On the last day of the month we set off early in the morning, there was a heavy dew on the ground but it was light and fairly mild. The first part of the walk took us through the Cobbler’s Brook woodland and the trees were alive with birdsong. One of the most common local hedgerow shrubs must be the Blackthorn, which I have mentioned several times. The white blossom makes it very conspicuous and draws attention to its frequent presence. It spreads prolifically and has probably been a feature of hedgerows for centuries, as it is excellent protection for livestock, with its sharp thorns.
Just before Yard Farm, the footpath has been colonised by Periwinkle and the bright blue flowers are out now. There is, I have discovered, debate on the colour of this flower. To me it looks blue but others spend time trying to pin down ‘the certain quality of light’, as the scholar David Scott Kaston puts it, echoing Emily Dickinson’s famous words. Kaston’s violet, ‘is the shimmering, fugitive color of the sky at sunset’. The Periwinkles cover the ground and there is an ambivalence in the colour you see. These plants have probably crept here from gardens, where they are popular ground cover, their evergreen leaves smothering weeds effectively. On a darker note they are associated with death, in Italy the fiore de morte is spread on the graves of children in order to assist their safe transit into the next world and they were apparently used as a garland on the heads of those condemned to execution. Somewhat in contradiction to these macabre associations is the folk tradition linking them to fidelity in love, the “something blue” in the wedding rhyme originates with Periwinkle lore.
Later on our walk we saw a lot of Sweet Violets, which are common flowers of spring woodlands and seem to me a daintier plant, though similar in colour. These plants were in a woodland haven lying near Cobbett’s Farm pond and were growing predominantly on an old bank and ditch line weaving through the trees. This is definitely ancient woodland and the under-cover not only had the violets but also Wood Anemones, Primroses, Celandine and a couple of very early flowering Bluebells. It is very difficult to tell Sweet Violet from its relative the Dog Violet and plant identification books say the best means is to smell them: Dog Violet has no scent. There is a curious myth that you can only smell Sweet Violet once, as it steals your smell away; as is often the case this tale has some foundation in reality, Sweet Violets contain the chemical beta-ionone which temporarily shuts off smell receptors. It strikes me that this makes telling the two apart very difficult, especially if, like me, your sense of smell isn’t very good. It also made me think of one of the symptoms of covid that we are now all familiar with and I wondered why the virus also stops this sense and whether there is any biochemical link. All this may be fanciful but the plant was used as a cure for headaches, depression and insomnia; it is also a popular foundation for perfumes.
I have jumped ahead with these botanical speculations. We walked past North Breache Manor. The Jackdaws and other crows were extremely noisy in the woods: I still haven’t located a rookery in the area, so I wonder where they are all nesting. A Roe Deer skipped deep into the covert, disturbed by us on this otherwise unpeopled morning. The fields were covered in heavy dew it must have been near to a frost and heavy clouds give the distant view a misty appearance. The sheep are pastured in the fields with their lambs and there is the always comforting sound of mother sheep and baby communicating their presence.
The footpaths were much drier as there has not been much rain and one of the striking features of the wayside is the fluffy yellow of Pussy Willow catkins. Splashes of yellow stand out like candy floss from the darker wood of other trees and can be seen striking a pose from quite a distance. The Pussy Willow is dioecious, meaning that male and female catkins grow on different trees; the conspicuous yellow catkins are male. These catkins are a valuable source of pollen for early insects and the Purple Emperor, a rare and elusive butterfly, lay their eggs on the tree. I have spent my entire life hoping for a sight of a Purple Emperor and have been unlucky so far. As adults the butterfly prefers the high tops of oaks and this makes them difficult to spot.
The pond is very quiet, with just a couple of Coots paddling about in the margins. This is a bit disappointing as we’d hoped to see ducklings and frogspawn. As we turn south there is a lot of noise coming from the farm and we see that a herd of bullocks has been led into the field. They seem very agitated, though it is hard to fathom what has upset them. The track bordering the field weaves through an avenue of trees bordered by an ancient bank; it is an enchanted place, made idyllic by the presence of Primroses and Wood Anemones. This path has a number of rabbit-holes dug into the bank and no doubt there is quite a population of rabbits living here. As the path takes a brief westward turn and faces south, the wayside is covered with Lady’s Smock, a plant also called Cuckooflower because its flowers appear when Cuckoos begin to arrive.
The banks and woods near Pond Head Farm are a joy, as the daffodils which have been planted over a wide area are out, creating a field of yellow as far as the eye can see. These daffodils are not the wild ones we saw earlier but are nevertheless very impressive. Two Canada Geese were resting on an island in the pond.
The planting of daffs continues into the wood by the Yellow Brick Road, making a coincidental play on the yellow theme. By now the sun has broken through the clouds and dappled light dances among the trees, leading us back to the road. The verges, which are such an important preserve of wildflowers these days, are filling up with new growth and the common plants, such as Dandelions, Chickweed and Daisies are making their presence felt: they herald the many flowers that spring and summer will bring giving endless enjoyment in the coming months.