A Wildflower Tradition To Live Up To

19th February 2012

Snake's Head Fritillaries in Ducklington Meadow. Photo (c) Ducklington Parish Council

One spring evening, three years ago, Megan, my sister Harriette and I were walking through meadows in the fading light, wondering if I was in the right place. All I had to go on was my father's directions: 'follow the track to the river past your grandfather's poplars and bear left. Can't miss it.'

Neither Megan or Harriette had been to these meadows before. My father told me that I had visited them when I was growing up, but to my mind there was nothing familiar about the landscape. As an expedition leader, I was completely ignorant. Then again, I'd been ignorant about the magic of these meadows all my life.

My father's mother, granny Peel, was a keen watercolourist. The flowers she most loved were snake's head fritillaries. These speckled lilies nodded down at me from glass frames on the staircase. I never wondered why they were there and I don't remember liking them very much. My first favourite flowers were lupins, pansies and sedums (for the rock garden I fiddled around with).

The Peels were originally Lancastrians, but for years had lived in Oxfordshire, in the village of Ducklington, on the river Windrush; that comes down from the Cotswold hills and flows into the Thames. They owned a wood and some meadows. At the time my parents were living in London, but kept a link to Oxfordshire in the form of a tiny, damp cottage in Charlbury. I remember a few trips to the Ducklington wood; trailing behind my father through thick undergrowth on unsuccessful expeditions to shoot pigeons. But if we visited the meadows, they made no impression on me.

Either I was plain thick, or I was never taken to visit the meadows in late Spring. For then, like the clock striking thirteen in Tom's Midnight Garden, something special happens. These ordinary meadows become one of the best sites in Enland for snake's head fritillaries. Every year a picture of the meadows appears in the Oxford Times and, on Fritillary Sunday, they are celebrated in a festival organised by Ducklington church.

That evening, three years ago, Megan and I had picked up Harriette from her Oxford college and headed in search of the meadows. Fritillary Sunday was the next day, but whatever signs and decorations there might be were nowhere to be seen. I was starting to think about the pub. We went through a gate and walked out into a meadow. We wandered a good thirty yards before realising that we'd arrived.

At first, you barely see them. Then, slowly, as your eye becomes focused, the grass recedes and the purple and white flowers seem to appear all over the meadow. Even so, I felt slightly disappointed; there was nothing very special about our family wildflower field. I remembered my father's advice and, somewhat reluctantly, lay down on the damp grass.

Finally, I understood the magic of this place. At eye level, the fritillaries were breathtaking; their shape and intricate markings more Indian than English, to my mind. I lay there for a long time, not caring that the wetness of the meadow was soaking into my clothes.

A piece of my family made sense at last. My grandfather died before I was born and I'd only known my grandmother as a child, never talking to her about the flowers she loved to paint. But I know that they must have both lain down in this very meadow, to look at the fritillaries. It had taken me too long to join them.

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