The Sandlings lie a few miles back from the Suffolk coast. A long strip of heathland on sandy soil they, like the Brecks at the other end of Suffolk, have been ploughed up or planted with pine. But unlike the Brecks, the heather here still clings to more than just the edges. At Tunstall the heather veins with the Scots Pine and birch that run around the main body of the pine plantation. Orange leaves still cling to the birch, and the heather is still dark purple. It’s pretty for the Forestry Commission. But that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. East Suffolk is (to this Suffolk boy at least) the prettiest flat landscape in England.
I’m sure the riders on horses the colour of the pine bark would agree. And the dweller in the cottage surrounded by the wood. The flat-capped gent from the local church bell-ringing guild out for a stroll; and the half of London that bought homes out here to live like Mr and Mrs Andrews. The other birder? He’s chewing his lip and staring into the tops of the pines. There is no sign of any crossbills, neither the resident Commons or the vagrant Parrot Crossbills, driven here from deep in the Scandinavian forests and found last weekend.
There is little sign of any birdlife at all. Flocks of crows from nearby pig fields fly over; a few Goldcrests slip quietly through the branches of the pines. It’s almost as if behind the façade of prettiness there’s not a lot here.
I stumble across what actually is there by accident. I have a habit from life as an introvert of naturally looking at my feet. Sometimes it comes in handy. Coming past a stand of birch my neck drooped, and amongst the grass and dying bracken I found a Fly Agaric, glowing redder than a Robin.
It’s the ur-mushroom. Other than those you find in the supermarket, most people of my generation found their first fungi through Super Mario. In that pixelated universe of running and jumping a Fly Agaric-like mushroom will help you power up. In the real world it will make you hallucinate and, I quote, ‘cause sweat-inducing poisoning, stimulating the secretory glands and [induce] symptoms which include profuse salivation and sweating’. A severe case will apparently kill you. But the Fly Agaric is friendly compared to the other species of fungi in its genus, such as the Fool’s Mushroom, the Death’s Cap or the European Destroying Angel.
Day two. The west. Crisp winter air and a faded blue sky. The smell of sugar beet colours the air and a slight haze blurs the horizon over the fields. A Green Woodpecker flicks up from the cemetery and flies into the old oak. A Nuthatch calls. The woodpecker laughs, or yaffles in the old dialect. The beet is piled up by the field edges before being moved to the local sugar factory, whose cooling tower dominates the local skyline. Early winter on these roads is characterised by open-topped lorries thundering around the bends, occasionally shedding the odd beet that you can pick up from the verge. The lorries coat the road in a slick of wet mud and oil, and close to home, a dead badger. This is not pretty Suffolk, but a Suffolk, of tractors, lorries, towers on the horizon and a deep dark mud that stains my jeans, that sucks in feet and only begrudgingly spits them back out. This is the Suffolk of my home.