|Cowley Marsh Park, near Oxford, April 2017
The park is hidden from the main road by a single row of houses, because – and the name is in the clue – it’s too marshy to build on. In the days when Cowley was more important than Oxford, there was no road between them, only a marshy causeway. In one corner of the park are tennis and volleyball courts next to a grassy patch, overlooked by a blackberry hedge. I have seen a deer sipping from the brook behind the hedge and I once saw a kingfisher flash up it from the River Thames a mile away.
This week the patch is full of cowslips (primular veris), one of Britain’s loveliest native species. The flowers are deep yellow and grow in nodding clusters on stalks about 6 inches high. The leaves are oval, crinkled and less downy than those of its cousin, the primrose. The cowslip probably gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon cu-sloppe, or cow pats, also in the meadows where they grew. The scent of the flowers has the warm milky aroma of cow’s breath or a young baby. Other common names include peggle, key flower, key of heaven, fairy cups, petty mulleins, palsywort, plumrocks, tittypines and my favourite, tisty-tosties.
|Britain's native flower, the Cowslip or primula veris
Celtic druids used the plant in their magical potions. Shakespeare mentioned cowslips in eight of his plays: Ariel in The Tempest sings to Prospero, ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I. In a cowslip’s bell I lie.’ In the first scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy that meets Puck says that she is off to ‘hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear...' The English botanist Nicholas Culpeper ( 1616-1654) wrote in his Complete Herbal that drinking the distilled water from an infusion of cowslip would make anyone more beautiful. Infusions of flowers were used to treat headaches, feverish chills, or head colds. Tinctures helped insomnia, anxiety, or over-excitement. Ointment was used on sunburn and skin blemishes. Massage oil treated nerve pain, migraine headaches and arthritis. The root was anti-inflammatory and helped to clear stubborn phlegm, especially during chronic bronchitis. Cowslip flowers and leaves have traditionally been used in salads, country wine and vinegars. British writer Alison Uttley (1884 – 1976) described her childhood when cowslips were made into 'sparkling yellow wine' which was ‘more precious than elderberry wine’ and then offered to important 'morning visitors' such as the curate and the local squire.
|These Cowley schoolchildren in 1912 would have picked cowslips
In the early 20th century, on ‘Cowslip Sunday’ country children sold bunches of cowslips to day trippers from cities. Fifty years later Susan Telfer recalled a family picnic to Chingford Plain in Epping Forest, on the edge of London. ‘There was a dense mass of holidaymakers like ourselves escaping the dirt and grime of East London. We found a solitary cowslip. We encamped and my grandmother sat by the flower all day with it covered by a paper bag to prevent anyone else noticing it. We left that evening with that one flower still intact, hoping it would survive at least until the next weekend.’ There are still a few in Epping Forest, now carefully protected.
According to the Wildlife Trust 'Formerly a common plant of traditional meadows, ancient woodlands and hedgerows ...the loss of these habitats to the advancement of agriculture caused a serious decline in cowslip populations and now fields coloured bright yellow with the nodding heads of Cowslips are a rare sight. As a result of agricultural intensification, more than 95% of our wildflower meadows have been lost.' Urban development and the habit of ‘tidying up’ grassland with herbicides, fertilizers and mowing have not helped either.
Next to the cowslips of Cowley Marsh Park and screened by a row of leylandii cypress trees, is the Oxford City Council depot where concrete paving slabs, gritting lorries, and rubbish trucks are kept. Now the council are planning to extend their depot to smother the cowslip meadow. The application, number 17/00617/CT3, claims that the area is ' vacant', that it has ' little amenity value' and has been left 'untended'. Apparently there are no 'protected or priority species' of plants or animals or 'important habitats' on the land or nearby; even though only two years ago 27 species of flowering plants and 37 species of insects were identified in this area. According to the council’s ‘Arboricultural Assessment’, a council depot surrounded by a wire fence topped with barbed wire is 'more aesthetically pleasing' than a vital recreation area of biodiversity. Under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act it is illegal to uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier. Who owns a public park? Who occupies it? This is a question that goes right back to 'the commotion times' of Kett’s Rebellion of 1549 and the Oxfordshire Rising in 1596, which were both against land enclosures.
|Children playing in Cowley Marsh brook, by Henry Taunt 1914.
Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council Ref:HT11830
|Marsh Road Council Depot this week - the cowslip meadow could look like this soon.
|Robert Kett and his rebels try to negotiate land enclosures outside Norwich in 1549
It is ironic that the Cowley Marsh application is pending just when the cowslips are in full glorious flower. Cowslips were once as abundant as buttercups. But like sparrows and dandelions, without care and attention from all of us, they may all disappear. You don’t have to live in Oxford to comment on plans to destroy this little patch of nature. Go to Oxford City Council Planning Applications before 18 May.
Don’t let cowslips become history.
Don’t let cowslips become history.