The UK’s favourite book about nature

watership downI wrote, some time ago, a piece on the subject of books I’d take with me were I stranded on a desert island. Happily, this was a metaphorical encrusoement, so none of my eight choices were forced upon me by circumstance – survival guides had no place on my shortlist.

A project launched a few weeks ago by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) gave me a convenient excuse to look once more at the groaning bookshelves in my study… and bedrooms, lounge and bathroom, as my books are still multiplying and spreading, incrementally, like lichen throughout the house. The Landlines project has set out to find the UK’s favourite book about nature – in the first instance, by inviting public nominations. The deadline for this is November 30th 2017 – there’s an online form for your nomination, and the process is quick, free, and easy to complete.

hollowaySadly, actually choosing one’s favourite book may prove a lot harder… My natural history library alone now stretches into several hundred books and, while some of them are arid reference volumes and easily discounted from my deliberations for all their practical usefulness, many others have a place in my affections for one reason or another. How to winnow my selection down to one, singular choice?

Robert Macfarlane (author of many lovely books including a particular favourite of mine, Holloway) weighed the impact books can have on us in one concise statement: “Books, like landscapes, leave their mark in us.”

Taking this as my starting point, I revisited my bookshelves and picked books that, at various points in my forty something years, had spoken to me and helped shape me as a naturalist. Looking back to my childhood, I was a voracious consumer of books – to the point that, after the bulb had been removed from my bedside light, and my torch confiscated, I contrived to read by the anaemic orange light cast by my bedside clock…

my familyBooks in which animals spoke to one another appealed enormously to me, so Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood was a much-loved favourite. Richard Adams’ Watership Down meanwhile was darker, more robust stuff and, unfortunately for me, tainted at the time by the trauma induced as a five year old being taken to see the animated feature film!

Years later I revisited and loved Watership Down unconditionally, not least for Adams’ startling invocation of spirituality and folklore in an animal context. This, with hindsight, was also an appealing aspect of another late childhood favourite, Duncton Wood by William Horwood. Both are books I’ve returned to in adulthood and enjoyed anew.

One book, above all, inspired me as an adolescent – this was, of course, My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell’s golden account of a childhood turned loose in the Corfu countryside. While it was only later that I, critically, realised that Durrell’s very freedom and location owed itself to a background of relative affluence and privilege compared with most of his peers, at the time I read it (over and over again) I simply enjoyed the notion that a boy could spend his adolescence studying the creatures he found nearby. I wanted to be Gerald Durrell very badly indeed…

TheSnowLeopardIn my twenties, having left home, and burdened with a mortgage, I found myself feeding my natural history book habit in the local library. There were classics to hunt out, three of which make my shortlist for Landlines – Nan Shepherd’s vivid Cairngorm homage, The Living Mountain; Peter Matthiessen’s heartfelt The Snow Leopard, a crystalline exploration of the role the natural world can play in the wake of grief that precedes Helen Macdonald’s visceral H is for Hawk by some four decades; and, of course, The Peregrine by J A Baker.

No shortlist of this kind would be complete without The Peregrine. Like Macdonald, Baker is so connected with the subject of his study that he longs to become one with them, a humanhawk trapped in the leaden, earthly bounds of a humanity he would eschew if only he could. But his prose soars, and is uncompromisingly, prismatically brilliant: “[five thousand dunlin] rained away inland, like a horde of beetles gleamed with golden chitin”.

theperegrineI’m privately convinced The Peregrine will eventually triumph in the Landlines search for the UK’s favourite book about nature. If it does, it’s an eminently deserving winner. It is not, however, where my eventual vote lay…

For that we spool forwards to more contemporary natural history writing that has touched me in one way or another in recent years. For very personal reasons I will always carry a torch for Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles – a wonderful travelogue that I enjoyed immensely, and was a source of inspiration for a lost, dear friend of mine at the time.

I’ve already mentioned  Holloway, by Robert Macfarlane and Dan Richards, illustrated by Stanley Dorwood – this slim, hauntingly beautiful volume is the perfect evocation of the sunken lanes and droves in Dorset that I explored on foot when I should have been at school. It is also a tribute to the late Roger Deakin, and it is one of Deakin’s books – his last, before his untimely death – that I turn to repeatedly for its luminous, evocative prose and a love for his subject that shines throughout it like the burr in polished walnut.

wildwoodPerhaps I knew in my heart, all along, that Wildwood would be my nomination for Landlines, as it is a marvellous thing, a journey through trees that spans continents and lives. I now call my home a part of the UK that is largely devoid of trees, and I think that my compulsion to return, again and again, to Wildwood‘s pages may be a manifestation of an inchoate longing for their presence in my life. Books leave their mark in us – but trees root us in our landscape.

I’d urge you to vote for your favourite book about nature before the 30th November deadline – and if you want to follow Landline’s progress, the AHRC has set up a dedicated Twitter account (@LandLinesNature) and hashtag (#favnaturebook). While you’re there, do please follow me too (@dunnjons) as there will be plenty of news unfolding soon about my very own imminent book, Orchid Summer. Watch this space!

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The lost orchids

IMG_6882 Dorset Green-winged DL editIn the course of researching Orchid Summer I spent days immersed in the historical appearances orchids made in folklore and literature alike. Many enjoyed regional names every bit as colourful as the flowers themselves. Yet now, in parallel with the startling decline of many of our native orchid species, those names have all but vanished too.

Giddyganders are a good example. I’ve read recently an assertion that this is the name by which Green-winged Orchids Anacamptis morio are still known in Dorset – sadly, quite inaccurately.

Writing in 1844, the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes said of the giddygander the “most common species of orchis are so called in the Vale of Blackmore.” Yet, growing up there, 150 years later in the 1980s, the name appeared to be entirely lost, for I never heard it from any of the old countrymen and women I met during my extensive orchid-hunting travels around the Blackmore Vale.

IMG_9875 edit FBUnfortunately, in large part, the orchid in question had been largely lost too by this time. Green-winged Orchids had been formerly relatively common in unimproved hay meadows throughout the north of the county, but were by then found only in scattered pockets, victims of agricultural ‘progress’ in the form of sterile, re-seeded, sugar-rich fields of grass grown for silage. A monoculture of modern grass had replaced the species-rich hay meadows and, with them, the traditional names seemed to have passed away too. I’m sure that the giddyganders name is remembered only now in nostalgic reminiscence.

IMG_7310 edit EPO and English BluebellThe loss of names isn’t inextricably linked to the loss of the orchids themselves. Early Purple Orchids Orchis mascula remain fairly commonplace across Britain and Ireland – they were, understandably, always the best-known of all our native orchid species. This ubiquity is reflected in the rich variety of historic names they once enjoyed – reportedly as many as one hundred regional names once existed for it, from Gethsemane in Cheshire to Adder’s Flower in the south-west of England. Yet how often do we hear those names actually used? I’d suggest never, for all some might, romantically, infer otherwise.

IMG_4594 alba with spots tweetsizeIt’s a tragedy, this homogenisation of our rural botanical language. We have lost both biodiversity and lingual diversity in the past 200 years. Robert Macfarlane’s gorgeous new book, The Lost Words, is a beautiful thing – a visually and emotionally spellbinding book that provides a defiant last-stand against the emasculation of our wild language. It contains words to conjure with, for adults and children alike.

Giddyganders may not still mean a thing to many, if any, in Dorset – but we should mourn the passing of our variable orchids’ names every bit as much as the decline of the flowers they once described.

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An Orchid Odyssey on Rhodes

Orchid Summer cover smallI’ve blogged, back and forth, about my forthcoming orchid book, Orchid Summer, set to be published by Bloomsbury on 19th April 2018. It’s been the most fabulous project to be involved with, from start to finish – the culmination of a dream decades in the making, I’ve enjoyed no end researching, writing and being part of the publication process. I only hope that people enjoy reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed the journey thus far!

King Ferdinands Orchid19th April 2018 seems like a long way away, but it’ll be upon us before we know it – is it just me, or are the weeks and months spooling by quicker than ever? I’ve a lot to look forward to before then, not least a really exciting orchid-hunting trip I’m going on at the start of April.

ophrys-cretica-beloniaeFrom 7th-14th April next year I’ll be co-leading an Orchid Odyssey holiday on the beautiful Greek island of Rhodes for Greenwings Wildlife Holidays. My co-leader, Yiannis Christofides, is a sublime botanist with a particular interest in orchids – he knows Rhodes inside out, so we’re sure to see some really special flowers. In fact, we’ll be hoping to find between 40 and 50 of the island’s native wild orchid species, including a number of endemic and regional specialties. The range and variety of Ophrys orchids alone makes Rhodes an irresistible destination for the orchid hunter…

orchis-anatolicaThrow in beautiful scenery and friendly folk, good food, a lovely sun-drenched climate after a British winter, and the fact that our visit coincides with the emergence of a host of fabulous butterflies and the heart of spring bird migration, and it becomes a truly spectacular proposition. The pace will be laid-back and there’ll be loads of opportunities to get some great photos of these beautiful flowers. I couldn’t be more excited about this trip if I tried!

Praying Mantis & SerapiaAnd it’s all taking place just a week before Orchid Summer is published! This promises to be a month bursting with orchid potential – and you could join us! You can read all about our Rhodes orchid itinerary on the Greenwings website and, to whet your appetite, there are some past Orchid Odyssey trip reports there too.

Hoping I see you in Rhodes next year…

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Northern Marsh Orchid hybrids

140603 Northern Marsh Orchid Yell blogsizeIt may, just, still feel like summer down in mainland Britain at the moment, though the signs of the changing seasons are there, if you look a little closer in the hedgerows – blackberries and sloes are starting to sweetly and sourly tempt. They’re a reminder to me that I should keep an eye open for crowberries here in Shetland – though, as gathering enough of these tiny berries to be useful in the kitchen takes an achingly long time, I should perhaps just leave them for the local birds. Judging by the purple spatters they leave on the windows of my island home, crowberries are a popular seasonal treat for the local Starlings.

The flowering season here is definitely drawing to a close, particularly for my favourites, the orchids. Bog Orchids are the last to flower in Shetland and they’re presently waning while, on the south coast of England, the Autumn Lady’s-tresses are well under way. I’ll soon have a grandstand seat for one of Britain’s great wildlife spectacles – the migration season for birds across the Northern Hemisphere is slowly beginning, and before long Shetland will be inundated with birds from nearby Scandinavia and much, much further afield too – lost birds will make landfall here from Siberia and North America.

IMG_4025 blogsizeAll of this is still to come. There’s a sense of unhappening here, the stretching void before a clock strikes the hour. I’ll be charting the unfolding migration for Rare Bird Alert in the coming weeks but, for now, I have a brief chance to be indulgent and look once more at orchids and, in particular, one of my favourites.

Northern Marsh Orchids (image right & above) are fairly common here in Shetland, and can be found across much of Scotland and northern England too. Being Dactylorhizas, they’re promiscuous and readily hybridise with their near relatives – so I thought now would be an opportunity to bring together in one place a handful of images of the various hybrid combinations I’ve encountered lately.

170701 Gorie orchids HSO x blogsizeTheir hybrid offspring (Dactylorhiza x formosa) with Heath Spotted Orchids (image left) are ubiquitous in Shetland – so commonplace, in fact, that I realise I rarely pause to take a photo of those I find…

NMO x hebridensisWhere they meet Common Spotted Orchids they’ll hybridise just as readily with that species too – though the offspring of this combination (Dactylorhiza x venusta) vary between different areas – those in the Hebrides (image right) being a much more intensely coloured affair, owing I think to the Common Spotted parent belonging to a darker, richly marked local subspecies known as hebridensis. Those hybrids found on the opposite coast of Britain, in the dune slacks of Lindisfarne (image below), have paler though still hardly insipid flowers.

IMG_1397 Lindisfarne blogsizeSo far, so good – much rarer, however, are hybrids with Early Marsh Orchid and Frog Orchid. I found my first example of the former (Dactylorhiza x latirella) here in Shetland earlier in the summer (image below) – an identification I cautiously made for myself at the time, but was pleased recently to receive confirmation from the Botanical Society of Britain Ireland’s (BSBI) orchid referee, Dr Ian Denholm, that I’d got this right.

170611 EMO x NMO D x latirella IMG_8683[1] edit tweetsize cropThe latter hybrid, that of Northern Marsh Orchid paired with Frog Orchid, is at least as rare as the former. Frog Orchids, at first glance, don’t look much like the rest of the Dactylorhiza clan, but in recent years we’ve learned they are, in fact, primitive Dactys after all. We should, perhaps, have suspected as much – for their hybrids with Common Spotted Orchid have been well-known if never common for many years. Encountered even less frequently are their hybrids with Northern Marsh Orchid (X Dactyloglossum viridellum), but last year I found two such hybrids – their flowers elongated and subtly isabelline, betraying the Frog Orchid influence (image below).

IMG_2447 blogsizeFor anyone who’d like to delve a little deeper into the myriad hybrid permutations of Northern Marsh Orchids and their close Dactylorhiza relatives, there’s a handy website* that provides not only a chart of the possibilities, but also links to the BSBI distribution maps for each – a chance, perhaps, in the long months of autumn and winter ahead for the orchid hunter to plan next year’s expeditions.

* though note,  it still refers to Frog Orchid as belonging to Coeloglossum and, hence, its hybrids with Dactylorhiza as inter-generic, hence the awkward Latin name for them. The incorporation of Frog Orchid into the Dactylorhiza is neither universally popular, nor wholly accepted…


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The Dactylorhiza days of summer

140617 Heath Spotted Orchid FetlarA blog post is long overdue here – I’ve been busy writing and tour leading lately, leading trips to Estonia for Greenwings and, closer to home, here in Shetland for Shetland Nature. In and amongst that I’ve seen some spectacular north-eastern European butterflies, scores of tremendous birds and, in the past few days, have enjoyed more close encounters with Killer Whales. It’s been a rich and varied summer so far.

140603 Northern Marsh Orchid YellNaturally, there have been some moments with orchids here and abroad. One family in particular has featured highly – a favourite of mine too, the Dactylorhiza clan. Here in Shetland we have two widespread species – Heath Spotted D. maculata and Northern Marsh Orchid D. purpurella – and two considerably more uncommon species, Early Marsh Orchid D.incarnata and Common Spotted Orchid D.fuchsii.

Hybrids between Heath Spotted and Northern Marsh are commonplace here, to the point where the unwary visitor (and even some wildlife tour guides!) often misidentify the ‘purple orchids’ as Northern Marshes. They bear close and careful scrutiny…

140618 Early Marsh Orchid UnstI was delighted when, in June, I found a hitherto unknown colony of several hundred Early Marsh Orchids of the incarnata subspecies – this alone would have been joy enough, as besides being fairly scarce here they’re also beautiful things, with flowers of the most delicate, crisp rose pink. Amongst them, however, was something much rarer still – towering above them, fully three times the height of all the surrounding flowers, was a giant orchid of a darker hue, with subtle differences to both flowers and leaves.

170611 EMO x NMO D x latirella IMG_8683[1] edit tweetsizeThe size alone made me suspect a hybrid – they often display so-called hybrid vigour, outgrowing either neighbouring parent species. In this instance, the nearby orchids were conventional Early Marsh and Northern Marsh Orchids and this plant, once I had done a little research, appears to be a textbook hybrid between the two – known as Dactylorhiza x latirella.

That was a new one for me, and one that was all the sweeter for having been a serendipitous discovery. A few weeks later, before I headed off to Estonia, I came across something rarer still – though in this instance it was a more calculated discovery as I had set out with the express intention of finding that very species.

170626 IMG_8815[1] edit putative Pugsleys blogsizePugsley’s Marsh Orchid D. traunsteinerioides is a British and Irish endemic species, found sparingly north and west of the line drawn between the Severn and the Humber. It occurs in even the very northernmost tip of the Outer Hebrides… but had not, hitherto, been recorded from Shetland. I set out this summer to see if I could change that orthodoxy…

I narrowed my search down to an area of mainland Shetland that, geologically, looked promising – Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids like alkaline flushes, a relative rarity in the largely acidic Shetland landscape – and enjoyed a track record of supporting a number of other plant species that were scarce or absent altogether elsewhere in the archipelago. And, a few evenings of dedicated searches later, I found a small, isolated colony of what appear to be Shetland’s first record of Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid!

IMG_9455[1] baltica blogsizeThis was on the very cusp of my departure for Estonia – I was there primarily looking for butterflies, but I couldn’t fail to notice the orchids too. I stumbled across a number of colonies of a relatively recent colonist of the country, Baltic Marsh Orchid D. baltica, before heading to the island of Saaremaa and my first keenly anticipated sight of the island’s endemic Dactylorhiza, Saaremaa Marsh Orchid D. osiliensis.

IMG_9709But first, more Early Marsh Orchids in a large bog on the north coast – of two subspecies, incarnata and ochroleuca. (In Estonia, these are considered separate species in their own right). Ochroleuca’s flowers are, at first glance, pure ivory white – but a closer look reveals each has a pale lemon yellow wash at the top of their lips.

IMG_9707Both subspecies readily hybridise with one another, a combination I had never seen before – ochroleuca being vanishingly rare in Britain – and produce offspring of startling appearance, with the pinks of incarnata and the yellows of ochroleuca combining to produce flowers with soft apricot tones I’d not encountered before in their kind.

IMG_9760Once on Saaremaa I was fortunate to be shown Saaremaa Marsh Orchid by their original finder, Tarmo Pikner. Tarmo was a warm and engaging host, and I was delighted to spend a short while in his company. ‘His’ orchids favour wet woodlands in the northwest of the island and, without his guidance, I might have lost a great deal of time casting around before finding any plants. As it was, he led me straight to them – a really elegant, stately orchid sporting heavily suffused flowers with which to finish my Dactylorhiza days of summer.

I will be heading back to Estonia – and to warmer climes too – orchid-hunting for Greenwings in 2018. (Though I make no excuses for us also seeing myriad superb butterflies and birds besides!) You’d be welcome to join me… Just pop along to their website to see where they travel or, if you’re at the Birdfair at Rutland Water in a few days time, head along for a chat with them at their stand (42) in marquee 7.

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Orchid huntings in Dorset and the Aude

IMG_8014 bugarach edit tweetsizeAfter last year’s rainbow immersion into the world of British and Irish native orchids whilst researching my next book, it was always going to be hard to kick the orchid habit as the new flowering season began to unfold. I watched, jealously, from afar in Shetland whilst photos of the first orchids of 2017 began bursting onto social media – at first from southern Europe and then, as spring swept rapidly north, from the south coast of England.

IMG_6882 Dorset Green-winged DL editMy very own case of orchidelirium shows no signs of abating – as bewitched as the Victorians who built vast orchid ‘ovens’, or heated glasshouses, in which to house their imported tropical orchids, I couldn’t resist the temptation for very long. It was time to dive back in… but this time I would explore pastures news, in the orchid-rich Aude département of France.

IMG_6347 edit tweetsizeMy journey to France was via Dorset where, after wandering coastal fields carpeted with Early Spider Orchids Ophrys sphegodes and a small colony of unusually candy-striped Green-winged Orchids Anacamptis morio, I stopped to see some extraordinary hybrid orchids that were discovered last year on a roadside in the county. There were precious few clues revealed at the time as to the precise location but, fortunately, more than enough for me to solve the riddle – an embankment just a stone’s throw from where I once lived in the 1990s.

Fly Orchid portraitThese unusual hybrids are believed to be the offspring of Fly Ophrys insectifera and Woodcock Ophrys scolopax Orchids – the former a relatively scarce native of Dorset; the latter hitherto unknown from the British Isles, albeit a species that’s fairly commonplace in mainland Europe.

IMG_6646[1] tweetsizeNobody knows how these hybrids came to be here – there’s no sign of a parent Woodcock Orchid nearby, though presumably there may once have been at least one plant there.

Was this original parent plant a natural colonist, or one inadvertently introduced when the embankment was reseeded by the local council with an imported wildflower mix? Or were the viable hybrid seeds in that mix? Was there ever an imported wildflower mix? Nobody knows. The waters are muddied still further by the nearby presence of hybrid Fly and Bee Ophrys apifera Orchids…

IMG_7939 Bugarach edit tweetsizeWhat is certain, however, is that the Fly x Woodcock hybrids that endure there to this day are delicate, beautiful things. I simply had to see them… Their embankment home is an exposed, public place and, in the hour I photographed and studied them, a succession of curious locals stopped to ask me what I was looking at – a passing tree surgeon, the head keeper from the local estate, and a policeman! I showed them all the orchids, and we had a chat about what they were and why they were so unusual.

IMG_7783 bugarach edit tweetsizeOnce I arrived in the Aude I found plenty more Woodcock Orchids, in a spectrum of colour combinations that would put a Fabergé egg to shame. One particular mountainside meadow boasted dozens of them, with no fewer than eight other different orchid species all in flower around them at the same time. The Aude’s reputation as an orchid mecca was clearly well-deserved…

Aude orchisLady Orchids Orchis purpurea, a rare species in Britain mostly restricted to the woodlands of Kent, were ubiquituous – every roadside verge seemed to sport their large, deep burgundy and white conical flower spikes. With so many of them – and plenty of their close relatives, Man Orchis anthropophora and Military Orchis militaris Orchids in close attendance – it was no surprise that I found a number of their searingly colourful, variable hybrid offspring in the course of my short initial stay in the département.

IMG_8125 Aude N conica editMy time there was all too brief, though I’m happy to say I’ll have plenty more opportunities to explore the area properly in future, but was more than long enough to thoroughly whet my appetite for my next visit. One particular orchid, however, was at the very top of my wanted list for this particular trip – Neotinea conica is a small, beautiful, milky-white and rose-pink spotted orchid found mainly on the Iberian peninsula and known from only a handful of sites in France. One of these was near Bugarach, a few minutes from where I was staying – I dearly wanted to see these special plants.

IMG_8033 Aude N conica x ustulata editHappily, in a large sloping field studded with Green-winged Orchids and Burnt Orchids Neotinea ustulata, I readily found my first Neotinea conica – and they were every bit as gorgeous as I’d hoped they would be, nestling in the lush grass like tiny, flecked snowballs, unseen until one was almost on top of them. Nearby were the rare hybrids between them and N.ustulata – known, appropriately given their location, as Neotinea ×bugarachensis, their flowers intermediate between both parents.

IMG_7888 Aude N ustulata editMy first orchid expedition of 2017 had started with a rare hybrid orchid on England’s south coast, and ended with a rare hybrid orchid in the foothills of the Pyrenees – a tremendous start to the year’s botanising – and had been punctuated with other marvellous sightings en route. I had been serenaded by Nightingales, startled by a close encounter with an unperturbed Wildcat in broad daylight, and buzzed by aerobatic Crag Martins.

I can’t wait to return.





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Bluebell time

IMG_7166 Kent English bluebell edit2Here on my Shetland croft I have a few clumps of bluebells scattered around the place, at the foot of walls in damp nooks and corners. For all our days are getting much longer – it’s still light enough to go for a walk at 10pm – spring advances incrementally here. Some of my daffodils have yet to flower, and the bluebells are only now starting to think about it.

Perhaps their reticence owes something to their origin – these are Spanish bluebells Hyacinthoides hispanica, so maybe they’re not finding this northerly clime particularly comfortable. Certainly they’re not spreading, as the clumps remain static year after year.

IMG_7224 Kent EB editThe same can’t be said down on the British mainland – commonly found in gardens, Spanish bluebells are said to be spreading into the wild too, where they readily hybridise with our native bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Introduced by the Victorians, the Spanish interlopers have a matador confidence, upright and brash – our native bluebell is a more delicate, drooping affair, a Jane Austen heroine’s shy, anonymous sister by comparison.

Now is the prime time to visit a woodland on the British mainland and see native bluebells in full bloom, forming swathes of blue beneath acid-green, freshly popped leaves. I passed through Kent briefly last week, and spent a couple of happy hours exploring a couple of woods that used to be a short walk from my home when I lived there.

IMG_7211 Kent English Bluebell woodland editMy cottage used to be surrounded by orchards, and would sit amidst a froth of apple blossom at this time of year. The orchards have all been grubbed out now, and it was sad to see my old home cringing beside a field of lurid yellow oil-seed rape, and labouring under a new name – after 150 years of being Holly Cottage, owing to the holly trees in the front garden, it’s been awkwardly renamed Brambledown. The holly trees are gone too.

The changes saddened me, and I carried them with me into the woods where their effect gradually diminished. It’s hard to stay feeling blue when you’re surrounded by bluebells. Photos often depict them as an unbroken azure sea but, when one looks closely, they’re a waxy confusion, a riot of twisted and braided stems, leaves and flowers.

IMG_7190 Kent EB editWhen I was a child my mother refused to let me pick them. At first she told me it was wrong to pick wildflowers, but in time I realised her reticence was more selfish – she firmly believed it to be bad luck to bring them into the house. Snowdrops and hawthorn blossom were equally inauspicious and, I now realise, these were commonly held beliefs across rural England. I wonder why all these spring flowers should be considered unfit and unlucky to bring indoors? I also wonder whether the superstitions persist or whether, like the hapless orchards in East Kent, they are mostly a thing of the past nowadays.

I’ve heard it said that hawthorn was tainted by its association to Christ’s crown of thorns – other purported traces of the crucifixion are found in many bluebell woods themselves, for the purple-spotted leaves of Early Purple Orchids Orchis mascula are said to represent the blood that fell from Christ on the cross. Unsurprisingly, I now know that bringing their flowers into the house was widely ill-thought of in the past – another spring flower damned by country superstition.

IMG_7310 edit EPO and English BluebellI walked through the bluebells following badger tracks that meandered along the contours of the sloping woodlands, pausing at a sett to marvel at the mounds of chalk and flint they had excavated and looking, half-heartedly, for any artefacts they might have brought to the surface. Badgers are not respectful of archaeology and sometimes bring treasure, or pottery shards, back up into the world from where they have laid undisturbed for centuries.

My treasure, however, lay all around me for amongst the bluebells were many Early Purple Orchids – the perfect lilac counterpoint to the blue tide in which they swam.


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