I don’t often blog about matters unrelated to writing and historical fiction, but occasionally I just feel the need to write about something different, and that “different” is always to do with the natural world, specifically the birds and the plants I observe on my travels, whether locally or further afield. Of course there hasn’t been much in the way of “further afield” for the past few weeks, so I thought I’d write just a short piece about what I’ve seen recently in the course of my daily “one piece of exercise”.
As a retiree and full-time writer, this current lockdown isn’t making that much difference to my everyday life. For several years, I’ve spent the majority of my days in relative “isolation” with my other half. The main change for us now is that we can’t visit our family or friends or have them visit us, and we’ve had to cancel two holidays abroad and a short break here in the UK. Naturally we’re very sorry about missing those trips but it’s hardly the end of the world, and I WILL be delighted when we are finally let out and can go and see our (adult) children again. And at least we do have technology to help us keep in touch, which is a wonderful boon.
We are fortunate too to live in the countryside – by no means a deep rural backwater, but an area of southern England that is very pretty and affords us varied opportunities for taking our daily exercise. A regular walk isn’t unusual for us. We’ve always walked, not necessarily daily and I’ll confess to being a bit of a fair weather walker myself, not being very keen on getting wet! But of course the weather has been more than “fair” for quite a while now, so going out every day has been a pleasure. So I’m taking the opportunity to write a few words, and share a few photographs, about what I’ve seen on my walks in the past few weeks…
I have always thought that I was reasonably observant on my walks, noting the changes in the seasons, the burgeoning of new flowers in the hedgerows, and in the gardens that I pass, and relishing the sound and sight of wildlife, in particular birds and insects. But, this spring, I feel that my powers of observation are somehow heightened, as I am certain I am noticing more than I have done in the past!
On the radio the other morning there was a short discussion on the alleged increase in birdsong: was there really more of it than usual? Were the birds singing louder? Or were people just noticing it more? The consensus seemed to be that the reduced traffic, both on the road and in the air, meant that the environment was quieter overall, permitting us humans a greater chance to notice sounds that were usually masked by the roar of engines and the squeal of tyres. We can actually hear the birdsong! And the expert thought the birdsong was actually quieter than usual, because the birds are not having to shout quite so loud to make themselves heard above the traffic. Now they can more easily hear each other and we can more easily hear them. Splendid!
I do think I’ve noticed the birdsong more than usual and, with the help of my other half, identified many of the birds that are singing. But I’ve also been somehow more aware of the changing displays of wild flowers in the hedgerows and fields. A month or so ago there were still daffodils around, and there were primroses, and lots of beautiful little celandines, with their shining golden petals, were starting to appear. All yellow flowers! I think the bright colour is to do with attracting pollinating insects, but to my mind yellow is just a wonderfully cheerful colour that really does seem to herald spring. Though there were anemones too, white and blue.
Now, the daffodils have mostly gone, but the celandines and primroses and a few anemones can still be found, particularly in shady spots.
But more yellow flowers have now come: cowslips, yellow archangel, dandelions, and today I saw the first buttercups, more wonderfully shiny petals…
But there is now also lots of white: greater stitchwort, white deadnettle, frothy cow parsley, and in the woods and fields around here, a positive profusion of ramsons.
You might not like the garlicky smell of ramsons, but I adore it, and it looks amazing in its great broad drifts but, up close, the flowers are beautiful and starry. Lovely close-up too is the humble dandelion – don’t you think?
And then of course there are the blues: violets have been around for a while and are still thriving, but now there is also the dainty speedwell, and, of course, bluebells.
Our local woods are carpeted in bluebells. As I’m sure you know, not all the bluebells we see in the countryside are our native English. Many are the imported Spanish bluebell, which is more robust than the native, and hybrids of the two are apparently extremely common. But in the past few days I’ve certainly seen mostly the native, with just a few Spanish…
In case you don’t know, the main differences are that natives (left below) have narrow leaves, and the flowers are perfumed and deep blue, mostly on one side only of the stem and distinctly drooping. The Spanish flower has broader leaves, with pale blue flowers all around the upright stem that have almost no scent.
We have a stretch of woodland close by – it’s a remnant of the ancient royal forest called the Forest of Bere – that is one of those English woodlands that, every spring, is heady with the scent of native bluebells, and whose floor beneath the trees (mostly beeches in our case) shimmers blue in the shafts of sunlight that, at this time of year, find their way through the canopy of young beech leaves.
Bluebells are native to western Europe and common in the UK. Did you know that the UK is home to almost half of the world’s bluebells? Yet, common as they are, they are nonetheless under threat, from destruction of habitat, hybridisation with those non-native Spanish bluebells and also the illegal practice of collecting bulbs for trade. You might like to read more about bluebells on The Woodland Trust website: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/plants/wild-flowers/bluebell/.
STOP PRESS! Up to today I hadn’t seen any flowers that were red or pink, but this morning I have seen my first few examples: a showy campion, pretty little herb robert and pale pink lady’s smock or cuckooflower. But more about them another time…
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