Of Flowers, Wildernesses and Hauntings

The sounds of puttering families background the first part of my walk today, like a stereo left on – white noise in the street mingling with the birdsong – because it’s the weekend and we are all thumbing our noses at the unpromising sky. It is that species of spring in-between weather when some people throw caution away, donning shorts and short-sleeved tops, and others pass like admonitory puritans in full rain-gear as if to say, these clouds won’t clear. I am somewhere in between, a half-optimist, a hedge-my-bets-ist, with a cardigan and jeans rolled half-way up and pumps on my feet. I disdained an umbrella and a watch on setting out, a decision I’ll probably regret, even if it was made in the spirit of freedom from constraint. Largely oblivious to the surrounding sounds of humanity beside, behind and in front of me, I have my nose folded into a book on wild flowers, resolving to find them all out in their haunts, until a fretful child complains loudly at a sudden shower and a beleaguered father, weariness in his step, consoles with the magic words we will go home. Not I. The rain invokes the latent metallic tang of the soil from the ground and I am overtaken by a pall of warm, wet, mineral mist. This may be as good as it gets today and I am eager to collapse into it.

The search for wild flowers, taken at face value, sounds romantic and a little frivolous; a remnant of a very Victorian manufactured chivalry, or that dreamed up in the musical Camelot when Arthur earnestly explains the legitimacy of flower-gathering to Lancelot, as though checking through some form of ‘Chivalry Calendar’ where it is written next to May/June, in large gothic typeface, disport thyself with finding wild flowers and garland thy lady therewith. I am for looking, not picking today. The right to gather flowers was one of many time-out-of-mind rights hotly contested in the late Victorian period between the rural working classes and landowners. Enclosure of much formerly common land made the picking of flowers, from which a whole folklore including country songs, herb lore and courtship rituals stemmed, a tradition soon to be lost. Since then I wonder how many of us really see wildflowers: the bit of wild on our doorsteps. Too many are prosaically classed as mere weeds, their former uses forgotten. I am come today to see how my native patch is enlivened by wildflowers; as I say, not to pick, for I prefer my wildness left where it is, though my intentions are indeed acquisitive. I mean to put names to them, to assemble each different one into an imaginary bouquet, collect them up, and write them onto the page; to better learn them so as to know them when I see them again. I am determined to become a noticer of all nature’s ‘nothings’, and to build a deeper connection through noticing. After all, a flower’s honest intention and design is to be noticed, simply in order for pollination to take place. And if, as Marvell claimed, the ‘industrious bee computes his time as well as we’, then perhaps I might just as well spend a little of my time over flowers.

Casting myself adrift, then, into the flower banks of Shipley glen, between the canal and the river, I am in no great hurry, and I look – really look – at every flower, like a pollen-stockinged bee myself, deciding where to land a glance, stick my nose, or linger. I am delighted and thrill-drunk when I match them to their names. To confer names is a serious business, an act of creation, as Brian Friel understood when he wrote, “We name a thing and – bang! – it leaps into existence.” There are the flowers I already have names for – yellow water iris, poppy, forget-me-not, cow-parsley – but then there are the new discoveries along the way: tiny, bright yellow purses of the kidney vetch by the side of the water, the true blue of the crane’s bill, clovers in two colours. So engrossed in my examinations am I that I startle three mallards sheltering under the bank who skitter and flank together with a splash as I return guiltily to the safety of the path. Even the outrage of mallards cannot stop me from continuing my searches however. Flourishing on an overgrown soil heap, there’s the wild pink geranium, herb-robert, that some call storksbill because its forming bud is beaky. Its flowers are unshowy and unfussed by my regard: tiny-veined, five-petaled faces lift up lively to the sky; its stems flushed red under the sun. It was believed once to be a good luck charm and a fertility herb. Hopeful country wives had it tucked under their pillows, their heads laying down wishes on top of it. Now that we’ve been formally introduced, I begin to see it cropping up everywhere, a sort of guide to my walk today, as though vouchsafing my passage.

Well into the thick of the meadow are the brute stems of the hogweed, supporting flower heads as big as dinner plates, swaying heavily, and looking like they’ll bend or break in the breeze. I clamber ungainly into their midst in tick-fearing perhapses of footsteps as if at every step a nettle might hold me to ransom over a sting. I will NOT be stung, the soles of my feet insist quietly, caution in their presses. Nettles too have their flowers though: little woolly skeins of green. And though irksome to us, 40 different varieties of insect, winged and carapaced, depend on this prickly pest plant, including the red admiral butterfly, and a host of moths. A scattering of heart-shaped leaves is prevalent under the hogweed: black bindweed that some call buckwheat is leading a merry dance and you have to look hard to see where it has snaked the stems of other plants. Some call it devil’s tether, swaddling itself and other plants tight together. A closer look confirms it has made a pact with the nettle; it is growing up its stems, neatly corkscrewing them in black, and proffers its counterfeiting leaves so I maybe won’t see the stinging set beneath. How clever of them to fall in together at such a trick. Just in case of mishap, I find a patch of dock leaves close by for a swift remedy. Nature is astute like this.

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The next flower-bearer I almost miss, as it so eagerly blends into the general green – this suits its purpose, you see. Sticky goosegrass – or cleavers, catchweed, stickeljack or grip grass (apt-sounding names) – barbs my hands and arms as I take hold of it to find its white pin-prick flowers. I was careful of the nettle, for I knew the risks, but no one ever told me of the rash goosegrass can give. Red itch blooms over my arms and (somehow) my neck and I am defeated in spite of myself, splotchy and needled by heat. A lesson learned. The goosegrass has swallowed the low-lying branches of an ash and is making quick work of the willowherb underfoot, sticking to it tenaciously by virtue of its tiny hooks under leaf and along stem. Its flowers are, according to my book, ‘rather insignificant’ and no bigger than a dot; but it’s as well not to dismiss this busy worker. So rapacious is it, I can almost see it move, trying to muffle and stifle everything in its path like a super-animated cobweb that needs no spider to direct it. It is the swiftest and most adamant at reclaiming land for nature; butting in and talking over its neighbours, running as fast as its prattle will take it. No wonder its flowers are so small; all that energy goes into throwing out streamers, which feel along other plants like scouts going ahead into battle, the forerunners on a quest to colonise more and more green. The thing that all these plants have in common is that they are most often to be found in waste places or places whose cultivation has been suspended. Humanity moves out and these plants move in as speedily as they can, bringing a bit of wildness to suburban fringes.

I sit down by a gurgling swell of the stream – an Aire river tributary – to eat my lunch of bread and cheese and cherries and to let my bare toes burrow into grass and sandy soil, needing the contact with the earth. My bottom is quickly wet from the earlier shower but I don’t mind as, with illicit pleasure, I cast my cherry stones into the stream to be taken where the water wills. A pitter patter of rain starts up again, steadily getting heavier, so I remove myself to the cover of a sycamore, generous-leaved and obliging, still listening to the water running over stones in hollow-sounding plunks. Coming from farther away, I can hear the disturbance of the weir like a knife upsetting the river, giving it drama and something to complain over. Then a child splashing about happily with his father, singing, ‘rain, rain, go away, come again another day.’ My lips curve in a sickle moon of delight.

When the rain slackens off and the sun shows itself, I take the little road by the boat club with no clear idea of where I am headed, only knowing that I have exhausted the flower-spotting down by the river and wondering what the side of the valley might reveal. The road leads to a gate and then a wide avenue, which is sun-speckled, warming, fly-moted and rich with the smell of cows from the adjacent field. Manure and hairy hides baking in the emergent sun all mingle together and I breathe deep. This is a Thomas Hardy smell and my mind hooks onto images of hot, milky summers in lowland pastures. Brow pressed against a warm cow side as milk fizzes into a bucket. A blackbird capers madly across the road at my coming looking a little chastened and indignant (and, it must be said, a little silly) at being disturbed. Couples of them begin to sing to one another from the horse chestnut trees, ending in high-noted questions that never seem to get answered, going round and round in endless enquiry. I am jealous of them: jealous that I did not find this avenue in the early spring when the trees had their spires of scented blossoms, all running in a perfumed line. I hug the field boundary here and, warily now, spot the goosegrass again, this time enacting one of its other names, robin-run-the-hedge, as it makes quick work of enveloping the holly margin, covering it up in its sticky stems like a lover that won’t let go.

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The sun is tucking and untucking itself in the clouds and can’t seem to make up its mind whether to partner me the rest of the way. Its aloofness pricks my determination to enjoy myself as I pick my path over stone, pressed through long use into the clods, and pause by a hawthorn tree. I hear a start in the ivied roots here and wonder. A vole? Mouse? Stoat? Rabbit? But none of these appear. A pair of tiny wrens suddenly emerge, each no bigger than a thumb, nut-brown and spotted, very dear. Miniature delights. In birders’ terms they weigh no more than a pound coin, but I would not put so low a price on them. Tremblingly they sing as though they are putting their whole souls into the thing and I stop to listen, and watch them bob their tails. The field where the cows are grazing seems hazed and full of possibility as I look out over it and I take in a glad breath as the path starts to build ground. Further on, a squirrel and I surprise each other equally and hold each other’s gazes, mine looking into its eye glittering darkly from where it sits frozen on top of the wall. It is a strange feeling, knowing that for this instant its whole little being is fixed entirely on me and mine on it. There is a little stand-off, but the squirrel is the first to break contact and back-track disappearing who knows where. It is uphill work and tiring, come on legs, and I keep looking ahead to gauge the distance still to go until I reach my summit and the limit of the path.

I do not expect what I find next – a full-stop at the top of this little lane. A gate – but so curious a gate – leading on into Fairbank Wood, a patch of woodland awkwardly situated between boundary walls of various kinds, each jutting out at degrees to clasp and hold the wood between them. This gate looks more fitted to being in one of the royal parks in London than bracketing the way to a scrap of woodland off a farm lane. As strange as Lucy coming upon the lamppost in Narnia, I think to myself. And, with six golden sceptres at the heads of the iron posts, it is grandiose and out of place: a relic from something else, and here my mind catches at a truth as it turns out. I later learn this all used to be part of the Milner Field Estate at the heart of which, at the heart of the wood, was a gothic-steepled great-house owned by Titus Salt, mill owner and founder of Saltaire, and his son. It seems it was an unhappy house which, rumour has it, blighted those who lived there with strange and unusual deaths or persistent bad luck. Fortunes lost, sudden heart attacks, drowning, scandal, blood poisoning from a thorn scratch. Queer happenings, made the more uncanny by being focused in one place. Now I know a little of its history, I wonder if there is such a thing as genius loci: if a place really does have a spirit or a memory.

I pass through the gate onto what looks like an old carriage way with a central three-cobbled line snaking it like a back bone. And occasionally a row of stones cuts across the way to carry off flood water through little culverts spaced at intervals along the base of the dry stone wall. The astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term ‘Big Bang’ to describe that primary cosmological shock, grew up near here in Gilstead during the First World War, in the lea of that sad house, and wrote of how he and the other village children used to squeeze themselves through these culverts to sneak onto the estate, only to be caught and have their hides tanned by gamekeepers. The woodland floor shows no signs of upkeep now, having given way to ground elder in advancing militias. Hollow-stemmed, deep-rooted, intractable – the devil in a garden. It’s another sort of wilderness here, but this time the kind that follows tacit abandonment. The house, apparently, could not be sold at auction – no one would buy it – and so was dynamite-blasted in the 1950s. Then demolition gangs were sent in to finish dismantling it, leaving the stone as a resource for mill repairs. This ‘undoing’ of the house speaks for itself, for it was very splendid in its hay day and entertained royalty twice. Now only rubble remains. The woodland has completely taken it back: the goosegrass, bindweed and elder all smothering the persisting stones into silence. It has returned to nature and, my superstitious thought supplies, perhaps does not look kindly on interlopers. The mosaic floor of the conservatory is still discoverable in the middle of the wood, and lying under the fast-growing trees are the old cellars, ivied over and moss-grown. Little snatches of herb-robert grow in the cracks of the old garden steps; or to give it its common name, death-come-quickly.

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Sparable or Sparrow’s Bill Lane, wall-sided and tree-shaded, leads off on the left here – a public right of way, still tramped by walkers’ feet, the sign pointing the direction proving that it’s not forgotten. An old labourer’s path perhaps; a shortcut for the estate workers from whence they could hear the ringing of the mill’s shift bell; a trysting place for lovers after the Sunday service. To walk it is to walk into history, treading where so many other feet have trod before. Two Neolithic-looking stones guard its entrance, though in truth they can be no more than 200 years old: they keep the way. Walking it now, I am helping to keep it too, and in a split-second of kinship with other walkers, and other writers of walking, feeling the pound to ground as a great leveller of humanity, I smile and am eager to dive off into the lane to see where it might take me. Half an hour later, wearied, still rash-prickled and now a little fretful, I have been sucked down into twists and turns until I am disorientated and no longer know my bearings or the direction for home. The path draws me in a noose more tightly around the former estate and there is a closeness on it and a feeling of needing to get on that I don’t investigate too carefully. The tree cover breaks at last and it’s like coming up for air, a brief caesura in the chug of mud and close-cropped ivy and stumbling stones. This is where Fred Hoyle used to take himself off for his gambols to spot birds’ nests; where, at the age of seven, he overcame his fear of the dark by making himself walk this track at dead of night as others had done before him. One of the most renowned astronomers in the history of the discipline, he perhaps first sighted the stars from a clearing such as this, quaking a little at night terrors and sinister shadows, as I quake a little with having been turned about in the wood in the broadness of day. And I glance up through the veined tracery of tree branches and leaves at a liquid sky, above which the stars wait invisibly.

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