Here we are again in another Lockdown. The rules prevent us travelling away from the local area and while I support this, it feels much more constraining this time with winter weather and pandemic fatigue. The only answer is to make the best of it so we are taking daily exercise walks around the town and the nearby countryside looking at the non-human world as winter gives way to spring.
During the first Lockdown, I wrote a series of posts entitled Lockdown Nature Walks and I intend to do the same during the current hiatus. In the first of these new Lockdown Nature Walks (taken on January 13th 2021) I go up to one of the high points above the town of Totnes in south Devon. As well as the description of my walk, I have included a poem that feels relevant, The Rainbow by the 18th century Scottish poet James Thomson, and some photos of what I saw.
I started on the western edge of the town and walked up Harper’s Hill with its unpredictable surface and its 1 in 3 gradients (see Lockdown Nature Walk 7). The sides of this ancient sunken track showed plenty of growth, mainly ferns and pennywort but I did find a few clumps of dark green spears piercing the leaf mould cover. The white swellings at the top of these spears told me that these were snowdrops, getting ready to flower, a welcome indication that the year was moving on.
The lane levelled out and at Tristford Cross, I turned right on to the old ridgeway road. The trees that had been providing some shelter petered out and I began to feel the full force of the bitterly cold wind that blew from the west. To the north, the land fell away to a deep valley, a patchwork of fields, farms and woodland. The edge of Totnes lay to the east some 100 metres below. It felt very exposed on the ridgeway road and curious things were happening in the air above the valley as fragments of rainbow formed and faded repeatedly as if memories of past events were attempting to replay. These transient hints of colour really did feel spectral but, in reality, they were the result of a significant meteorological battle. Thick grey cloud was trying to dominate, even partly obscuring the hills of Dartmoor in the distance. Occasionally, though, the sun got the upper hand, breaking through the cloud and transiently painting fields in the valley a luminous yellow-green. Barely visible, mobile swirls of mizzle were also about, waiting to separate the sunlight into its constituent colours.
Until the Turnpike was built in the valley below, this ridgeway road was the main route from Totnes to Plymouth and the west. Nowadays, it is very quiet and, in spring, colourful wild flowers decorate its roadside banks. Even in mid-winter, though, I found a drift of fleshy heart-shaped green leaves on the roadside bank with the occasional spike of shaggy white and mauve flowers pushing through. This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), introduced into gardens in the early 19th century, loved by some for its almond-scented flowers, hated by others for its invasive nature. Further along, a single chunky flowerhead, rather like a large bottle brush showed above the rough grass along with one round leaf. This was butterbur (Petasites hybridus), having emerged very early, and I noticed multiple pink and white florets covering the flowerhead.
Winter heliotrope and butterbur are members of the same botanical family, Petasites, named after the Greek word petasos for a wide brimmed felt hat, a tribute to their large leaves. Later in the year, butterbur leaves can grow up to a metre across and, in the days before refrigeration, were used to wrap butter, hence the name.
Rain arrived from the west driving me back down Harper’s Hill towards home but also reminding me of the other use of mature butterbur leaves as impromptu umbrellas.
The Rainbow by James Thomson
Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around.
Full swell the woods; their every music wakes,
Mix’d in wild concert, with the warbling brooks
Increased, the distant bleatings of the hills,
And hollow lows responsive from the vales,
Whence, blending all, the sweeten’d zephyr springs.
Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion running from the red
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze. Not so the boy;
He wondering views the bright enchantment bend,
Delightful, o’er the radiant fields, and runs
To catch the falling glory; but amazed
Beholds th’ amusive arch before him fly,
Then vanish quite away.