Nature Notes

Wild Crocuses and Stubble Turnips.

Blue skies flick a switch for spring. Bats and brimstone butterflies break hibernation, midges rise and fall in columns, blackbirds grow territorial and sparrows toy with (and squabble over) nesting material.

The mud crusts and dries in ridges and tiny, young nettle and goosegrass leaves make a green flush under the flattened, whitened sticks of last years dried and hollow stems, among the melting last of the snowdrops.

How quickly we turn our faces to spring. Winter has its own pleasures, consolations, comforts and wonders, but it’s been a mighty long one and may not be over yet. 

The sheep have been turned onto the stubble turnips and fodder radish. With the green tops eaten off, the part-munched root vegetables look like deflated footballs on a muddy pitch. The scent of lanolin from wool and heated bodies, rises, and mingles with the green smell of dung.

The broad arc of the downs are still pale, but in the strong sunlight, every soil roll, combe, flint trap, sheep path, badger track and anthill is picked out in dramatically shaded detail. This is when the hill seems to have rolled itself closer; moving and retreating like the old sea it once was.

Singing blackbirds are now uncountable among the song and mistle thrushes, stationed further apart, and kites whinny, building their nests. Late afternoons, a female tawny owl begins a soft, warbling to her mate; sometimes calling in the day, I wonder if she is already sitting on eggs?

The crocuses are up in the seven-acre sloping village meadow. This small nature reserve, bisected by the spring-fed Ingle Brook, is protected for its unimproved old pasture and related flora – and not for the mystery of its Mediterranean crocuses. But they are the real draw at this time of year.

The colour pops from more than 400,000 mauve-and-yellow blooms in the greeny-grey, still sleepy sward. Britain’s largest wild display of spring crocuses even gets a mention in Richard Mabey’s seminal Flora Britannica (1996).

The corms are a puzzle and delight. But, given local historical association, and according to local lore, it seems more likely they were brought home by returning 12th-Century Crusaders of the Knights Templar (as saffron) than being 200yr old garden escapees from what was then a poor, remote and rural settlement on the brink of rioting under the name of Captain Swing. Far, perhaps, from the idea of the Mediterranean.    

Purple crocuses also spread across the lawn of The Big House; of our Landlady. The house was built around 1730, although it is not known how long the crocuses have been there – whether they are a modern (ish) or far older nod to the ‘Crusader’ field in the village.

The crocuses bring former residents back and it is a good time to clarify old stories and learn new ones, the social distances of years, and the lane – or a span of starry crocuses – between us. These visits always, without question, culminate in a trip up and over the big hill, which binds us all to this place.

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6 thoughts on “Nature Notes

  1. As usual a wonderfully written piece, you are truly gifted. Your words bring goosebumps to my skin and I am deeply comforted by your observations that are close to my heart. Thanks

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  2. Thanks for this, Nicola, fascinating as always. I remember coming to see the crocuses some years ago. My memory is of a slightly unusual but impressive display, but I dont think I understood the significance at the time.

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