Kent, Orchids, Belonging – (and the small infinities of Poem-Places)

From the end of May, through the first week of June, I was back in the county of my birth and upbringing – Kent; land of hops, orchards, nightingales and, as my Northumbrian husband says, of a million shades of green…

Within a day of being back there, I had taken root again – physically as well as in spirit. Wherever I am, my roots reach out for the memory of Kent – but, being physically back there, everything realigns itself, my tap roots travel downward, and the shape of me rediscovers where it fits the puzzle.

And it is the trees of Kent that have a lot to do with that – the sheer number and variety and extent of them; the ancient woodlands that give the place its special spirit and make me feel I’m back in my ‘right’ habitat.

A book in which I can capture that feeling wherever I am, is my treasured copy of Elaine Franks’ The Undercliff, A Sketchbook of the Axmouth – Lyme Regis Nature Reserve (published by J.M. Dent & Sons):

Picture of The Undercliff by Elaine Franks

Elaine Franks’ beautiful illustrations, so full of the life of an English wood, always transport me to that ‘right’ habitat – and the book’s foreword, written by John Fowles (of French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus fame), is a treat in itself. As well as being an extremely accomplished novelist, Fowles was a passionate lifelong naturalist, and in the book’s foreword he captures, for me, that sense of the ‘rightness’ of place; of the return to a wild world where the tuning realigns to ‘as it should be’; all the notes in perfect pitch with our own deepest nature. He writes that the Undercliff, the extraordinary nature reserve near where he lived in Dorset’s Lyme Regis is:

‘…quite simply one of those places one always thinks of as one does of a poem or piece of music; not quite of this world; or, of this world as it should be, but alas so largely isn’t.’

For me, Kent is a place full of such poem-places, made all the more potent through their connection to my most formative years. During our holiday exploring those small, and yet vast, places of childhood memory, the woodlands were always a framework, gently easing us in and out of the lilt and change of the landscape as we travelled.

Walking along the North Downs Way on a hot early June day, we explored the edges of different worlds – crossing the line where the open chalk downland emerges from the green shadows of yew and beech, like a blaze of white-green heat, sparking the blue of butterfly wings (holly and common blues) and the yellow-red flames of birdsfoot trefoil. Such places are a botanist’s dream; every square inch stuffed with plant delights, many so tiny it’s a must to get your nose near the earth and alter your world focus to the microscopic. Moving my mind beyond the edge of usual perspective, that tiny world seems to expand into a whole universe, and I become lost in a new shift of seeing; a perspective made of that simplicity and enormity held in the palm of the opening of William Blake’s poem, Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

My parameters of perception always play and shift in this way whenever I come across wild orchids – those jewels of the Kentish woods and downs. There is earth magic in these little shape-shifters. They are strange, exotic and yet so belonging to that ‘right’ familiarity of the world as it should be. They are full of character, beauty and attitude – alive like animate creatures in their mimicry of bees, flies; in their hallucinatory resemblances to imaginary ladies in crinolines, monkeys, soldiers and lizards; in the uncanny accident of botanical features grinning at us like impish faces, triggering fond sympathy in our brains. When you peer up close, focusing in on ‘the infinity’ in the texture of their petals, you can see that their surfaces are often like the wings of butterflies – iridescent, sparkling with the glitter of light. I am completely held by their spell – a total devotee.

I have yet to read any of John Fowles’ novels (something I must rectify – and soon!) but ever since I discovered that he was a passionate naturalist, truly bitten by the wild orchid bug, I’ve felt a kindred spirit waits in his writing. Once you have been bitten by that bug, it is like a drug; the fascination must be fed. Kent is a treasure trove of orchids; famously the county of Darwin’s ‘Orchis Bank,’ where those inspirational plants, so like little worlds in themselves, played a huge part in the development of his theories of evolution and natural selection. Like many plant species, the orchids seemed to be flowering late this year after our heavy winter, so, having missed seeing any early purple orchids near where we live in the West Country, we hoped to see some still in flower in the South East.

With great good luck, our walk around some Kentish cobnut platts scattered that orchid magic our way on the very first day of our holiday. The cobnut platts were like a time portal to a bygone era of farming – like walking into the pages of an H.E. Bates novel – and beneath the cobnut trees, little groups of early purple orchids stood tall, and very much still in flower:

Picture of Early Purple Orchids

 along with the more greenly inconspicuous Common Twayblade:

Picture of Common Twayblade orchid 

Amongst the orchids were vetches and this Broomrape:

picture of Broomrape

…The whole place alive with the freedom of an ancient habitat allowed to unfold its true rhythms over and over again…

Dormice apparently thrive here – and we could see the trails made by badgers. Interspersed between the cobnuts were big old orchard trees, lichen draped and insect busy – and in the nearby woodland, we were met by drifts of yellow archangel, vivid blue bugle, red campion,

Picture of woodland

many more twayblades:

Picture of Common Twayblade orchid

the delicate stars of ramsons, filling the air with their wild garlic aroma…

Picture of Ramsons

…And, finding our way through the mix of vigorous growth and life-giving decay of fallen trees (casualties maybe from the 1987 Great Storm), we discovered yet more clusters of early purple orchids, one the shade of raspberry ripple ice cream:

Picture of an Early Purple Orchid

Picture of an Early Purple Orchid

Picture of an Early Purple Orchid

Picture of Illustration of Early Purple Orchid by Elaine Franks

Illustration of Early Purple Orchid from 'The Undercliff' by Elaine Franks

Amongst the moss and fungi and all the buzzing decay and pulse of unfolding life of this ancient wood, we walked along another edge of worlds – a ridge of a sharp fall-away into the valley below:

Picture of a Kentish Woodland ridge

Such ridges are a familiar feature of these local woodlands, and this one had the characteristics of an ancient boundary – a faded hollow ditch, marked along by a line of coppiced trees – a mix of the cathedral skyward soar of beech and the crazy twist of hornbeam. These ancient woods are definitely poem-places; places to go to dream, to alter focus; to find ‘the world as it should be’.

One such place of past daily daydreams (and many a discovery of small-world infinities) was a tiny fragment of wildwood around the corner from my childhood home. On the final day of our holiday, my daughter (ace orchid spotter!) found more orchids in the grassy rides close by that wood – this time common spotted orchids; a selection of the usual pink:

Picture of a Common Spotted Orchid

 … and one pure white:

Picture of Common Spotted Orchid (white colour variant)

Returning through the wood itself, memories thronged. This is where my ever-ongoing journey to learning my wildflowers began, where I built camps with my brother and friends, fished for tiddlers in the nearby stream, where I walked my dog, long since gone with my childhood – and where I sat on a huge, fallen tree in chattering companionship with my best friend, each of us nursing the nettle stings on our legs and feeling happily lost in that ‘eternity’ of this small space of the wild.

Now, as we walked, each little landmark prompted another memory, a familiarity of sympathy and home. I reached out my hand and laid it against one of the big old oaks in silent recognition of an old friend. My rational side tells me this is a one-way greeting; that tree, that little wood, doesn’t care whether I’m there or not – has no sense of having seen me before. But, for a moment, it felt like some kind of pact between me and this place – a pact to always feel connected. My rational side tells me this pact is in my mind alone, but another part of me likes to believe in some spirit of a place in which there’s a mutual echo of recognition, and an acceptance of belonging.

I think maybe that’s what we all need – especially in this modern world where we wander and break away and have so little chance to settle; so little chance to find that world as it should be.

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2 thoughts on “Kent, Orchids, Belonging – (and the small infinities of Poem-Places)

  1. Lovely post, and lovely pictures. when I was about 8 or 9, we used to live next to a patch of woodlands in Kirkcaldy in Fife, but I dodn’t appreciate it then. Rather than commune with nature, even unconsciously, my friends and I, being but boys, used to play at commandoes there, hunting down some non-existent military enemy. Now, when I go into woodlands (my woodland choice is the lovely Winkworth arboretum near Guildford … a place where dogs are required to be kept of a lead!!!) I can sense the beauty of the place – a beauty all the more precious for being of this world – but I do not know what to look for, or what name to give the flowers. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

    But no, it does matter. I should find out at least what the names of the trees are, what the flowers are. I should at least have some idea of what to look for. In the meantime, please do keep posting these: the pictures and the text are very much appreciated, even though I find it difficult to comment knowledgeably or intelligently!

    • Himadri, your comments are always intelligent! And much appreciated too. Thank you so much for your lovely and kind comment (my apologies for being so tardy in replying; we were playing host to a dear friend last week, so it became a computer-free time – in which we had to force ourselves to partake of numerous pub lunches and trips out and about (including a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Antony and Cleopatra… what a hard life!) Coming back here to read your comment has made the return to reality less of a blow! I loved your story about your childhood commando games in your local woods. Such wild places on the edges of our everyday lives during childhood seem spaces of possibility don’t they; just inviting the letting loose of flights of imagination. On the Downs above where I lived as a child, there were dips in the chalky soil which we, as children, convinced ourselves were indentations left by space ships landing in the night! And we built many a camp in the little wood I mention in the post above. From such time spent in the open, with the space to run and to flex the imagination – with the atmosphere of place and the feel of the wild all around you – I think subconscious connections to something outside ourselves are made…

      As for the naming of things, you know Himadri, I think it’s nice to know these things – it kind of fixes things in your mind, connects things in patterns and can open things out in the way that, for instance, closely reading a Shakespearean text illuminates the pleasure of seeing the play performed on stage. But, the wonder of that first reaction to beauty, before you know what something is called is the essential thing; a case, I suppose (roping in the Bard again) of ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…’

      Simon Barnes in his great little tome How to be a Bad Birdwatcher addresses this question. He writes of an amazing moment when he unexpectedly witnessed a hobby dashing in to a flock of house martins:

      ‘It wasn’t necessary to identify the bird, to know it by name; it was enough to witness a fierce and terrible drama…Knowing it by name was a luxury. It wasn’t exciting because it was rare and because I could call it Falco subbuteo……It was exciting because it was a thrilling bird in a thrilling moment.

      Now, I am lying here just a bit. Knowing that the bird was a hobby was a formal completion of the business. It was an explanation, a key to the drama…..It was gratifying to have the explanation; the understanding.

      But before the understanding comes the wonder. Comes the delight.’

      The delight can be enough, but when you start wondering further and investigating… well, watch out, once you begin looking up those Field Guides and naming all those trees and plants etc, there’ll be no stopping you! :)

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