There is a strong tradition of a rite of passage at this time of February. On the second day of the month Candlemas Day is celebrated, marking forty days after the birth of Jesus, when Mary goes to present him to the Temple at Jerusalem and is ritually purified. Pre-Christian society also invested this period with significance; Imbolc takes place between the evening of 1st February and the evening of 2nd February and observes ‘the quickening of the year.’ One of the meanings of this word is ‘ewe’s milk’ and this is apt as this is the traditional beginning of the lambing season. It was known as Brigid’s Day, and St Brigid is commemorated at Candlemas; in pagan terms she is an earth-mother figure and again relates to the earth’s fecundity in spring. There is a traditional rhyme, predicting what weather we shall have:
If Candlemas Day be fair and brightAnon.
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.
On Candlemas we set out on a walk to Holmbury Farm and beyond. We have done this walk several times but decided to do it in reverse. It is always intriguing how different a walk may seem when taken from another direction. I must say every ramble we have been on recently has borne out George Herbert’s (1592-1633) proverb that, ‘Every mile is two in winter.’ The footpath up towards Woodlands Farm and Prince Hill has become a mire of sludge, without the aid of a walking stick I am sure I would have come a cropper on the slippery surfaces and there are times when you risk leaving a wellington boot behind as the bog fights to pull it off your foot.
Along the edge of the path nascent growth of stinging nettles and cranesbill is noticeable. When we get to Prince Hill the day is cloudy but reasonably clear. Lukyns mansion to the north seems to dominate the landscape, like many grand houses it nurtures a proprietorial air; it is easy to imagine a modern day Gainsborough being commissioned to paint portraits of the owners surveying their extensive estate, with pride.
Daffodils are out by the track up to Brookhurst Farm, their cheerful yellow a lovely harbinger of spring. In the oak trees surrounding the steep field beyond the farm we saw a flock of starlings roosting in the high branches and making a lot of chatter. We walked west towards Cotton Row, crossing the fields before beginning the quite steep ascent to Holmbury Farm: we have usually come down this hill and have therefore not realised that it is quite a climb. This path is bordered by thick hedgerow, probably dating back several hundred years, as it has a mix of Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Hazel and other bushes: gradually this gives way to a dell, which is pitted with rabbit burrows and here there is mixed woodland. I noticed that the woodland floor was covered in Dog’s Mercury, an unobtrusive green flowered plant that makes an early appearance. It is a good indicator of ancient woodland and is one of our most shade tolerant wildflowers. Unfortunately it can dominate the woodland floor, as it spreads abundantly suffocating other species. The plant is poisonous on all its parts, although it is interesting that its near relative, Annual Mercury, which is also poisonous, was used as an enema in the past. It is not recorded whether there were any fatalities as a result of this practice. In some parts of the country it has the rather winsome name Boggart-posy.
The path down to the pond on the other side of Holmbury Farm had become virtually impassable, mainly because horses also use it. We struggled through this to Three Mile Road and here on the roadside bank there were lots of Primroses out and when we got back on the path fronting the Lukyns estate I noticed a Red Dead Nettle in flower, apparently it is a plant that can flower throughout the year. This part of the walk is much easier, a slight downward gradient and footpaths that are grassy. The stream which runs alongside the path was, like all the water courses, very full and rushes down to the confluence at Radnor Place Farm: the meeting of waters a dramatic sight. We then followed through the woodland and heard the familiar sound of a woodpecker from deep in the wood and when we paused for a sit down at the end of Path Three Acres we enjoyed the tranquillity as the woodland birds sang a spring chorale.