The signs have been there for a while. Birds singing as though someone told them it’s time to turn up the volume. Grassy banks dotted with starry yellow celandine flowers. A green haze of fresh leaves slowly creeping over previously bare branches. If only the weather would play fair it might be spring.
So, after many days of damp and grey, the sun shone, the air was warm and it was as though a transformation had taken place. It was also Friday Market Day and, as people wandered between the stalls, they smiled at one another and remarked on the weather. Two busking fiddlers played pleasing harmonies in the Market Square and, outside the Italian Café, it was not quite Tuscan weather but the beautiful people laughed and smiled in the Devon sunshine.
I wandered down to the Leechwell Garden where, soon after I arrived, my attention was grabbed by a low but insistent buzzing. On an extensive stand of rosemary growing against one of the old brick walls I saw a real sign of spring. It was a chunky bee covered in rich brown hairs but with a pale nose. Moving quickly and purposefully among the slate-blue flowers, it collected nectar, buzzing as it went. This was a male Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes), my first one of the year and seeing it lifted my spirits.
Elsewhere in town, I looked at a huge willow (Salix caprea) that has been cleverly pollarded and trained over a wall where its many slender stems drop like water over a precipice. The tree has been covered in immature, grey “pussy willow” catkins and, recently, these have been mutating into bright pollen-loaded male catkins. Last Friday in the sunshine the tree was very impressive: a mass of yellow flower heads, unruly brushes made from the long stamens, alive with honeybees and a few bumble bees and small flies. The whole tree buzzed as the sun’s energy was transformed into sound.
When the bumblebees saw me, they flew off in disgust. The honeybees, however, were drunk on pollen and nectar and either didn’t see me or didn’t care. Many of them already carried large chunks of orange-yellow pollen to take back to the hive but when they encountered a new flower head they wallowed in it, they almost swam in the stamens. If they could have expressed pleasure this would have been the occasion.
Later, a light mist crept over the hills to the east, gradually enveloping the town and shutting out the sun.
We’d been walking for twenty minutes or so with plenty to see: a wooded garden with a drift of early snowdrops scattered across the grass like confetti, the winter sunshine percolating through the trees creating mosaics of light and shade, running water a constant companion. Then suddenly, something new captured my attention but I couldn’t immediately identify what it was. You know how it is when you hear a fragment of a well-known piece of music but can’t place it; only this wasn’t music. Gradually, though, I became conscious of a low-level odour permeating the air by the path. I am sure there had been other smells as we walked, such as rotting leaves and wet mud, but this was entirely unexpected: a sweet, fragrant odour that stopped me in my tracks.
It was the day after Christmas and we decided to walk the riverside path linking the village of Uplyme in the far east of Devon to the seaside town of Lyme Regis just across the border in Dorset. This was the most rural section of the walk. One side of the path was bordered by skeletal trees and a damp, woodland bank. Hart’s tongue ferns grew prolifically, their leaves spilling out across the soil, octopus-like. On the other side of the path, the ground fell away steeply to the river Lym.
But the ferns did not have it all their own way and a small section of the bank was occupied instead by heart-shaped, bright green, fleshy leaves. Floating above the leaves, on thick stems, were the flowers, daisy-like brushes of pale petals gathered together and swept upwards. Each slightly hairy stem carried several of these chunky flower heads. This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans).
I bent down to smell the flowers and was greeted by a sweet, cloying fragrance that spoke to me of almonds and resurrected distant memories of amaretto liqueur; this was the source of my arresting sensory experience. Although I smelt almonds, it turns out that there is some disagreement about the exact odour of winter heliotrope. Perhaps it is the complexity of the smell; there was indeed an additional hard edge to the `fragrance that I couldn’t place, and some say the flowers smell of almonds, others vanilla, some even licorice and I began to doubt my response.
Back home, I looked for another patch of the plant to test my nose. Finding the plant wasn’t a problem; there is a lot of winter heliotrope about at present in south Devon. Much of it, however, grows by busy roads and it took me a while to find some that I could smell safely. I finally struck lucky by the coast path above the beach at South Milton Sands. Here I found drifts of winter heliotrope, some in shade and some in sunshine on the cliff top. The flower heads trembled in the breeze and the late afternoon sun highlighted the delicate colours of the flowers, some pale lilac, others tinged dark pink. Sometimes, the sea breeze carried traces of that low level woodland odour.
But what was the smell of the flowers in this seaside location? I took first sniff and smelt almonds again so my earlier response had been correct. Next Hazel tried without knowing my experience and she said lilac. It would be interesting to know what others sense when they smell winter heliotrope.
Many people, however, have an entirely different reaction to winter heliotrope, they hate it! They regard the plant as an introduced, invasive thug, taking over landscapes and eliminating native plants like a triffid destroying everything in its path. I share these concerns, but I have to admit to having a soft spot for winter heliotrope. It brightens up the sparse winter landscape and provides welcome forage for early insects. South Devon, with its mild climate, supports colonies of winter bumblebees and they need forage throughout the season. Winter heliotrope provides some of that food and this morning I watched winter bumblebees foraging on the flowers above the sea in Torquay.
Steep steps descend from a narrow passageway off Salcombe’s Fore Street. At water level there is a stone jetty, the Ferry Pier, and above and to the right the Ferry Inn enjoys almost perfect views across the estuary. A clinker-built motor boat, with the skipper standing up, is already making its way across the water to pick up the few waiting passengers. Once we are all safely on board, he backs out and turns before heading across the estuary to East Portlemouth; it’s a calm day so this is an easy crossing. The view from the boat always impresses me, low in the water, a cormorant’s perspective. Looking towards the mouth of the estuary, the sea is a dark blue but, in the light breeze, ripples caught in the low sunshine cast a dancing light across the water.
The journey takes only a few minutes but it’s transformative. Salcombe is all cafes and posh clothing shops but across the water we find peaceful long beaches with fine sand. The tide is very low so we follow the strandline, leaving a record of our footsteps in the soft sand. Beachside houses cast long shadows in the low sunshine but, where the sun reaches the beach, it creates pale blues and greens in the seawater, shallow over golden sand, and I imagine the Mediterranean.
Eventually, we reach Mill Bay, a football pitch-sized expanse of undulating, pale sand stretching from the sea to the coast road. Very popular for family holidays in summer, today it is all but deserted. On one side of the beach, the low tide has exposed a long, green, seaweed-covered slipway with prominent metal rails and stone teeth. This was built in 1943 by the US navy to support landing craft during the Normandy landings. It’s hard to imagine the beaches and the estuary filled with ships awaiting the assault on occupied France.
The rear of the beach is fringed with sand dunes bound together with scrubby grass. One exposed vertical face is peppered with holes, burrows for insects, and several black and yellow striped wasps are moving about the nest area in a proprietorial manner. Longer and sleeker than the better known common wasp, these are field digger wasps, solitary insects that dig tunnels in the sand and provision them with dead flies as food for their larvae. A large buff-tailed bumblebee queen is scrabbling in the sand wall as if she is trying to burrow. She looks in good condition but behaves as if something is wrong.
The path leaves the beach to head gently upwards through coastal woodland in the direction of the estuary mouth. The autumn leaf-strewn track meanders through the woods with tantalising views of beaches below. In today’s light, the colours of the sand and water glimpsed through the trees look more southern European than south Devon. We emerge from woodland cover into brilliant sunshine and spectacular but slightly hazy views across the mouth of the estuary to the vast green headland of Bolt Head and the sandy beach at South Sands with its boutique hotels. A red, yellow and blue boat passes by purposefully; it may look like a toy, but it is the Ferry that links South Sands with Salcombe town.
The path turns gradually eastwards seemingly cut into the hillside so that we walk with the land falling away to the sea below us and, on the landward side, rising steeply to rocky outcrops. There is much bracken in evidence, already showing the effects of autumn; bright sparks of yellow gorse shoot upwards. We pass a single spike of mullein, a few yellow toadflax and clumps of sheep’s bit with their unruly mops of blue petals. Several stonechats entertain us, fluttering up and down, tail flicking, chatting.
The sea is calm today. From this vantage point, it is a deep blue but where it meets the rocky coastline, the surface shatters into bright fragments in the sunshine. I scan the coastal waters for seals but get a surprise when I see what looks like a person standing on a rock just above the sea. A closer look reveals a large cormorant, sunning itself. Further away, sailing boats take advantage of the good weather and a fishing boat moors close enough for us to read its name through our binoculars.
Eventually, ahead of us we see a curious, white-painted, cylindrical hut, topped with a thatched roof and perched high above the path upon one of the rocky outcrops. Far below the hut is a secluded stretch of sandy beach and in the distance lies another headland, Gammon Head. The thatched hut is the former coastguard lookout at Gara Rock and we leave the coast path to head up to investigate. Behind the lookout there is a new resort/hotel/apartment complex with people sitting in the sunshine enjoying a drink. A row of coastguard cottages was built here in the 19th century and converted into a popular hotel early in the 20th century. Laurence Olivier, John Betjeman and Margaret Rutherford are said to have stayed here, not necessarily at the same time. The old building was knocked down in the last ten years and rebuilt as the new complex.
The old coastguard lookout has glorious views across the sea and coast and it is surrounded by huge banks of ivy. Much of the ivy is in full flower, filling the air with its distinctive sickly-sweet smell. Perhaps it is something to do with the light today but the flower heads on these clumps of ivy appear as almost perfect globes. Multiple pale green lollipops extend from the centre of each flower head in perfect symmetry, like pins in a pin cushion. Each lollipop is decorated with a frieze of pale yellow-headed stamens, creating, from a distance, a sunny halo around the green globe. The ivy flowers attract many insects including more field digger wasps but it is the ivy bees that I am looking for and I am not disappointed. Many of the elegant yellow and black striped-females move quickly about the flowers together with a few hopeful males. The females are carrying large amounts of bright yellow pollen but still feeding.
We drag ourselves away from this extraordinary spot and head back down the inland valley to Mill Bay following an ancient, slightly sunken green lane with farmland either side. This is a green tunnel with muted light, formed by overhanging trees including a long stretch of very old lime trees with dark, gnarled bark and multiple branching trunks. When we reach Mill Bay, we take the coast road back to the jetty. Many of the houses here are closed up; more than 40% of the houses in the Salcombe area are second homes. The chimney of one of these homes is swarming with bees, probably honeybees. The owner will be in for a shock when they next visit!
For a map and further information on this walk click here.
The west Dorset coast contains many wonders but one stands out above all others. This is Golden Cap, the distinctive steep-sided, flat-topped hill with its golden edge and cliffs falling precipitously to the sea. Visible for miles around and rising above all its neighbours, it stands 191 metres above sea level and is the highest point on the south coast of England. It is a local landmark, a place of legend, and an inspiration to writers and artists.
I first climbed Golden Cap nearly thirty years ago. It was a mild, early spring weekend and I was entranced by the experience. It’s now one of those places I like to visit periodically so, on a warm mid-July day earlier this year, I set out from the Stonebarrow Hill car park above Charmouth. The grassy track descended steeply between brambles and bracken towards Westhay Farm with its mellow stone buildings decorated with roses, honeysuckle and solar panels. I paused in a gateway near the farmhouse to look at one of the hay meadows. Bees and butterflies enjoyed the thick covering of grasses and colourful flowers while the sun gradually won its battle with the clouds. Flower-rich hay meadows were once an important feature of the countryside but they have mostly been lost since 1930 as a result of agricultural intensification. Managed in the traditional way with a late July cut for hay, they support a rich community of invertebrates, birds and flowers. The meadows at Westhay Farm are no exception and rare plants such as the green-winged orchid thrive here. My gateway reverie was interrupted when a fox suddenly appeared in one of the breaks in the meadow. We stood looking at one another, a moment out of time, before the fox lolloped off through the long vegetation.
Beyond the farmhouse, the path descended across open grassland dotted with sunny stands of ragwort and tall, purple thistles populated with bumblebees. The sea, a pale steely blue, was now ahead of me, dominating the view. Today it was calm but the slight swell was a warning of its power. Golden Cap loomed to the east like a steep pleat in the coastline and, when the sun shone, the cliff face revealed some of its geological secrets. About half way up, a large area of rough grey rock was visible. This was laid down some 200 million years ago and is mainly unstable grey clays of the Middle and Lower Lias prone to rock falls and mud slides. Towards the summit, tracts of distinctive “golden” rock glowed in the sunshine. The rock here is Upper Greensand, sandstone laid down about 100 million years ago, forming the “cap”.
The coast path continued eastwards in a roller coaster fashion. Prominent fingerposts pointed the way and I passed vast inaccessible coastal landslips and descended into deep valleys with rapidly flowing water, only to climb again on the other side. In meadows alongside the path, bees, moths, beetles and butterflies flitted among the many flowers including purple selfheal and knapweed, yellow catsear and meadow vetchling. The final push towards the summit of Golden Cap began very steeply across open grassland before entering a stepped, zigzag track which was easier to negotiate. As the path rose there was a change in the landscape. Bright purple bell heather began to show and bracken surrounded the stepped path; a kestrel hovered briefly above.
Suddenly the path levelled out; I had reached the summit and here were the familiar landmarks: a low stone marker informing me how far I had walked and the larger stone memorial to the Earl of Antrim. The dedication told me that the Earl was the Chairman of the National Trust between 1966 and 1977. What it didn’t tell me was that he recognised the importance of preserving our coastline from encroaching development and spearheaded the Enterprise Neptune appeal which led to the purchase of 574 miles of coast saving it for future generations. Golden Cap was one of two coastal sites purchased in his memory after he died.
I reminded myself of the long views from this high, flat-topped hill: to the east across Seatown, Thorncombe Beacon, West Bay and Portland, to the west over Lyme Regis and the wide sweep of Devon coastline, to the north across the Marshwood Vale. Looking down, I saw water skiers carving patterns in the sea surface far below. The sea now seemed so far away that I felt momentarily separated from the rest of the world.
On my return journey, I headed down and slightly inland to the remains of the 13th century chapel at Stanton St. Gabriel. Set in meadowland beneath the western slope of Golden Cap, the derelict, grey stone walls and the porch of the old chapel are all that remain. There is also a cottage nearby and a large building, originally an 18th century manor house, now restored by the National Trust as four holiday apartments. But why was a chapel built in this isolated spot and why is it now derelict? A settlement existed here for many hundreds of years and Stanton St. Gabriel was mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). There was a farming community of about 20 families in the vicinity until the 18th century and this was their chapel but the settlement was abandoned when some people were lured to Bridport to work in the flax and hemp industry. Others may have moved to Morcombelake when the coach road from Charmouth to Bridport along the flank of Stonebarrow Hill was moved away from the settlement to its present route.
The derelict chapel provides a potent reminder of the community that once lived in this isolated but beautiful spot beneath one of west Dorset’s most striking landmarks, Golden Cap.
This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.
Sunny days, long evenings, a barbecue at the beach? Sounds idyllic doesn’t it? But as we light the charcoal , do we ever think about where it comes from? I wanted to know, so I went to Higher Halstock in north Dorset to meet woodsman and charcoal burner, Rick Smith.
From Winyard’s Gap I followed a narrow lane downhill, past woodland and open pasture, between verges full with spring flowers. It was the first noticeably warmer spring day of the year and the low morning sunshine seemed to breathe new life in to the Dorset countryside. At the sign for Winford Rural Workshops I parked and went to look for Rick Smith. I found him leaning over one of his kilns, unloading charcoal in to sacks labelled “British Barbecue Charcoal”.
The origins of charcoal
Most people nowadays know charcoal for the richly glowing fire it creates in their barbeque, but the fuel has a long history and enabled one of mankind’s earliest technologies, the smelting of metals. Charcoal is made by heating wood in a low oxygen atmosphere so that it carbonises but does not burn; moisture and other volatile substances are driven off and eventually the large molecules making up the structure of wood are broken down, leaving the carbon and a little ash. Because charcoal is largely carbon, it burns in the presence of oxygen at a much higher temperature than wood and that’s one reason why it’s good for the barbecue.
The big discovery, several thousand years ago was that not only was a charcoal fire hot enough to melt and work metals but that the fire released pure metals such as copper from their ores. This is smelting, a technology that allowed man to move from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. The same basic technology continued to be used, with charcoal as a fuel, until the beginning of the 18th century when coke took over. Until that time, charcoal was made by skilled itinerant workers, charcoal burners, who lived solitary lives in woods where they could continually oversee their work. The craft of charcoal burning has been revived by a handful of people in Dorset, and Rick Smith is one of these.
Rick showed me the kilns he uses for making charcoal (charcoal burning). These are large metal cylinders about 3 metres in diameter set in to the ground with several ports at ground level that allow air to enter and escape. Each kiln is filled with wood, dried outdoors for a year before use and arranged in the kiln so that air can circulate. The fire is started by pouring lighted charcoal in to the centre of the kiln and the lid is placed loosely on top. Rick watches the fire spread through the wood and once it is uniform, he seals the lid and places chimneys on half the ports to act as flues. Air in the kiln can be regulated through the other ports and kept at a low level so that the wood is carbonised but not burnt. The experienced charcoal burner knows the state of the fire from the colour of the smoke.
The kilns need to be watched carefully throughout this phase of the burn which lasts 12-18 hours, and Rick stays on site in a cabin for the entire period. I wondered how he felt about this commitment.
“It’s part of the job, but anyway, this is an amazing place to be, especially at night” he explained “no noise pollution, no light pollution, just imagine the stars!”
When the colour of the smoke changes from white to blue, Rick knows that the conversion of wood to charcoal is complete; he seals the kiln completely and allows it to cool for another 24 hours. The fuel is then ready to use, a jumble of pieces of charcoal, still retaining the original shape of the wood but now a mosaic of greys, blacks and silvers.
Most of the wood used in Rick’s kilns comes from woodland adjacent to the site. This is ancient semi-natural broadleaf woodland containing mainly blackthorn and hazel, managed by the traditional technique of coppicing where trees are cut to the ground periodically and the stool left to regenerate. New shoots grow vigorously providing they are protected from browsing deer, forming multiple new stems which are ready to be cut again and used for charcoal burning after 7-10 years. Because there is continuous renewal, coppicing is a sustainable process; it also keeps the wood light and airy, encouraging wildlife among the trees and on the woodland floor. When I visited, the woods were a tapestry of bluebells and celandine, birds were singing and bumblebees were feeding from yellow archangel.
Barbecue charcoal – think before you buy
The British love affair with the barbecue consumes a massive 60,000 tons of charcoal each year, 90% of that being imported. Namibia is the UK’s biggest supplier and much of this charcoal is produced under dismal circumstances using illegally harvested trees leading to deforestation and lack of sustainability; working conditions are deplorable and archaic equipment is used causing damage to both the environment and to workers’ health. Major supermarkets buy imported charcoal in bulk to drive down prices but at least they now require that the product bears the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label; this provides some oversight of production methods but the labelling system seems far from watertight. Non FSC charcoal is still imported in to the UK for barbecues and the restaurant trade.
British Barbecue Charcoal, the sort Rick Smith produces, avoids all of these problems: it is produced using sustainable methods that support rather than destroy ancient woodland; it often contains a higher percentage carbon than the imported product so that it burns better and, when you buy locally, carbon emissions from transport are minimal compared with the 5000 mile journey from Namibia. Home-produced charcoal is widely available and buying the local product supports local employment. What could be better?
This year I promised myself I would try to get to know one our early solitary bees. I’d seen them in previous years but I knew there was more to learn so, from early March, I started looking carefully at the flowers in the local community garden, the Leechwell Garden. It was a bit frustrating as spring didn’t seem to know how to get started, rather like a sulky teenager on their way to school. The slow season had its effect on the flowers; there were plenty of primroses and dandelions and some rosemary but the early lungwort, a favourite of my chosen bee, was a bit short on blooms. It didn’t help my mood when a friend phoned to say she had seen one of the bees in a garden in Cornwall.
I had to wait another week after the phone call but eventually I was rewarded. Around lunchtime one sunny but cool March day, I heard a harsh buzz from the direction of some rosemary growing against one of the old stone walls. When I investigated, I saw one of my chosen bees working the disorderly blue-grey flowers, but he saw me coming and promptly flew away. Nevertheless, the spell had been broken and I began to see one or more of the bees each time I visited.
Rosemary and lungwort were their favourites and they moved deftly from bloom to bloom in search of nectar, long tongue often extended in readiness. Pausing to feed each time for a second or so, they emitted an urgent buzz as they moved, sometimes hovering briefly as if to take stock, their wings a pale blur in the sunshine. Despite the rapid staccato movements, I could see that they were roughly the size of a small bumblebee and covered in pale brown hair. Their distinctive, pale facial markings also stood out, reminding me of masked revellers at the Venice carnival.
These were male Hairy-footed Flower Bees (Anthophora plumipes), some of the earliest solitary bees to appear in the UK as winter stumbles slowly away. In this part of Devon, my first sighting was in March, around the time of the Spring Solstice, their presence providing a rather wonderful indicator of the new season. They are partial to lungwort flowers but feed from a wide variety of others. This year I have seen them feeding from banks of rosemary in a seafront garden, from aubretia cascading down an ancient wall and from three cornered leek growing in a long border near the sea. They forage at lower temperatures than many other bees making them important early season pollinators. In a rural setting, they are important pollinators for broad beans.
I tried to photograph them but they were rarely still, moving very quickly, seeming to object when I got too close, hovering in the air and buzzing loudly as if to frighten me away. After some persistence I managed to get a good photo showing their hairy middle legs and feet, celebrated in their name. The photo also shows their subtly marked abdomen with its alternate pale and dark stripes.
By early April, the lungwort was flowering well and the pale brown males were regular visitors to these trumpet-shaped flowers. They were joined by another chunky bee, this one jet-black except for two orange-tan flashes towards their rear. Easily confused with a small bumblebee and surprisingly different from the males, this was the female Hairy-footed Flower Bee. The female bees moved around the flowers as quickly and as edgily as the males, like small mobile black bullets. The splashes of colour come from thick tufts of orange/tan hairs on their back legs. These are their pollen hairs, used for collecting as they visit different flowers. A female with her yellow-loaded pollen hairs is a fine sight at this time of year.
The females were just as sensitive to my presence as the males, displaying a belligerent attitude as they hover and buzz aggressively in mid air. Occasionally they would check me out, hovering and looking, darting to right or left, hovering and looking, sometimes circling right round me. Bumblebees sometimes also take a good look, circling around me, even landing on my sleeve but this is a dialogue whereas my interaction with the Hairy-footed Flower Bee felt more confrontational.
For a few weeks, I saw a mixture of males and females feeding on flowers and it’s surprising how common they are. Occasionally they performed an aerial dance, circling around one another. Sometimes the males were more aggressive, hovering a few centimetres behind a feeding female, buzzing loudly and then pouncing, knocking the female off the flower. Given that the females have usually already mated, this behaviour is counter-productive and wastes valuable female foraging time. Perhaps the males are just hard-wired to behave in this manner as it ensures mating success.
By the third week of April I saw mostly the jet-black females, working hard, busily collecting for their nests, visiting a wide range of flowers. It takes each female about a day to provision one cell with pollen and nectar for the developing egg. Nests tend to be in sunny vertical surfaces such as cliffs, soil banks or holes in soft walls but although there are many old walls in Totnes with loose mortar I haven’t located a nest yet. John Walters wrote a nice description of A. plumipes nests in a soft cob wall near a Devon church. The cob wall offers good nesting conditions so the bees tend to nest in aggregations even though they are solitary bees.
The few males about looked faded and discoloured and noticeably slower than earlier in the season. They play an essential role in the survival of the species but they have mated with the females and are not needed anymore.
My last sighting of these bees was on May 15th. This seemed a little early and I can’t be sure if it reflected the lifetime of the bees or the bees foraging elsewhere. We won’t see the bees again for nine or ten months and the action now switches to the nests where eggs develop in to larvae eventually producing the new bees that will emerge next spring.
The snowdrop is one of the earliest flowers to appear, even in a hard winter. The pure white blooms anticipate the eventual arrival of spring and attract affectionate common names such as February Fair Maids, Dingle-dangle, Candlemas Bells, Mary’s Taper, Snow Piercers and Flowers of Hope. Compton Valence in West Dorset is known for its fine snowdrops so, a few weeks ago, I went to have a look.
The Roman road following the ridge westwards from Dorchester towards Eggardon is comfortingly straight but I had to leave the old road behind; I was looking for the hidden, wooded valley containing the village of Compton Valence. I headed downhill through trees along a steep track lined with creeping ivy and lush ferns and eventually emerged from the tunnel of trees near the village hall and church. A banner hung outside the hall depicting the star of the show and all around me was the real thing: snowdrops growing on grassy roadside banks, by the busy stream, in the churchyard and in cottage gardens, their pure white flowers gleaming in the low winter sunshine of a February morning. Many grew in defined clumps, some merging in to snowy drifts cascading down grassy banks like drippy, white icing on a cake.
At this time of year, the bluish-green leaves are inconspicuous and it is the bell-shaped, pure white flowers that grab our attention. They hang from the stem on a slender green thread or pedicel so that a cool breeze cutting across the valley causes the flowers to shake and dance like revellers at a rave. Most of the blooms in Compton Valence that morning were open, displaying the satisfying geometry of their construction. Three white outer segments, convex and long enough to enfold the flower when closed, grow symmetrically about the centre of the flower. When they open, they splay outwards revealing three shorter inner segments also growing symmetrically but offset so that each inner segment appears between a pair of outers. The inner segments bear distinct external markings, bright green, that might resemble a handlebar moustache or, more prosaically, a small bridge. Internally they are decorated with parallel green stripes, like signposts for any pollinators about at this time of year.
The Compton Valence snowdrops are celebrated each year in February when, for two weeks, the village welcomes visitors by offering teas, coffees and lunches in the village hall. I spoke to Tessa Russell who was in charge that day and she told me that her great uncle Will (William Chick) had encouraged the snowdrops by dividing clumps in nearby woods and planting them along the village street. She and her sisters, Pippa and Sarah have continued dividing and planting so that the flowers we see today are all descendents of the original woodland variety, most likely Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop. The Compton Valence snowdrop celebrations have been running for more than ten years, organised by the three sisters but with invaluable contributions from everyone in the village.
The snowdrop is often considered to be a wild flower in the UK, but there is now general agreement that it was introduced, perhaps by the Normans and that “wild” snowdrops are actually garden escapees. Galanthus (the name coming from the Greek for milk-flower) are native to Europe and the Middle East and are found from Spain in the West to Iran in the East with many species originating in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus. There are 20 distinct species of Galanthus and many different cultivars with recognised characteristics. Snowdrops became fashionable in the UK in the 19th century and it is thought that survivors of the Crimean War brought bulbs back with them. Snowdrop collecting also occurs nowadays and some “Galanthophiles” pay hundreds of pounds for a single rare bulb.
One of the common names for the flowers, Candlemas Bells, hints at their association with the ancient festival of Candlemas (February 2). This was the pre-Christian festival of light celebrating the mid-point of winter, half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and in the early church it came to be the day when candles were blessed. Candlemas also celebrates the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Christ in the temple. The pure white snowdrop seems an ideal flower for these rituals and was cultivated by religious foundations for decoration at Candlemas; it is no accident that many impressive displays of the flower nowadays are near former monasteries, abbeys and churches.
Western European folk medicine makes little mention of the snowdrop and we need to look to Eastern Europe, where the plant is indigenous, for the recognition of its useful properties. Anecdotal reports suggested that peasant women living at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains in the 1950s used preparations of snowdrop as a successful treatment for polio in their children. These and other observations stimulated work on the plant and, in time, an active chemical, galantamine, was isolated by scientists working in Russia. Galantamine was shown to enhance the effects of a natural brain chemical, acetylcholine, and was used in Eastern Europe to treat a variety of neurological and neuromuscular conditions. Further research in the west led to the development of galantamine to treat symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease and it is now a recognised therapy for the disorder.
So, there are many reasons to love snowdrops but I suspect their emergence in the middle of winter, at a time when few other flowers are showing, gives us hope; the seasons are moving onwards, spring will come, the sun will shine …