The magic of bluebells

I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at.  I know the beauty of our Lord by itGerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899)

The celebrated English Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins clearly loved his bluebells. We do too, and one of our treats every spring is to seek out some local bluebell woods where we can enjoy them in all their majesty. That wasn’t possible in 2020 due to the Covid restrictions, so this year, as soon as government rules and the weather conditions permitted, we made a beeline for the gardens at Renishaw Hall. We weren’t disappointed! 

Renishaw Hall and Gardens can be found in the north-east corner of our home county of Derbyshire. I wrote briefly about their history in this post last year. Renishaw is famed for its stunning formal gardens, laid out in 1895 by Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) in the classical Italianate style. However, wonderful though these are, it is the bluebell-rich woodland that is our favourite springtime feature at Renishaw. It’s an area known as Broxhill Wood, although on a map of the estate dating from the 18th century it’s referred to as the Little Old Orchard.

With their drooping habit and deep violet-blue colouring, bluebells are distinctive residents of woodlands throughout the length and breadth of the country. They go under various evocative names including Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap, Witches’ Thimbles, Wood Bell and Bell Bottle.

They’re also referred to as the English Bluebell to distinguish them from the Spanish variety, which is available to buy from garden centres. The two species are subtly different: Spanish bluebells grow upright, with the flowers all around the stem, not drooping to one side like the English version. The Spanish species is a more vigorous plant, and may constitute a long-term threat to our more delicate native flower by out-competing or hybridising with it.

Bluebells are found all across Britain except Shetland, and although they’re also present in Western Europe the UK accounts for around half the world’s population of this beautiful bulb. Woodlands carpeted by masses of bluebells are magical features of the British countryside in late April and May, and have inspired generations of poets and writers. Here’s what the author Graham Joyce (1954-2014) had to say about them: 

The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down on to the earth floor; and I didn’t know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky. But I couldn’t hold on.

As Graham Joyce implies, bluebells are a bold, unmistakable presence in the British landscape, so it’s no surprise that a rich folklore has grown up around them. Bluebell woods are believed to be enchanted, fairies using them to lure unwary travellers into their nether world and trap them there. The bells are said to ring out when fairies summon their kin to a gathering, but if humans hear them death will surely follow. And, of course, fairies are by their nature capricious beings, so when you visit a bluebell wood it’s best not to trample on any of their precious blooms. You have been warned!

On a slightly different note, folk tradition has it that wearing a garland of bluebells will induce you to speak only the truth. This, of course, is why you will never see a politician bedecked with bluebells.

Our ancestors found various practical applications for bluebells. Their sticky sap was once used in bookbinding because it would repel attacks by insects, and in early times it was also used to glue the feathers onto the shaft of an arrow. Herbalists prescribed bluebells to help prevent nightmares, and as a treatment for snakebites and leprosy – perhaps a somewhat misguided course of action, given that the plant is poisonous.

The bluebell is traditionally associated with St George, England’s patron saint, probably because it starts to bloom around his feast day on 23rd April. In reality, the flower’s connection with England is much stronger than that of George himself. Bluebells have been found throughout the country at least since the last ice age, whereas the celebrated saint never actually visited these shores (the historical St George was born in Turkey in the late 3rd century CE, and died in Palestine in 303 CE.) 

The connection between St George and bluebells may be somewhat tenuous, but the popularity of the flower here is beyond dispute. In a 2002 national survey organised by the charity Plantlife, the bluebell was voted Britain’s favourite flower. So overwhelming was its victory that voting for bluebells was banned in a repeat of the research in 2004.

The popularity of bluebells is such that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This prohibits anyone digging up the plant or bulb from the countryside, and landowners are similarly prevented from removing bluebells from their private land with a view to selling them. Trading in wild bluebell bulbs and seeds is an offence.

Bluebells are an enchanting, iconic part of the British countryside at springtime, and have clearly captured our collective imagination.  To put it crudely, we Brits just can’t get enough bluebells. Let’s give Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the notable Victorian novelist and poet, the final word on their very special charms:

The Bluebell

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power. 

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

20 comments

  1. Pingback: The magic of bluebells – Fans Of Nature
  2. They really are beautiful. It’s worth a trip to Britain to see them. I hadn’t known that they are prominent throughout most of the UK.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Laurie Graves · May 26

    If ever I return to England, I will be sure to come in May to see those bluebells. Oh, my word! They are so beautiful. Plus, what you have written about bluebells and fairies and truth-telling has given me an idea for a plot point in “At Sea,” the fantasy book I’m currently working on. And I’m thinking that “A Fine and Subtle Spirit” would make an excellent chapter title. I’ll be tucking this post away for future reference. Many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 27

      I’m so pleased that this post will help inspire a small part of the plotting of your new book. It’s good to think that part of our traditional folklore will be re-imagined for the 21st century, and also that a few words written by Anne Bronte over 150 years ago will find a new audience. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laurie Graves · May 28

        And many thanks to you! It helps resolve a plot point I was unsure of. Yes, traditional folklore in the 21st century. Onward live the myths and archetypes!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The June Journal · May 26

    Very beautiful flowers!!! I wish I can plan some in our yard, but the internet say they are sensitive to temperature (summer not more than 28C). Our summer is too hot🥵

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 27

      Sounds like the perfect excuse to visit England in May, to see our bluebells at their best 🙂.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. shazza · May 27

    Thanks for a fabulous and informative bluebell post. They are such beautiful flowers and seeing a carpet of them in the woods is so special. I didn’t know Anne Bronte had wrote a bluebell poem, so thanks for including. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 27

      Thank you. I was equally surprised – and delighted – to discover the Anne Bronte poem 🙂.

      Like

  6. tanjabrittonwriter · May 27

    Anne captured the blissful bluebells perfectly. As did your (or Mrs. P’s) photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 27

      Mrs P deserves full credit for the photos. I’m simply the scribe 🙂.

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · May 29

        I did not mean to belittle the scribe’s contributions at all. The words and images complement one another perfectly. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · May 29

        No offence was taken, Tanja 🙂. Words alone aren’t enough to fully appreciate the swathes of bluebells carpeting some of our woodlands at this time of year. Growing up in suburban London in a household with no access to a car I never saw any bluebells, so although I’d read a lot about them I’d no real idea what all the fuss was about. When, as an adult, I started visiting bluebell woods with Mrs P I was was amazed by just how magnificent they are. Mrs P’s photos are a fine record of the visual impact they make, while I enjoyed researching and writing about the traditions and folklore that surround them…what a great partnership we make! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · June 1

        Long live the great partnership! May you both have many more occasions to immerse yourselves in the sea of these gorgeous flowers.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Ann Mackay · May 29

    I’ve not heard of ‘Cuckoo’s Boots’ before – what a wonderful name!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 30

      Yes, that one’s lovely. Someone, way back in the day, had a very fertile imagination…or had been getting up close and personal with some magic mushrooms 🙂.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ann Mackay · May 30

        Hehe, maybe!

        Like

  8. kaymckenziecooke · June 11

    One of my favourite memories of our trip to your fair shores way, way back in time now (the ’70’s) is seeing the carpet of bluebells under trees – if my memory serves me right, it was in old Welwyn, in Hertfordshire, where we were working at a hotel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 12

      Yes, bluebell woods are a spectacular sight. I can well understand that seeing one in its prime might have lodged permanently in your memory.

      Liked by 1 person

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