“No life is so charming as a country one in England, and no flowers are sweeter or more lovely than the primroses, cowslips, bluebells, and violets that grow in abundance all around me here.” ~ Marianne North
Like many of my fellow Americans I have long been a devotee of British period dramas, but while scores of women’s hearts raced at the sight of Colin Firth jumping into a murky pond and emerging with his white shirt plastered to his frame, my eyes were glued to the stunning scenery in which all the action was taking place. Others might swoon at Mr. Darcy in his tight breeches; I swooned at any sign of a bluebell wood.
“Someday,” I declared to anyone who would listen (there weren’t many), “someday I am going to England in the springtime and I am going to walk in a bluebell wood.”
I must admit that bluebells became something of a fleeting dream for me because the only times I ever managed to find myself in England were in the autumn when there is nary a bluebell in sight. If you want to see bluebells you must time your visit toward the end of April or early May, for the season is spectacular but brief.
My mother and I tried to replicate a bluebell wood of our own. We discovered a mail order flower company based in Connecticut that sold what they called authentic English bluebells guaranteed to spread out and form the impressive blue carpet we so fervently desired. My more practical mother warned that our climate in Eastern Washington was hardly that of England, and it wasn’t likely they would fare as well with our hot, dry summers and harsh, cold winters. Still, ever the hopeful optimists where plants are concerned, we placed an order and planted them according to the instructions.
Defying the odds, our little bluebells did well. They survived the summers of blistering heat and the winters of snow and ice, and every spring they reappeared in the shady corner by the rose arbour – a small, brave clump of lush, fragrant blue. But they never spread. They never formed the carpet that we drooled over in our favourite period dramas. It was as if all their energies were spent on survival with nothing left over for conquest.
When I first moved to England it was mid-July, nearly four years ago. My eyes gobbled up the scenery of the beautiful countryside that surrounds our village, and I never got tired of the rolling hills, the hedgerows surrounding the fields, the dense patches of woods dotted here and there. After twenty years of living in an area where tumbleweeds blew down the roads and dust storms occasionally forced road closures due to lack of visibility, it was like having my eyes cleaned and washed by a superabundance of green.
However, as much as I enjoyed each season, the exuberant heat of summer, the blazing glory of autumn, the sharp frosts of winter, in my heart I was secretly pining for spring – my first spring in England. Oh, I couldn’t wait! Would there be a bluebell wood near us that we could walk to just like characters in a Jane Austen movie adaptation? I could play Lizzie and Mr. H could stomp around looking down his nose at everything and doing his best Mr. Darcy impersonation (though I’ve often thought of Mr. H as more of a Captain Wentworth type).
Spring came, and in all our local explorations we never happened upon bluebells in our immediate vicinity, but fear not. For our first anniversary Mr. H took me down to Cornwall (See “We Were Happy Here”). There, as we walked along the Southwest Coast Path between Tintagel and Boscastle, we rounded a bend and beheld a vision of glory. A riot of pink campions and bluebells advanced down the steep hillside toward the sea below, their radiant colours standing out in bold contrast to the intense green of the surrounding grass and the blue of the water and sky. The sight took my breath away. All I could do was turn to look at Mr. H with a goofy grin on my face, too overcome with the aching beauty of the scene to say more than, “Wow!”
Yes, my eloquence can always be counted on when the need arises.
For the past few springs we have visited a number of English country homes and gardens that boasted some impressive bluebell woods – Lanhydrock in Cornwall and Bowood Woodland Garden just down the road from us to name two – and we even discovered a fenced off bluebell wood during one of our cycling expeditions, but the wonder of a bluebell wood which we could walk to from our front door eluded us…until this spring.
One of the advantages of having an energetic, friendly young dog is that it forces you to get out for many walks, and other dog walkers stop and chat with you. It was this past April, while Jethro was racing around making friends with a giant otterhound several times larger than he was that I was guided to our local bluebell wood by the hound’s owner.
“It’s a lovely walk this time of year,” she told me. “The primroses are just finishing up, but the bluebells are taking over and are beautiful.”
That weekend Mr. H and I set out with little Jethro to follow the path, the little known path that had been there all this time that we never knew about. Shall I take you on that walk with us? It isn’t very far, so come along and experience it with us, as it was that first morning.
It starts out right at the end of our street. Up a wild, overgrown pasture dotted with hawthorn bushes and edged with blackberry brambles till we came to a stream at the top, which we crossed, then walked parallel to until we crossed it again. We entered a cool, dark copse along the stream where Jethro raced ahead of us down the narrow path. The path emerged into bright sunlight to skirt the edge of a field, then plunged back across the winding stream into a narrow, shaded valley edged on both sides with steep banks overgrown with trees, and there – in their shadow – the first bluebells.
“Look, there they are,” with his eagle eyes Captain Wentworth – I mean, Mr. H – had spotted them first.
It was enough. I had found them at last, bluebells within walking distance of home – my own private hoard to gloat over each spring.
We walked along the narrow grassy path. The stream flowed below us on the right, hidden from view by a dangerous overgrowth of brambles and stinging nettles. Jethro was off the lead and racing ahead of us, then falling back and having to fire the afterburners to catch up. It was a heady experience for a young corgi enjoying his first taste of freedom. There were just the three of us walking in this quiet valley, enveloped in a hidden world. Civilization was never far away, but we felt removed and secluded from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. At the end of our quiet valley we came across a stile at the corner of a cultivated field which led into a deep, dark wood. The path plunged steeply downhill to the flat, boggy bottom below.
Standing in the woods on that warm April morning was like nothing I have ever experienced before. This was not a cultivated garden on a grand estate. This was real. This was wild. This was how these woods must have been for hundreds, thousands of years.
The light in the beech wood as it filtered down through the new growth danced and wavered with an almost undersea quality. The pale trunks rose high above our heads before any side branches emerged, creating a lofty canopy. Clinging vines snaked their way up some of the trees, entirely engulfing a few. Small patches of wild red currant sent spindly arms up toward the light, and on some we already glimpsed tiny fruit beginning to form.
Overhead could be heard a steady chorus of birdsong such as could far out shine the greatest symphony man has ever written. The songs of blackbirds, chaffinches and others I could never identify blended in melodious harmony, with the strident croaks and caws of a colony of rooks creating a steady percussion. Off in the distance we heard the occasional drumbeat from a woodpecker, and nearby came the startling snap of a broken twig. Peering through the trees we caught a glimpse of two deer picking their delicate way up the far slope.
Underneath and all around us were bluebells. We stood in an ocean of blue and green. The fragrance was a lighter, more delicate version of the robust scent of hyacinth blossoms. The flowers themselves were exquisite, with the bells drooping gracefully from their stems. The abundance of beauty, tucked away, as it were, in quiet majesty, was a wonder to behold. It was pure, serene, breath-taking, awe inspiring. It was perfection. And it was just a short walk from our home.
This morning, on a day which promises to be the hottest one of the year so far here in England, Jethro and I took another woodland walk, enjoying the cool morning air and shade among the trees. The bluebells have faded, replaced by a froth of white cow parsley. In spite of its prosaic name, cow parsley has an intricate lacy flower finer than the most expertly crafted Bruges lace. In a sunbeam two speckled brown butterflies danced an upward spiral. At the corner of a field by home I saw the first blackberry blossoms beginning to open. Back at home the blackbirds had fledged a new youngster. It was sitting on my back fence, puffed up and bewildered like a newly crowned sultan. The glories of early spring have passed, replaced by the abundance of summer’s bounty.
The bluebell season is a short one, but once experienced it is something to look forward to, reflect back upon, and savour – as are all the beauties of each season as they unfold.