary church of Blythburgh.
Plenty of weather too and, not for the first time in Suffolk, I find myself bent double as I set out into a headwind. It’s a peculiar landscape. I’m following the old railway line that curves away through the reeds but, by virtue of sitting two feet above, enjoys its own micro-ecology. It’s getting on for a century since the last train ran, but this embankment was built to last and is now the home to trees and shrubs that would struggle in the wet marshland on either side.
The walking is easy, and it isn’t long before I have to leave this narrow strip of relatively dry higher ground, step out into the boggy marsh and through to the farmland that occupies the sides of the valley. This is the Suffolk pastoral – I make my way along wet roads, through fields ankle deep in mud, up ancient holloways. Even in this weather it feels tremendous to be out in the open. It isn’t classically beautiful – for every holloway there is a pile of tyres under a tarpaulin, to each vista its rusting metal. I walk past stagnant ponds, through a golf course, a disused quarry and the ubiquitous (in this part of the world, at any rate) pig farms. There is even an old workhouse, imposing and gloomy.
To tell the truth, it all seems a bit crowded and it feels like a relief to descend in to the bottom of the valley and find the river again. I follow the Blyth through water meadows and woods before emerging into more open country as the valley widens and the river broadens. I am back among the reeds, away from the dark wooded folds and the dank twisty lanes and, despite the incessant rain, enjoying the light and air that comes with the territory. Blythburgh church appears on the horizon and stays resolutely in the distance as the river bends and turns without apparently taking me any closer to my destination.
This is now a world of mudflats and wading birds. No more hedgerow twitterings here – the soundscape has changed with the land and evocative flutey noises fill the air. Great gangs of oystercatchers, an egret, redshanks and sandpipers – it is a terrific cast. A pair of curlews take to the wing, surprising me with their size as they wheel round, presumably anxious at my presence. They are magical beasts and I am bewitched.
Finally, I reach the church at Blythburgh. Like Larkin’s church-goer, I take off my rucksack in reverence, and rest a while on a bench. Somehow, even on this miserable day, the church is a place of luminescence – there is very little stained glass and the light pours in through the windows. Not much by the way of heat though, so I drag myself up and, after a wander around, making my acquaintance with the fabulous carved characters on the ends of the pews, I steel myself and head out into the rain.