I’m just back in the islands after a trip down to where wives were once sold at country fairs, a place of dark, lush woods and fields hanging over the edge of the English Channel. At least one of those descriptions is still true of Hardy country, my beloved Wessex.
It was good to set foot in Dorset again, albeit a trip that had a tightly prescribed timetable and focus. I was there – and in neighbouring Somerset – researching the opening chapters of my orchid book. Hardy had his finger on the pulse of rural Wessex in a way none of his contemporaries could match, but he didn’t touch upon the darker, more ancient underbelly of the area. I was there to investigate folklore, hedge magic, and witchcraft…
My travels took me out onto a former childhood home, the Somerset Levels. While Dorset felt like it had changed, and not necessarily for the better – more houses, more traffic, more Labradors and spaniels of various hues – the Levels felt as ancient as ever once one left the villages and ventured out into the water meadows, withy beds and the banked lanes of their fringes.
The real star of the show though was catching up with Dorset’s greatest (and most controversial) orchid rarity – the Sawfly Orchid first found flowering on the Dorset coast in 2014 chose last weekend to flower once again. Shrouded in secrecy, the exact location is known to just a handful of people. Tracking it down was a detective story all in itself, and one I’ll save for the book.
The location may be a closely guarded secret, but this beautiful flower has been tainted with controversy since news first broke of its appearance in Britain. A native of southern Europe, it seems unlikely it could have occurred here naturally – but orchid seeds are minute and may be dispersed in the wind for great distances. It could take an even greater leap of faith to think one managed to lodge somewhere in Dorset and germinate, prosper, and grow into a flowering plant…
The alternative is complicated – if someone planted this orchid, what were their motives? Did they set out to deceive? Was this a quest for attention or glory amongst Britain’s botanical establishment? Or was this simply an innocent, if misguided, experiment to see if a Sawfly Orchid could survive in Britain?
Who knows… The rumours of botanical foul play are persistent, and aren’t going away. What was certain for me was the lush, improbable beauty of this flower. And how short-lived it would be – I have since heard it was scorched and ruined by the ravages of the weather that scoured the south of England at the start of the week. I saw it in the very nick of time.