English v Spanish: the native, English bluebell is on the right, and the Spanish one on the left
The bluebell wood is a phenomenon particular to Britain – believe it or not, 80% of all the world’s bluebell woods are found in the UK! The sight of the glorious violet-bluey haze which carpets many woodlands (especially beech woods) begins in late April and lasts until late-May depending upon where you live. The flowering season starts earlier in Cornwall and gradually spreads up the country with Scotland’s flowers being last to the floral party.
Here’s a flower that doesn’t know what it wants to be – so it’s both! It’s name comes from its edible leaves which taste both of garlic and mustard (weirdly!) and it’s been used as a flavouring for centuries. In fact it’s one of the oldest culinary ingredients used around Europe: some tiny remains of this plant have been found in pottery dating back thousands of years ago in what we now call Denmark and north-eastern Germany. Wow – that fact blows me away and I look at this plant with a new fascination.
OK, so we’re in lockdown right now but the sun is shining and the silver lining to the current situation is that’s co-incided exactly with when nature hits the accelerator pedal – forget June busting out all over, from now to mid May is when nature goes from dormant to wide awake. So for the next few weeks, I thought I’d focus this blog on some of the wild flowers, birds and animals that you may see when you go out for your ‘once- a-day-for-exercise’ walks, or even see in your back garden, to help answer those ‘I wonder what that is?’ questions.
Rodborough common is a popular place for Stroudies to stroll on a Sunday afternoon – thanks to the beauty of the common and Winston’s Ice-cream’s parlour with its enticing range of delectable ice-cream delights. But my hunch is the vast majority of these visitors don’t realise the importance of the common they’ve just walked the dog or the family around, or that they’ve just sauntered past rare orchids.
The Frome valley must be the closest we have in the Stroud area to a feeling of wilderness. It stretches from Chalford village (near Stroud) for a few miles towards Cirencester and, running along its bottom, the disused Thames & Severn canal offers tiny glimpses into an age of industrial triumph. But its state of decay atmospherically demonstrates how, in the end, nature subtly claims back and subsumes everything. One of the rare bits of human intrusion in the valley is a very welcome one – it’s the excellent Daneway pub, and a return walk from Chalford along the canal towpath taking in lunch at the pub is a popular summer Sunday activity.
One of the less well-known hargingers of spring, and one of my favourites, is the dainty cuckoo flower. Our ancestors gave it this name to acknowledge it as a sign of the cuckoo’s imminent return to the UK from its African wintering grounds. The pale lilac or pink flowers appear en masse in damp places during April and if they seem vaguely familiar, this may be because the cuckoo flower is one of the cabbage family and has the characteristic four petals arranged in the cross-shape shown by most members of this group. To be honest, if it was a bright yellow colour, it’d look a dead ringer for oil seed rape which is its close cousin. However, cuckoo flower is shorter in height and is a soft shade of lilac or pink so the overall impression is of a refined relative used to the good things in life compared to a brash relative that likes to shout its presence and stomp about a lot.
OK, so the Water Park isn’t technically in Stroud district but it’s not far away and Cleveland Lakes near Ashton Keynes are almost a dead-cert for hearing cuckoos. This part of the park is also wonderfully tranquil, beautiful and offers habitat that we have very little of in Stroud’s valleys and vale apart from WWT Slimbridge. Thanks to the large reedbeds, luxuriant hedgerows and ample tree cover, the air was full of bird song when myself and friends walked around it yesterday evening. We’d only walked for a few minutes and were still close to the car park when we heard the cuckoo calling – what a result! It continued its appeal to any passing females all the time we were there.