The bluebells are ringing in my garden!
I have one naturalised clump of them, nestled beneath the beech hedge, and they are now in full bloom. The upright Spanish variety, rather than the drooping English bluebells of childhood memory, they nonetheless transport me back in time…
Until I was nine years old, we lived in an unprepossessing 1960s semi at the end of a cul-de-sac. How I LOVED that house. My heart expands as I think of it now. The garden backed onto the sprawling woodland in which I spent most of my days; these were the 1970s and, as long as we were back for lunch and dinner, we were left to roam freely. Those woods were our domain, from the roly-poly tree just over the wall (so-named because of one low-set branch that was the perfect height for forward rolls) to the strangeness of the remote bomb hole around which a halo of gnarly trees stood sentry. This grassy bowl was blasted out, the grown-ups told us, during World War II. By the time it had become our favourite place to play hide-and-seek, it had been settled by a community of timid fairies, who would venture out only at midnight to dance among the toadstools. There, you could lie on the spongy forest floor drenched in deep green shadow, touched only here and there by fingertips of sunlight, and the air was so thick with magic that you could almost sense its weight in the curl of your hand…
Of course, the bluebells would not grow in that velvety gloom but, in early spring, the fringes of the woods were awash with their intoxicating, unearthly hue. Great crowds of them, conferencing, nodding, a rumpus of… BLUE! It was enough to stop you in your tracks, make you giddy, question whether you were having a topsy-turvy dream in which the sky had switched places with the soil.
Sometimes, bad people would kidnap great armfuls of them, and carry them off home to plonk in a vase on the windowsill. Ever vigilant to the sanctity of ‘our’ woods, my friends and I would become dauntless detectives, and once trailed a pair of such evildoers all the way from the woods to the wedge-shaped corner shop that always had a tower of Tizer (a weird-tasting but curiously moreish fizzy drink) behind the door. At that point, we had to watch them and the precious bluebells disappear from our view, because we weren’t allowed to cross the main road.
I think we felt genuine sadness, perhaps even shed a tear at the sight of those pretty flowers being transported away in a rustic wicker basket, their heartbreakingly dainty heads peaking from beneath a shroud of gingham fabric. Happily, of course, there were plenty more still bobbing and chiming in the woodlands, but we knew that pilfering bluebells was a very morally wrong and most probably law-breaking thing to do! We may even have uttered a wish for the thieves to get itchy fingers from the sap that would bleed from the ripped stems.
According to the Woodland Trust website, the UK is a ‘species stronghold for bluebells’ and almost half of the world’s bluebells are found here. Since 1981, it has been illegal to pick or uproot wild bluebells to sell, even if they are on your own land. So they are now protected, from commercial gain at least – although all species of bluebell are toxic, so arguably capable of mounting their own defence!
Looking back, I am proud of our young selves for our fierce and heartfelt devotion to the wellbeing of this most enchanting and otherworldly of flowers. Their beauty aside, this is why I am so especially happy when this little peal of bluebells reappears beneath the beech hedge. It does the soul good to remember those days when my arms and legs were always covered in nettle stings and bramble scratches, when my fingernails were rarely clean, when we breathed in oxygen freshly exhaled by the trees. It is tempting to think that we took that privilege for granted; yet our instinctive custodianship of the bluebells suggests that we fully understood just how precious our wild playground was.