Amidst all the rain this May Bank Holiday weekend, Sunday 6th opened a window of sunshine – so we grabbed our chance, headed out to Westonbirt Arboretum…
And stepped through into this…
It’s so difficult, via a photo or words, to convey the sheer sensuousness of being amongst bluebells. Almost impossible to convey the intensity of colour, the subtle layers of scent; the stunning effect as you turn a corner and see them there, spread at the feet of moss-rimed oaks – or splashed across the grass, gleaming in the light…
‘And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes’
- Gerard Manley Hopkins
In the serenely beautiful video clip below, Robert Macfarlane sits in a Billericay bluebell wood and responds to these lines from The May Magnificat. He reflects on how he came to fully understand Manley Hopkins’ words, and to appreciate the accuracy of their imagery; how they capture that effect of ‘aqueous shimmer’ and ‘marine wash’ (Macfarlane’s own description) when you walk and sit amongst bluebells.
Reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (one of the most deeply mesmerising books I’ve ever encountered) is like experiencing a kind of meditation – an underworld of deep thought. This clip is from The Wild Places of Essex - a televisual accompaniment to Macfarlane’s book, and part of the BBC’s Natural World series back in 2010. It gives a flavour of that mesmerising quality of Macfarlane’s nature writing, and provides a visual feast of ‘blue-buzzed haze’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins again):
Bluebells are one of the specialities of the British Isles, our (blue) icing on the biodiversity cake. More sparsely present in continental Europe and absent elsewhere, they are a national – a world – treasure. We are guardians of around half the world’s population of Hyacinthoides non-scripta. It’s so easy to take things for granted. Even within the very essence of the bluebells’ transience, we feel a trust in their never-ending return.
Trust, familiarity, noticing. Do they always go together? Today, in flower all around us, there’s a very common plant indeed – one hardly ever heeded – which is also putting on a fine display.
The bright yellow shaggy manes of dandelions are spread out in the sun, with the occasional seed clock counting its time until the breeze breaks up its perfect globe.
For me, it is a plant so bound up with my childhood; with handstands on scruffy lawns; with tree-camps on the wild edges of playing fields; with searching out its jagged, pungent leaves so beloved by pet guinea pigs; and with gently blowing the time away on the wind… There’s so much, even the most commonplace, that we would miss if it were gone.
‘Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust’
…writes Shakespeare in Cymbeline. Those ‘chimney sweepers’ (dandelion clocks) are an image of passing time embedded, from our earliest days, in our consciousness and culture…
Here in Silk Wood (the arboretum’s ancient woodland) – this April/May window of emerging leaf canopy, and tree-scattered light, not only belongs to the bluebells – but is also the moment when the early purple orchids step forward and come into bloom. After carefully keeping a lookout for them in likely places, the first one we see creeps up on us from behind, jumping into my vision as I idly glance up from admiring an “elven doorway” amidst the moss.
When we follow the path round to the woodland edge, we find, as we did last year, that hosts of early purples are thriving in the grassy clearing maintained for their benefit.
And we discover more in other clearings and on the wildflower meadow rides, where we have also found them in previous years:
Earlier today, we noticed the leaves of other orchids emerging from the soil – common spotted:
We sit on a bench for a while, jumping to our feet when we hear the yaffling call of a green woodpecker immediately behind us. We don’t manage to get a glimpse of the “Yaffle,” but moments later a great spotted woodpecker lands in the tree above our bench. It’s very far up, but I point the camera towards it on maximum zoom, and hope for the best:
With the naked eye, and through binoculars, we get wonderful views of its black, white and red plumage as it fidgets and shifts along the branches.
Deeper in the ancient woodland, among tree stumps transforming into fantastic, fairy tale sculptures…
…we come across a single white bluebell
and a male orange tip butterfly is busy feeding nearby:
On April Fools’ Day, on the same path – almost on the same spot – I managed to get this picture of a comma butterfly:
And just around the corner, almost a year ago to the day, I photographed this rather ragged red admiral basking in the late April sun:
…whilst nearby, this beautiful peacock butterfly was feeding on those wonderful, nectar providing dandelions:
Today, we are accompanied by the call of a chiffchaff, whilst all around, the birdsong is swollen by other recently arrived summer migrants, adding their voices to those of the resident birds. All along the edge of a plantation, there are clumps of stitchwort – and also water avens, bowing its meekly folded petals:
Lots of bugle is in flower everywhere and we find some red campion flowering too. And out in the damper, grassy areas of Silk Wood, lady’s smock – food plant for orange tip butterfly caterpillars – is also in flower. We pause to admire it, whilst two orange tips, a male and a female, flutter in courtship above the windmill whirls of pink flowers:
Tiny, fresh green hazel leaves are brewing energy for their future fruits, and the cherry blossom is still blousy against the blue sky. Last year, the blossom burst into spectacular, candyfloss profusion after the previous harsh winter – and gave a display that made the very earth seem to hum with bees:
On a high bank, a false oxlip is in flower, though now past its best… But, again, by the magic of time travel, a photo taken on this bank in May 2009 can whisk you back to when we managed to catch a previous year’s incarnation in a moment of full glory:
On the same bank, and on the arboretum’s downs, cowslips are in flower:
Beside some beech trees at the woodland edge, more twayblades are scattered profusely through the dog’s mercury, their flowers still bunched low, tight and closed, waiting their time.
And on the path where ramsons rule, their deep, damp wild garlic aroma fills the air. They are just beginning to unwrap their starry flowers:
– but soon they will fully reveal, in turn, their moment of stunning glory, when this path will be an avenue of billowing white.
Now, as the day – and our window of sunshine - begins to close, we watch swallows and house martins dash and twist in the sky. And a whole succession of moments lingers around us, blowing through the passing of the years – like the seed from those dandelion clocks, so perfect and waiting; playing their part in the cycle of things…