To the Meadow in May

Travelling north of Ewhurst the footpaths will take you through varied terrain, eventually leading upwards to Pitch Hill or Holmbury Hill, where the landscape changes dramatically as you come to the sandstone ridge which forms the Surrey Hills. I will write about these hills soon but for now I will make some observations on the countryside just beneath them.

Now it is past mid-May and the trees are all in leaf. On a sunny day the dappled light plays through the greenery, flickering with moments of shade. The freshness of the greens and the melody of the birdsong, Blackbirds, Thrushes, Robins and Blue Tits among others, fills the atmosphere with a vitality not to be found in any other season. Edmund Spenser’s great bridal poem ‘Epithalamium’ is not only a wedding celebration but also a hymn to the spring. The groom rouses his bride from her drowsy slumber to:

‘….hearken to the birds love-learned song,
The dewy leaves among.
For they of joy and pleasance to you sing,
That all the woods them answer, and ther eccho ring.’

Edmund Spenser

It is sad that weddings have had to be postponed this year and we can hope that young lovers will find some solace in the joys of the natural world that this poem celebrates. It was written in 1594 for Spenser’s own wedding to Elizabeth Boyle and is an invocation to ‘bring forth the fruitful progeny.’ Listening to the morning Blackbird singing the dawn in, it really does feel as if life is breathing all around us, a renewed world far away from the tribulations of the present crisis. Another poet, Thomas Traherne (1638-74), beautifully evokes this seasonal sense of innocence in these lines from ‘Dies Natalis’:

The green trees, when I saw them first,
transported and ravish’d me,
their sweetness and unusual beauty
made my heart to leap,
and almost mad with ecstasy,
they were such strange and wonderful things.

Thomas Traherne

Traherne looks with the wonder of a child and finds his spiritual vision mirrored in nature. There is a very beautifully sensitive setting of this poem by Gerald Finzi, one of the finest English pastoral composers of the twentieth century.

On with the walk; we crossed from Bramblehurst Farm into the strip of copse between the lane and the first field. The ground is parched and large cracks are appearing in the clay; it reminds us how dry this spring has been. Along the path the undergrowth has grown rapidly, Greater Stitchwort are still flowering in the wayside, as is Cow Parsley, though these are going over now.The white, tiny blossoms of this plant drop very quickly, giving it the reputation of ‘breaking your mother’s heart’; bringing it into the house being deemed to lead to the death of a mother. In some parts of the country it is known as ‘mother-die’ but I prefer ‘gypsy curtains’ or, summoning up the image of a wild-eyed gypsy girl, ‘gypsy’s umbrella’. These names are deeply connected to the country ways of the past and give us clues as to how the world of fantasy was enmeshed into ordinary life. Their imagery reverberates with times gone by. My favourite Cow Parsley variation originates in Essex, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, where it is known, inscrutably, as ‘cow mumble. The mind boggles!

Crossing the open field I see Scarlet Pimpernal, a ruderal plant often found in waste ground brightening up bare earth, country folk call this, ‘the shepherd’s weather glass’, for the flower closes when it rains. Buttercups are another cheerful flower bringing light to the fields and tenaciously resisting herbicides. The ditch running by the path is now almost dry, as are most of the brooks which flow down from the hills. It was not long ago that these were cascades the fed Cobbler’s Brook so that the water level was up to the bridge. The map calls the stretch of woodland Gull’s Isle, I have no idea where this name originates and we have always called it Badger Wood, since there is an extensive sett there. Along the margin of the wood the Bracken has unfurled its Bishop’s croziers into full fledged fronds and a little way into the trees are Male Ferns, which thrive in shady, slightly damp conditions. The understorey of the wood has changed as the sunlight is no longer able to penetrate the canopy and now only shade-loving plants, which tend to be with small, insignificant flowers, often green in colour have taken over the ground. Bluebells, Celandines and Wood Anemone have given way to Dog’s Mercury, Ground Elder and Herb-paris.

The path cuts across Four Acres Field. John Lewis-Stemple, in his book ‘The Running Hare’, remarks how unimaginative field names often are, Middle Field, North Field, Top Field; you can see what he means. And yet here we find evidence of landscape imagination, for an avenue of Popular trees has been planted along the path, creating a pleasing passage that draws the eye into the distant view, a tunnel separating walking space from the working world of agriculture. Beneath each of these trees, clumps of Buttercups have established themselves, naturalising a topology created by man.

Walks are stages marked by the rambler and we determine the individual destiny of our journey accordingly. My walk has been in order to study a field south of Woolpit Farm, which I have been told has been left untended and is filled with wild plants. I am hoping it will not be cut and I will be able to observe the succession of species over the summer. It is a large field and the Brown Bent Grass which dominates the vegetation waves gently in the breeze, as mesmerising as the sea, with a mist of purple-brown. I run my hand through the seed heads feeling their light touch on my fingers and then I move slowly into the grass, realising that there are so many different grasses and it is an insult to dismiss these plants as just green grass. I also feel ashamed that I don’t know many names; I recognise Cock’s-Root Grass, the Bents and Yorkshire Fog but the rest I need to spend time looking up. As I take some photographs I kneel down and experience this field world from a different perspective. I remember that Richard Mabey in his book ‘Weeds’, discusses ‘the peasant poet’ John Clare who he says,’ wants to be part of the community of the soil and so look at the world from, so to speak, its own point of view.’ Clare’s poetry is based on an intimacy with nature going back to his childhood and his naturalist’s eye expresses itself in vivid imagery that makes the reader reassess his/her place in the world:

How mild the spring comes in! The daisy buds
Lift up their golden blossoms to the sky.
How lovely are the pingles in the woods.
Here the beetle runs-and there a fly
Rests on the arum leaf in bottle-green,
And all the spring in this sweet lane is seen.

‘On a Lane in Spring’ John Clare (1793-1864)
Pingles, dialect for Primroses or Cowslips.

Clare’s love of nature is tempered by melancholy though, for he lived during the time of the enclosures and was severely depressed by the restrictions imposed on the landscape he loved. He laments, what we have so disastrously witnessed come to fruition, the beginnings of the destruction of the planet.

At first I am disappointed by the flora in this field, I record a short list: Sorrel, Buttercup, Red Clover, Dandelion, White Clover, Greater Plantain and Black Knapweed, still in bud. Then I reflect that Clare found joy in the humblest of plants and I also feel grateful that this large area, for whatever reason, has been left to nature for the time been. What plants may lie in wait to come into flower in the summer? This place will, in Patrick Kavanagh’s unforgettable line, ‘Purify a corner in my mind.’

2 thoughts on “To the Meadow in May

  1. Earlier in the year this ditch had water dropwort hemlock in it; this has now died down but you are right it is not cow parsley. I wrote about the hemlock in another blog, as it is a most interesting plant with quite a history.
    Best wishes,

  2. I very much enjoyed this blog, particularly following you along your walk in my mind’s eye. It made me wonder what you think might be the identity of the flowers that were filling the ditch in the field between the Bramblehurst Farm drive and Gull’s Isle? They were not cow parsley – too thick stemmed and big.

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