Friday 24 April 2020

A walk in the woods: Sue Purkiss

Ironically, the beginning of the lockdown coincided with the beginning of spring - and with a spell of glorious sunny weather. I'm lucky enough to live on the slopes of the Mendip Hills, with the double bonus of a large garden, so I've been able to enjoy it: I know that many haven't.

I always love spring. Winters seem increasingly dreary, and so once the first crocus appears, I breathe a deep sigh of relief in the knowledge that the days are beginning to lengthen and life is about to begin again. So this year, as the lockdown began, I decided to post each day on Facebook a picture, usually of a flower, either from the garden or from my morning walk, to remind myself and others that life goes on and spring keeps on springing - it sounds trite, but I think this year in particular it's a useful message to hear.

Blackthorn blossom

A side effect has been that I've taken much more notice of what I'm seeing. I think, quite frankly, that I'm a bit dozy, and that any normal person would have noticed these things years ago. For instance, I've finally discovered the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn: with blackthorn, the blossom comes before the leaves, so it's much earlier. Hawthorn blossom comes after the leaves - now, in fact.

I've also noticed far more places on our hill where bluebells grow - I've always thought they were a rarity, but not so; if you only look, they're all over the place. But this is not the case with primroses. I've noticed in previous years that they're few and far between, and this was still the case this spring. One day, as I ambled through the wood, I wondered why this should be so. On Exmoor a couple of years ago we walked along the River Barle, and primroses were everywere along the river edge.

And that made me think of rivers. The Mendip countryside has so much, but it doesn't have rivers like the Barle on Exmoor or the Dwyfor in North Wales. And that must be at least in part because the Mendips are made of porous limestone - so the water sinks down underground, and that's where it spends much of its time, meandering through caves and 'caverns measureless to man' (thank you, Coleridge), before it emerges at, for example, the bottom of Cheddar Gorge or in the gardens of the Bishop's Palace in Wells.

Cheddar Gorge

So, still wandering through the woods with an eye out for primroses, I started to think about that. And it struck me that this geological circumstance has had an enormous part to play in the settlement and history of this area. Cheddar Gorge itself, for instance. (With a little research, I've found out more about how its actual formation was due not just to glaciation but to the limesone - but stay with me here, I'm still back in the wood, just thinking.) The underwater rivers created the caves, which were to be used by people at least 9000 years ago: one of them was famously buried there, and his skeleton is now in the British Museum; astonishingly, one of his direct descendants still lives in Cheddar. The skulls of others, more disturbingly, have marks on them which suggest cannibalism. So presumably the caves played a part in the origin of Cheddar as a settlement; they must have been a place of safety. (Well, except, obviously, if you were the original owner of one of the cannibalised skulls.)

The reconstructed face of the ancient skeleton, and his modern descendant, Adrian Targett - who, very fittingly, is a retired history teacher.

And then there's Wells, which must have a claim to being one of the smallest, but most beautiful cities anywhere. There is something special about Wells. I'm not particularly spiritual - you won't catch me in a druidical cloak or a goddess's garland - but when I go to Wells, it makes me feel better. I don't know why, but it does. Very noticeably.

Water in the Bishops' Palace Gardens

And perhaps Wells is actually there because, thousands of years ago, people came across the three wells where water emerges from its long journey underground, anmd thought that here was something that was not only useful, but also magical. Those wells still exist; one is in the market place, the other two are in the grounds of the cathedral, nor the Bishop's Palace Gardens. Because of them, the city is where it is; because of them, it became a spiritual centre where eventually one of the loveliest cathdrals in Britain was built. And now, those wells form the centrepiece of an enchanting garden, which provides pleasure and spiritual sustenance to those who visit it. At the moment, of course, there are no visitors. Its springtime glory - the banks by the moat sprinkled with cyclamen, narcissi, crocuses and primroses; the tulips in the quiet garden; the snowdrops, bluebells and orchids in the orchard - they're all still blooming, of course, but not, this year, for us.

So where am I going on this ramble? Well, first, the extent to which the geography of a place shapes its subsequent history has never been so clear to me. It should have been; there's nothing remotely new about what I'm saying, and I'm sure that somewhere, a geography teacher is sighing in despair.

And secondly - forgive me for stating the obvious. But perhaps nothing makes you quite so aware of something as when there is a possibility that you might lose it. Perhaps this awful pandemic will be a wake-up call. Perhaps this closer relationship with nature which many of us have experienced -  whether it leads to a discovery of the blindingly obvious or to people making pesto from wild garlic -  will have an effect, long after the pandemic is over. Perhaps we will become more careful stewards of this extraordinary world.

Hope so.


Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

What a lovely post and beautiful photographs, Sue. Nature has really come into its own this Spring and in these circumstances. I particularly like the photo of the blackthorn blossom and you have taught me the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn! Thank you. Caroline

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks so much, Caroline - must admit, I was very chuffed to have figured out the difference after all these years!

Susan Price said...

Lovely piece, Sue. You live in a fascinating part of the world -- I should visit Wells again. One of my great-great grandfathers was a stone-mason there, which gives me an additional interest.

Sue Purkiss said...

You definitely should. They sometimes have workshops in stone carving there...

Joan Lennon said...

Lovely ramble - thanks, Sue!

Lesley Downer said...

Thank you for taking us on this lovely walk through woods and fields and to Wells, Sue! You've made me feel a little as if I've been to these places - I feel quite refreshed! - and made me determined to go to Wells, where I've never been, when we are safely out of isolation. Lesley

Celia Rees said...

Hi Sue, You are so lucky to live in such a beautiful place and thank you for posting your photos of the Spring on Facebook. I've been taking walks every day, too, and noticing how the Spring is unfolding. The trees coming out into full leaf and just today the hawthorn finally coming into blossom. It takes something like this to make us notice the beauty that is all around us. Thank you for your lovely post!

Sue Purkiss said...

That's very kind, Celia - thank you!

Ann Turnbull said...

My third and final attempt to post! Thank you, Sue!!

Ann Turnbull said...

At last - it worked! It really is a lovely, thought-provoking post, and well worth trying three times to say so.