There is a book, which I find myself returning to again and again, that luxuriates in having a wonderfully digressive chapter on the subject of rainfall in a soggy bit of western France, formerly called the Loire-Inférieure.
“In the Lower Loire, rain is a companion. It gives the region, which is otherwise rather nondescript, a characteristic style”. (from Fields of Glory, by Jean Rouaud)
Well, I guess the same could be said for large chunks of the West of Scotland but it is a beautiful piece of writing nonetheless, and I could easily quote the entire chapter. Among its treasures is the observation that glasses wearers, looking out at the world through “a constellation of droplets that diffract and break up the landscape, creating a gigantic kaleidoscope”, wipe the rain off their lenses twenty times a day, with the consequence that the opticians of the Loire do an unexpectedly good trade in repairing and fixing. It is not just the opticians that benefit – the bespectacled Loire-isians see the neon lights of the town dance through the splatter of drops; “how dull the original seems by comparison when you take off your glasses”.
This came to mind the other day – I had taken my glasses off to give them a good clean; not because il pleut but because they were filthy. Except that I was mistaken – they weren’t dirty at all and the cloudy aspect was not the result of the usual grime and grubby fingerprints, but rather the lovely haze that comes with the vision of thousands and thousands of bluebells.
As a boy, bluebells meant one thing: long and interminably dull walks through the woods of the Sussex Weald with boring adults (aged relatives and my long suffering parents) as they ooh’ed and aah’ed at the marvellous display. I would drag myself along, crippled by pre-teen self-consciousness and wishing that I could be anywhere else in the world instead. However, a seed must have been sown. So much so that in recent years (now that it is me who is the interminably dull adult) I have developed a yearning to immerse myself deeply among the bluebells, so strong and powerful as to be verging on the obsessive. Trouble is, I live out in the Fens and, dear reader, round here there just aren’t any. It is not as if I haven’t looked! Norfolk seemed to be the closest place until, a few years back, Hazel Wood on the other side of Cambridge was suggested, but the various lockdowns scuppered further investigation.
So it was both a thrill and a surprise when Lady Wood, on the very western edge of the Fens, was mentioned. It is a place I have long been meaning to visit, ever since seeing it alone and mysterious on the horizon one summer’s evening several years before. Serendipity had brought about the conjunction of bluebells and Lady Wood on the Venn diagram of long held intentions; it was time to pay a visit.
With an unconvinced and vocally reluctant 8 year old in tow (in keeping with family tradition) we walk across the fields under a heavy sky, but even she is moved to gasp when she sees the extraordinary blue leaking out through gaps in the hedge. Once inside (and glasses cleaned) we stroll about, following the enticing paths and drinking in the spectacle, one that still feels like a miracle every time I see it. The saturation of colour is overwhelming in itself; in the muted light the swathe of cobalt blue floats magically a few inches above the woodland floor – it truly is a thing of wonder. Patches of achingly pale yellow primroses break up the monopoly, as do those genetic non-conformists, the white bluebells, unashamedly standing out from the crowd. Stitchworts, great and lesser, chickweed and buttercups join in with the carnival – Lady Wood has thrown off the shackles of winter and is celebrating the great festival of spring with abandon.
The sun must have come out from behind the clouds as shafts of light burst through the canopy. There is birdsong too, mostly unknown to my ears; woodpeckers I recognise, but all manner of cheerful twittering echoes around us. There is something bittersweet about this – I see it through the eyes of my daughter, running about happily and taking it all in for the first time. What must she be thinking! But also through the eyes of others; those no longer with us or far away; through the various ages of my younger self, suffused with memories, hopes and dreams – a sequence of prisms, each adding a new layer of perspective. It is hard not to be moved.
My companion soon wakes me from my reveries and we carry on, weaving our way along the paths and tracks of this ancient place. In the very heart of the wood we happen across a pond and crouch down to see what we find. A passer-by tells us that, if we are lucky, we will see great crested newts. Now that would be a treat – I have only seen them in the wild a couple of times, and even then just a flick of a tail as they vanished into the murk. We sit still, peering in, and there it is – the speckled skin and dragon-like crest, the webbed toes, glimpses of the fiery red markings on its stomach. What a creature! As our eyes become accustomed, leaves and twigs twitch and reveal themselves to be others – perhaps a dozen of them and we watch, this time with water as the prism, dividing their world from ours. “Do they know that we are watching them, Dad?”. Perhaps they do, and perhaps they have been sitting still, waiting and looking up to the sky hoping to see the mysterious wide faces that they know will appear each year at bluebell time, a thing of newty wonder and a harbinger of the changing seasons.