Saturday 8 April 2023

Windflowers on the Downs 8th April 2023

I took the track that curves away into the downland and gently rises through a narrow valley with the promise of more severe gradients further on that will require a greater physical effort to achieve the bow backed tops of the downs.

The exposed earth of the track is suffused with underlying chalk, turning it to a grey marl, that after the recent rain has become soft and cloying.The track has deep ruts on either side of a flat central strip of threadbare grass. Farm machinery has scoured the ruts ever deeper and now they are brimming with opaque, muddied grey water. 

This rutted passage to higher, drier ground is flanked on each side by hazel trees that have recently been coppiced by some unknown hand, the cut poles lying in neat bundles by the track awaiting collection. The absence of anyone on this particular day but with clear evidence that conservation work is underway serves to accentuate the sense of quiet and solitude.It comes as a relief to not find anyone here but with ample evidence of their earlier presence I am needlessly fearful I may meet someone to break the spell.

Behind the  coppiced hazels, on steep slopes, hawthorn scrub holds sway, punctuated with the occasional froth of a flowering blackthorn tree, a shock of white amongst the dark bare branches of the hawthorns, hardly yet beginning to turn green.

It is quiet here, although  never truly silent for this is the commencement of springtime  so there is birdsong. A Corn Bunting, as dull in plumage as its surroundings, repeats its unremarkable song at regular intervals, a trickling jingle of notes, like tossing coins in a trouser pocket. A Chiffchaff's metronomic two note song rings out. Stray patches of daffodils have risen from the marl.They are not truly wild but evidence of discarded cultivated bulbs that have somehow fallen by the wayside and defied the odds to root and throw up their yellow flowers for a few brief days of defiance before sinking back into anonymity.

After a quarter of a mile the track reaches a more open area as the contours of the downland move asunder, the slope to my left consisting of short  cropped grass, evidence of its earlier occupation by sheep; the slope to my right irregularly stained with dark green stands of juniper bushes in which blackbirds hide and thrillingly but rarely are joined by their montane cousin the Ring Ouzel, resting on its migration from north Africa to northern areas of England and further still.

Passing through a wooden gate, a sign tells me I am on a permissive path. I begin to ascend the scarp face to my left, pitted with the excavations of rabbits, that rises precipatively upwards to a sky of azure blue. Birds are scarce here and require searching out but today there are two female wheatears, bouncing from mossy clumps, flirting their black and white tails.They too are only taking a temporary pause before heading northwards, probably tonight, for it will be cloudless and the moon and stars will be their compass.

Half way up the slope a Red Kite passes close to me at eye level, the kite looking for maybe a dead rabbit to scavenge.Its long forked tail swings as a rudder and steers it away from me and out over the shallow valley to glide along the further side.

I climb a few metres higher in search of a very rare flower,  the purpose of my visit. My legs are wearied from the steep climb and the effort required. Resting  I look upwards to the ground rising before me, feeling slight vertigo on the steep angle of the slope and there, low in the grass, just an inch or two above the sward, is the justification for my effort. A Pasque Flower. 

Their other name is windflower as they only grow on limestone grasslands or  exposed windswept chalk such as here.They are only now coming into flower, tradition having it that they come into bloom on Good Friday, and reflected in their name which comes from the ancient greek word paschal meaning 'of Passover or Easter'. Each flower is a velvety blue or purple with a bright yellow orb of stamens at its centre, the large flower held on a single, anenome like, furry stem, extending  an inch or two only from a cushion of feathery, grey green leaves.

They are very much endangered and now virtually exclusively found in only five protected places and here is one of those, where, protected, they persist every spring, the blooms contriving to thrive on this lonely slope, a reassuring but perilous affirmation of the promise of Spring's rejuvenation.  

I sit with them, almost as a protective friend and feel an inner peace and comfort in their mute company.

The sun shines down as I look out over the valley below me to the distant folds and contours of the downs while blackbirds, just like those in Edward Thomas's famous poem Adlestrop, sing laconically in the valley below, one close, to be answered by another beyond and then another yet further. A succession of blackbird song fading  into the distance. Lying on the short springy turf and lulled by the  singing birds I drift into sleep.

Waking after a few minutes I am reluctant to leave.I like this place of natural quiet.A place to be alone and unafraid of one's innermost thoughts. I turn once more to the Pasque Flowers, their faces turned to the sun.One more reverential look at their simple beauty and I descend the slope.

I will return next year and we will meet again, both intent on rejuvenation.

No comments:

Post a Comment