I took a trip down into Suffolk today. I wanted to visit Aldeburgh, because of the Benjamin Britten connection – I expected it to be a bit poshified, because of the festival and all that, but I was quite taken aback at how poshified it was. It’s a bit like a cross between Chiswick and Portmeirion. I expect the inhabitants are being raised for meat in some bizarre sinister project based in Snape Maltings (what does go on in there, it’s far too big to be a concert hall?) I sat in a cafe with early renaissance paintings on the walls, opposite a guy with Benjamin Britten-style wavy hair and a highly refined manner (was he a clone of Benjamin Britten, or just a Radio 3 presenter?) and munched on Aldeburgh’s answer to a bacon sandwich (think: sculptural arrangement of something crispy and honeycombed and too thick to eat properly, with something that looked suspiciously like ordinary bacon). I bought a large book about Jeff Wall in a second-hand bookshop, the only shop apart from Co-op that didn’t look like it was flown in specially from some eye-wateringly expensive part of London. Or that wasn’t an art gallery. Wandering round the place, I tried not to see any more clones of Benjamin Britten. Then I went to Orford and failed to get on one of the boat trips to Orford Ness.
I headed to Staverton Park, a short distance from Orford. I read about this place in Oliver Rackham’s book Woodlands. It is an area of ancient woodland (previously wood pasture) with many large ancient pollarded oak trees, in various states of life and decomposition. For some unknown reason, hollies have grown up in rings around the oaks, not in the open spaces between them, but in their shade. In part of the wood, known as the Thicks, the hollies have taken over entirely, shading and killing many of the oaks. According to Rackham, they are some of the largest holly trees in the UK. Rackham records several of his students’ theories to explain the odd association of holly and oak, including that the hollies are actually older than the oaks and existed originally as shrubs which protected the oak seedlings from browsing, allowing them to grow to full size before being overtaken and killed by the hollies when a lull in browsing removed the check on the size of the hollies. Rackham estimates that it took a hundred years for the hollies to outgrow the oaks and a further hundred for the dead oaks to rot to their current state, so the browsing lull must date from the eighteenth century.
Whatever the reasons, it is certainly a strange place. The oaks resemble stout bottles, or barrels and are fantastically gnarled. Some of the dead ones are reduced to shells that are almost paper thin. The hollies, much thinner and with smooth silvery bark, cling to and writhe around the oaks in what seem like macabre couplings which are in part sexual, in part protective and in part predatory. Where the two types of wood touch, the hollies have formed large round tumorous growths, as if the trees’ own wood, appalled at the unnatural coupling being attempted, has recoiled and grown outwards. Alternatively, the growths resemble the mouth parts of gigantic caterpillars, or mantises, as if the hollies are devouring the oaks. From another point of view, the hollies resemble nurses encircling and protecting dying patients, propping up wizened and atrophied limbs with supple young strength. (I was reminded of scenes from Derek Jarman’s film of Britten’s War Requiem, with the old disabled soldier being wheeled about by a young nurse – I had War Requiem on loop in the car, which probably didn’t improve my state of mind). It’s a fascinating notion that the hollies might be older than the gnarly oaks, like they are some sort of ageless vampiric creatures. The smooth silver bark of the hollies resembles skin covering taught muscles. (Maybe Tilda Swinton was infecting my mind – without checking, I think she was the nurse in Derek Jarman’s film and starred in Orlando, which is about a character who outlives several generations of people without ageing). I took a lot of photos of the trees and made a few sketches in my sketchbook.
In the evening, I went to Thorpeness and walked along the shingle beach as far as the nuclear power station at Sizewell. It was a beautiful evening, the low sun catching the white foam of the breaking waves.