Hope and Loss along a Devon country lane – Lockdown Nature Walks 13

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk (taken on February 10th 2021), I went up Fishchowter’s Lane, an ancient track on the southern side of Totnes.  It was a very cold, grey day but I found much that was encouraging and some that wasn’t.  After my account of the walk, I have included a poem that feels relevant, “A Backward Spring” by Thomas Hardy.   

An open part of Fishchowter’s Lane showing the ferns and wall pennywort growing along the soil banks

A jumble of bright green, grass-like leaves spills along a roadside wall near the beginning of Fishchowter’s Lane on the southern edge of Totnes.  This is three-cornered garlic and despite the bitter easterly wind, a flower stem has dared to appear among the leaves.  Most of the flowers on the stem are still swathed in a pale papery bract but one has escaped, snowy white with a hint of a pale green stripe. For a moment, this fragile flower holds my hope that spring, when it arrives, might lighten this lockdown making it easier to bear.

I begin to walk up the lane past houses and a former quarry, now a dark, fern-fringed grotto occasionally used by a wood worker.  Trees grow within the quarry and a group of small birds fusses in the leafless branches.  One of these trees, a hazel, drapes over my path casting a mist of yellow catkins that shimmers in the wind.

The lane rises gently along the side of a grassy valley as it enters open countryside and I begin to be aware of a stream rushing along the valley bottom a little way below.   I am used to mud on this path but with the recent spell of cold weather, it has frozen hard with reminders of that morning’s snow caught in crevices.     At first the lane feels open with views across nearby fields in the valley but soon the character changes.  Trees and scrub growing in the path-side soil banks now cover the track giving it a more enclosed, sheltered feel.  By late spring, fresh leaves will have created a mysterious green tunnel here but today some light still gets through.  With the overcast conditions, though, this is a poor flat light and everything feels rather gloomy. 

Despite this, the enclosed track has a feeling of lush green growth.  Ferns and wall pennywort cover large areas of the soil banks and have yet to be touched by the cold weather.  Shiny arrow head-shaped leaves push up through the soil on the banks and by the path side, some with prominent black spots.  These are the leaves of Lords and Ladies whose beacons of orange-red berries will light up the green tunnel in late summer. Groups of pointed leaves like small spears, some spattered with mud are also emerging through the hard soil along the side of the path. Breaking a piece of leaf releases a sharp oniony smell transporting me forwards to a time when these starry-flowered ramsons will capture the edges of the track.  Then further along, green mats of oval wavy-edged leaves cover the bank.   This is opposite-leaved golden saxifrage an evergreen, damp and shade-loving plant.  A few yellow flower stems are already showing, bringing hints of sunshine to the dark track.

The path continues to climb slowly, sometimes enclosed by trees, sometimes more open.  A stream running off a steeply sloping field crosses the lane to join the water in the valley and I pass an organic smallholding before the lane rises again to reach a junction where another path crosses at right angles.  The junction is set in a peaceful tree-lined glade where water cascades from fields across rocks and old tree stumps before entering a culvert to hurry downhill towards the valley stream.  I stand there for a while listening to the ebb and flow of the watery sounds and I try to imagine the people that have walked this way over the years.   I also reflect on how, if you walk a path regularly, it can insinuate itself into your life.

Fishchowter’s Lane leaves the tree-lined glade to head steeply upwards across the side of a rising hillside.  The path is enclosed by scrub and mature trees and feels rather bleak today.  As I climb, the noise of the wind threading through the trees begins to dominate and apart from wall pennywort growing on the soil banks there is little to see except for a few green spikes that may be bluebells. In compensation, the views to the north become increasingly spectacular, across the valley below, to the town of Totnes and further on to the Dartmoor hills.  

The lane climbs about 75metres from the watery glade in a short distance so I am relieved when the track levels out.  This part of Fishchowter’s Lane is open and airy in spring and summer, its high hedges richly embroidered with wildflowers.  Today, though, the plants growing along the banks look damaged.  Foxgloves and wall pennywort show this most with their leaves drooping uncharacteristically.  I am puzzled by this at first but decide that the recent high winds from the east combined with persistent low temperatures have damaged the lush leaves of plants that grew well in the earlier mild weather. It looks alarming and although it may set back these plants, they will recover and regrow so I press on to the next junction where I turn left along Bowden Lane. 

This is a well-used farm track, scarred with deep muddy ruts glinting with shards of ice.  It’s another mass of growth in the warmer seasons, abounding with flowers and insects but today it looks apocalyptic.  The farmer appears to have decided to rein in the vegetation, flailing the hedge and plants growing there, spreading the cuttings across the high banks that line the lane.  A thick brown layer of coarse fragments of wood and leaves covers both sides smothering any new growth, so that the lane looks dead.    I don’t hang around here, there is nothing to see, the wind is bitter and a little snow is now falling.   The lane ends at a four-way junction and I walk on to the minor road which allows me to descend along Totnes Down Hill.  Primroses with their yellow flowers are showing well in the high banks but it is very exposed with more evidence of wind damage.

So, what about my earlier hopes for the arrival of spring? With all this natural and unnatural destruction, all this loss, I can’t help but feel downcast but then I come across a splash of snowdrops growing by the side of the road.  As I look at the delicate green markings on these flowers, a great tit sings a joyful “teacher, teacher” from a nearby tree and then a robin appears.  Not wishing to be left out, the bird begins to speak to me.

……………………………………………………………….

A Backward Spring by Thomas Hardy

The trees are afraid to put forth buds,
 And there is timidity in the grass;
 The plots lie gray where gouged by spuds,
  And whether next week will pass
 Free of sly sour winds is the fret of each bush
  Of barberry waiting to bloom.

 Yet the snowdrop’s face betrays no gloom,
 And the primrose pants in its heedless push,
 Though the myrtle asks if it’s worth the fight
  This year with frost and rime
  To venture one more time
 On delicate leaves and buttons of white
 From the selfsame bough as at last year’s prime,
 And never to ruminate on or remember
 What happened to it in mid-December.

……………………………………………..

Leaves of Lords and Ladies

Green spears of ramsons coming through the hard soil at the path edge

Opposite leaved golden saxifrage showing the leaves and some flower stems with the bright yellow stamens in groups of eight

The view from the high point across the valley to Totnes and Dartmoor

Wall pennywort showing frost and wind damage, also some remnants of snow

Foxglove showing frost and wind damage

View along Bowden Lane with icy, muddy ruts and the banks, flailed and cut

Snowdrops growing along Totnes Down Hill

8 thoughts on “Hope and Loss along a Devon country lane – Lockdown Nature Walks 13”

  1. Hello Philip,
    Well lucky you – those are unusual looking snowdrops, if they’re growing “wild” in a lane, away from habitations. All my looking in Wales over many years, and I’ve yet to come across any “naturalised” ones with green markings on the outer segments, like these seem to have. Hope the severe cold has now left devon, and it’s not been as soaking as here last week,
    Best wishes,
    Julian

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    1. Thanks Julian, I hadnt realised the significance of these! I went back yesterday morning, in sunshine, to have another look. They are growing in a largish clump by the side of this country lane and appear to be naturalised. There are houses nearby but behind trees etc and the verge is not near any garden. The clump appears to be homogeneous based on the leaves but not all the flowers have the outer green markings. Many do but even then it is variable. Does this mean that there is genetic variation? Hope you have had some of the spring weather we experienced yesterday.

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      1. Thanks Philip, yes there could be some genetic variation I guess – seedlings or even mutations. I’ve just looked up, and I have a similar green tipped named G. nivalis form, called Cornwood, which apparently originates from Delamore House, Cornwood in Devon – it doesn’t seem to be a million miles from Totnes, but also I guess there are plenty of other estates/grand houses nearby which might have acquired fancy/variant snowdrops over the years, and overtime bulbs could either moved physically by humans – as happens a lot with snowdrops!- or gradually over time by honeybee pollination moving a mile or two every few years. You might have picked up from my Welsh snowdrop hunt, that my keeping, roughly, to pre- 1850 sites, and given the lack of affluence around here, very few sites, other than a property which used to be owned by a descendant of Lloyd George, had any Galanthus other than G. nivalis.
        We did enjoy a lovely day here yesterday, though back to type today, but I think we’re seeing signs of a change for the weekend. Fingers crossed,
        best wishes
        Julian

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  2. Sun makes the barest winter walks special but we have been having the dullest spring here that I can remember. I do think that at least the walks that you are used to are better in the winter than unknown ones. The old favourites must retain the memories of brighter times. Amelia

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  3. I am glad you took me along on this walk, Philip. I could see the beauty of a barely emerging spring, and at the same time feel the gloom upon seeing the farmer’s destruction. Your exploration reveals what I so often sense, too. At times I despair at the wanton neglect and damage to natural settings I enjoy, but at the same time, my eye always finds a bird or creature or flower, something to lift me. I really enjoyed this post, my friend. The Thomas Hardy poem is perfect!

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    1. Thanks Debra, I much appreciate your comment and your feelings about the need to find something uplifting faced with destruction or neglect. The Hardy poem was a surprise discovery for me. When I found it, I knew I wanted to include it somewhere but then my walk fitted it so well!

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  4. Philip, We so much enjoy sharing your walks – virtually, that is. I would love if we could also walk with you just outside our home here and see the simple French countryside and let you name and explain nature to us. Best wishes to you.

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