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.

Escape to the country

Last week, after three long, weary months, the government lifted its “Stay at Home” Covid instruction. We quickly decided to escape to the country for a few hours. The weather was unusually warm for the time of year and we expected to find the car parks at Carsington Water overflowing with ecstatic visitors making the most of their first day of freedom in 2021. As it happened numbers were modest, ensuring our visit was a good deal more tranquil than we’d feared.

Canada geese grazing next to the reservoir

Carsington Water is the ninth biggest reservoir in England. It was formally opened in 1992 after what can only be described as an eventful construction: in 1983 four workers tragically died, asphyxiated while working in a 16 foot (5 metre) surface drain, and a year later part of the dam wall collapsed. Nearly 30 years on, however, the reservoir has been seamlessly integrated into the Derbyshire landscape and is a popular centre for a range of recreational activities, including walking, cycling, fishing, sailing and canoeing. With a good proportion of Carsington Water designated as a nature reserve, it is also a favourite spot to watch birds.

Great tit

In our experience rarities are rare at Carsington! However this isn’t a problem for us: we are not twitchers and have never been motivated by the desire to “tick off” rarities. All birds, whether uncommon or not, are wonderful and worthy of attention. Even Canada geese!

Robin

Inevitably, Canada geese were liberally scattered throughout the reserve last week, some floating serenely on the water, others grazing greedily on the meadows adjoining the reservoir, and a few honking noisily as they flew overhead in search of pastures new. You can be sure of getting your fill of Canada geese on any visit to Carsington. Not to mention mallards, coot and black-headed gulls!

An unexpected nuthatch

Although Carsington Water is an obvious spot for watching water birds, on this occasion some of the best action was on and around one of the feeding stations. Great tits and robins were the most frequent visitors, and a nuthatch the most unexpected.

Primulas prove that spring has sprung

The woodland in which the feeding station is situated was dotted with primulas, evidence that spring has well and truly sprung. And mindful, no doubt, that Easter was fast approaching a rabbit put in a brief appearance, while at one point a vole scurried across our path, way too fast to be photographed. Again, nothing exceptional here, but all such welcome sights after thirteen weeks of lockdown.

One of Carsington Water’s very own Easter bunnies

We’re fortunate that Carsington Water is just a few miles from our home town, and now Covid restrictions are being relaxed we’ll be escaping to this part of the country regularly to sample once again the joys of birding on our local patch. After all, a man just cannot see too many Canada geese!

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POSTSCRIPT, Tuesday 6 April, 2pm. Having written this post over the weekend, this morning we made a return trip to Carsington Water and were thrilled to spot no fewer than 16 swallows, newly returned from Africa, wheeling and whizzing over the water. It’s official then, spring really is here!

The snowdrop – a flower not to be trifled with

Flowering at a time when pretty much nothing else is in bloom, snowdrops inevitably capture the imagination of all who encounter them in the British countryside. The ‘Fair Maids of February’ reassure us that the bleak midwinter is passing, and more congenial times lie ahead. Poets heap praise upon these humble harbingers of spring’s awakening, while storytellers speculate about their origins. Who doesn’t love a snowdrop?

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Interestingly, although snowdrops are widely distributed and recognised throughout the UK, they aren’t native to these islands. They originated in the damp woodlands and meadows of continental Europe, and were brought here – probably in the sixteenth century – to grace the estates of the idle rich. However these private collections inevitably ‘leaked’ into the surrounding countryside, and by the late 18th century the flower was reported as growing wild. Now completely naturalised, snowdrops can be found in shady woodland, on country estates and along river banks all over the country.

Hodsock Priory, 2016

Snowdrops are also a common sight in graveyards, and this could be the reason why they’re sometimes associated with ill-fortune and even death. In Victorian times it was widely believed that you should avoid bringing snowdrops into your house. If you disobeyed this rule the consequences could range from your milk turning sour to a member of your family dropping dead within a year. Plainly the snowdrop isn’t a flower to be trifled with!

Although these days we happily dismiss such dire warnings as fanciful nonsense, it’s worth noting that snowdrops are poisonous due to high concentrations of phenanthridine alkaloids, particularly in the bulbs. Now, I haven’t a clue what a phenanthridine alkaloid is, but (just like the average beer-swilling Saturday night out during my student days) it’s known to cause confusion, poor coordination, drooling, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures. I humbly conclude that excessive student partying and eating snowdrops are both best avoided!

Hopton Hall, 2017

Paradoxically although some people make a connection between snowdrops and death, others view them as symbols of hope. The reason, I suppose, is that they show themselves just as winter’s drawing to a close, and their appearance is a sure sign that the days are getting both longer and warmer, and that spring will soon arrive.

It’s for just this reason that, around about now every year, Mrs P and I traditionally mark the changing of the seasons by taking a trip to one of our local snowdrop hotspots. These include the gardens of Hopton Hall, an 18th-century country house in Derbyshire, the Dimminsdale Nature Reserve on Derbyshire’s border with Leicestershire, and two estate gardens in Nottinghamshire, at Hodsock Priory and Felley Priory. Each boasts a fine display of snowdrops, and looks splendid on a crisp and sunny February day

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Sadly, to visit one of these snowdrop havens in 2021 would contravene the government’s strict Covid lockdown rules and invite a fine of £200 (each!) from the local constabulary. Instead, we’ve had to get our annual snowdrop fix from Mrs P’s excellent photos and a small clump that survives against all odds in our unkempt front garden. Ah well, there’s always next year I suppose, once Covid’s back in its box.

Felley Priory, 2017

My first butterfly of 2021

Winter always drags, but this year’s been worse than ever. Lockdown 3.0 was imposed just after Christmas, meaning that – other than a weekly trip to the supermarket and an occasional stroll around our suburban estate – we’re confined to Platypus Towers. No chance of a swift visit to a bird reserve on a fine day, and thanks to the regular visits of local cat Milky Bar, only birds with suicidal tendencies visit our garden. It’s a pretty miserable existence, and the lousy weather makes things worse.

But after several days of wintry conditions we wake up on 22 January to a dazzling morning, the sun blazing from a cloudless blue sky. We sit ourselves down in the garden room – which faces south – intent on making the most of this meteorological anomaly, when to our amazement a butterfly appears. It settles on the window ledge, just a metre away from us on the other side of the double glazing, and soaks up the rays for about 20 minutes before moving on again.

The Peacock is a spectacular and unmistakeable butterfly, and takes its name from the vivid pattern of eyespots that decorate all four wings. It’s one of just a handful of British butterflies that overwinter as dormant adults, hunkering down somewhere sheltered during the darkest months in readiness for an early start to the breeding season when spring arrives. However, as we discover today, even in the depths of winter a relatively warm day may rouse Peacocks and encourage them to take to the wing.

I’ve been interested in butterflies since I was a little kid, but have never spotted any this early in the year. And never have I been more grateful to see one of these magical insects: the last 12 months have been tough, and it’s good to be reminded that the beauty of nature will still be there for us to enjoy when the Covid restrictions are finally lifted.

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In 2020 I saw my first butterfly around 6 March, and described it as a “symbol of hope in the darkest of days.” You can read my reflections about the symbolism of butterflies by clicking here.

The butterfly, symbol of hope in the darkest of days

February was foul. It was the wettest February the UK has ever seen, and the fifth wettest UK month, of any month on record, ever. Large areas of the country experienced unprecedented floods, and although Platypus Towers escaped this particular fate – living halfway up a hill helps! – it was pretty damned miserable. But as George Harrison famously reminded us, all things must pass, and around 6 March the sun finally shows up, giving it large in a dazzling, clear blue sky.

To celebrate our change in fortunes, I decide to treat Attila the Bun to an enormous carrot. I’m standing at the door to his hutch, fondling his ears while he tucks in greedily, and out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of my first butterfly of the year.

The symbolism isn’t lost on me. The transformation of caterpillar into butterfly is one of Nature’s most dazzling tricks. It speaks of redemption, the possibility of change, and the enormous potential that lies within the most unpromising of subjects. Nothing is so ugly that it cannot re-fashion itself into a thing of beauty, nothing is so damaged that it cannot be made whole again, nothing is so stained that metamorphosis cannot restore it to purity.

The butterfly in question is a Small Tortoiseshell. She sits atop some pure white heather blossom, sucking up the nectar, soaking up the rays. Intent upon her business, she allows me to approach and stand so close I could reach out and touch her. The predominant colour of her wings is a foxy reddish-orange, decorated with a scatter of black and yellow splodges and an edging of tiny, bright blue spots. She is so delicate, so beautiful.

My butterfly has overwintered as an adult, hunkered down somewhere sheltered, perhaps a garden shed or a farm outbuilding. For months her metabolism has barely ticked over, but today she’s awake and has a job to do. Now is her time, and with temperatures rising and the days growing longer she must find a mate, and a patch of stinging nettles on which to lay her eggs.

Her children will take to the wing in June and July, and they in turn will produce another generation in late summer. It is that generation, the grandkids of the butterfly before me, that will emulate her by seeking out a sheltered hiding place in which to hibernate through the winter.

As with pretty much every species of butterfly in the UK, Small Tortoiseshells have declined massively in recent decades. Growing up in suburban London half a century ago I used to see them in abundance, and although not rare these days I wouldn’t describe them as plentiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one this early in the year so today’s sighting is definitely a bonus, as well as being a welcome indication that spring is waking from its slumber at last.

Eventually, my butterfly decides it’s time to share her ethereal beauty with another lucky soul. Sorrowfully I watch her leave, and wish her well on her journey. I will miss her. Butterflies are a symbol of hope, and god knows we need hope in these, the darkest of days.