The prettiest ‘snake’ you’ll ever see

One and a half million of them and not a forked tongue in sight, thankfully. The snake’s head fritillary flower is nationally rare but 80% of what’s left in the UK grows in North Meadow, a national nature reserve at Cricklade near Cirencester. OK, I have to admit that this is nowhere near Stroud. Yes, yes, OK, I admit it’s not even in Gloucestershire but just over the border in Wiltshire. However, this spring spectacle is worth the 45 minute drive from Stroud – there really are hardly any other places in the country to see this and at least one and a half million of them really do flower every year in the meadow. Plus, the best bit is that you’re literally inches away from the flowers as the footpath takes you through the middle of this floral exuberance.

The snake’s head fritillary is in the lily family, and most of the flowers are a deep purple colour with about 10% of the population pure white. The ‘snakes head’ bit of the name refers to the shape of the flower bud and also the chequered pattern on the flowers which resemble overlapping scales on snake’s skin (with a bit of imagination). It has lots of other names: chequered lily, deadman’s bell, leper’s lily, sulky lady, shy widows, and crowcups are some of them. It’s also been called wild tulip. Up until the 1970s, it was found in hundreds of places around the UK and it seems that villages gave it their own name.

Fritillaries have an incredible way of attracting bees to pollinate their flowers. They burn sugar inside the flower so they can emit a near infra-red light glow when the flower is at its most fertile. The inner part of the flower also emits ultra-violet light and bees can see both of these types of light. Woah! That’s almost science-fiction! Fortunately, the flower doesn’t grow taller than 50 cm so there’s no danger of a repeat performance of the Little Shop of Horrors (go see this musical if you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s great fun).

Why has it disappeared? The old types of water meadow which were perfect places for fritillaries to flourish have been drained or developed. North Meadow is one of a handful of these meadows that still remain and it’s now a national nature reserve, owned by the conservation body, English Nature, which manages and protects it.

There used to be thousands of water meadows along the River Thames – which runs along one side of North Meadow – and the river would flood them during the winter. This layer of water would keep the soil warmer than other agricultural fields and it’d also dump a layer of silt which would fertilise the soil. Farmers created a system of ditches and sluices so they could control the flooding, draining the meadow early in spring to let the grass start growing well before other pasture. It gave them a head start to the farming year. But modern fertilisers and fast-growing types of grass made this traditional system less cost and time-effective.

There are also some other lovely flowers growing in the meadow – great clumps of sun-yellow marsh marigold, delicate pale pink cuckoo flower, and the cheerful, ubiquitous dandelion. The snake theme is carried on with the very rare adder’s tongue fern but this is small, green and very hard to find. There are also sky larks nesting there which will serenade you on your walk, plus the hedges are alive with many other birds singing – black caps, wrens, great tits are just a few.

When to visit:

During the last two weeks of April – earlier if March has been warm and later if it’s been cold.

How much time to allow:

There are two routes around the meadow clearly marked by coloured bands on wooden posts. The short, orange, route covers about half of the field and takes roughly 30 minutes. The longer, blue, route runs all the way round the field and takes about an hour or so, allowing for a detour around one of the ‘bulges’. There are two bulges on the right hand side of the field as you walk from the main entrance towards the far end of the field (you’ll see what I mean when you pass them). Walk around the second one as the density of flowers there is very high and you can get really close to take photos without damaging the plants.

Location:

North Meadow is situated on the edge of Cricklade, a town that’s been there since Saxon times and is worth a visit after seeing the meadow. There are cafes and a pub plus shops and an unusual, old church. The River Thames runs along the west side of the meadow (the side opposite to the main entrance). There’s also a footpath running from the west side into Cricklade itself. Both footpath routes around the meadow are circular.

Terrain:

The whole meadow is completely flat (‘cos it’s next to a river), and the footpath is a well worn path so it should be possible for wheelchairs and prams (especially all terrain buggies) to be pushed around it. Be aware that the path is just a soil path formed by people walking around the meadow, so it isn’t completely flat and there is one small dip in the path.

The best show of fritillaries is in the half of the meadow furthest from the main entrance – the density is so high it forms a purple haze in the distance. I always enjoy taking a friend there for the first time and listening to them comment how lovely are the scattered clumps of fritillaries near the entrance. I smile to myself and wait for their exclamations of incredulity when we reach the far half of meadow and the full extent of the show.

Facilities:

The field itself hasn’t any facilities but if you check beforehand, you can time your visit to co-incide with a ‘Fritillary Teas’ weekend run in the village hall just a short distance down the road from the meadow. There are toilets at the hall, along with (you won’t be surprised to hear) refreshments and lunches which raise money for good causes. The cakes are wonderful! There’s often a plant stall as well. There’s no car park at the hall, so it’s best to leave your car parked on the roadside and walk to the hall. It’s only a few minutes.

Also check English Nature’s website before you go as there are often guided walks around the meadow led by English Nature wardens, a great way to hear about the fascinating history of the site and the flowers.  

Directions:

From Cirencester, take the A419 towards Swindon. Take the left turn off this road to Cricklade and follow the signs to the town centre. This will take you to a mini-roundabout in the High Street, turn right and follow the road all the way through the town centre and over a little stone bridge. Keep on this road and the meadow is a few hundred yards on the left. Find a place to park on the side of the road (on a sunny day, there’ll be lots of cars parked there so grab a spot when you see it), and then walk along the pavement, fields on your left, away from Cricklade. The entrance to the meadow in on your left, straight off the pavement – it’s got a clear name sign by the gate.

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