Monday, 23 April 2012

Half Blue, Half Violet


When I was very young, my grandfather took me on an outing.
It is one of the prized memories of my childhood.
I didn't see a great deal of my grandfather, because he lived in England and we lived in a variety of other places - all far away - but on this particular occasion we were in Cornwall, which was not his home, but was where his wife, my grandmother had been born and brought up. I suppose we were visiting relatives when my 'outing' took place.

Together we walked up through the small, typically Cornish village to the railway station, and took the train over the viaduct. Then we walked down through the woods on the far side of the valley and someone rowed us back across the river in their boat. At least, that's what I recall.

I suppose every part of the trip was intrinsically memorable, because there weren't trains, or viaducts or rowing boats in my other life, and I was a very impressionable child. But those aren't the bits I remember.
It was the woods that transformed that outing into something so magical, they still call me back today.

We didn't have woods where I lived either, we had tropical rain forests.
We certainly didn't have bluebells.
And I'm sure that while the whole trip was beyond exciting, it was for the bluebells my grandfather took me there.

To a small child, a sea of bluebells is a life-changing experience. They are astonishing, and other-worldly, and intoxicating. It's not just the intensity of colour, or the waist-deep sea that immerses you as surely as water closing over your head, it's also the scent.

An English bluebell

You can tell an English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) quite easily from the Spanish variety which is, apparently taking over in some areas of Britain and Ireland. Apart from the occasional white one, they are always blue, they have slender stems that arch, they have creamy-white stamens and they are scented. The Spanish ones are blue or pink or white, are sturdier, with thicker stems that don't arch; they don't have white stamens and they don't smell.

There is nothing to compare with the scent of bluebells. It is a delicate perfume that is never overpowering, as the delightful but much stronger lily-of-the-valley can be. It teases rather than flaunts itself, and it is very hard to emulate. The only bluebell soap I have ever had that actually smelt of bluebells was a box my mother once gave me, which came from Harrods. I don't know if they still make it, but it would be worth being on their mailing list if they do, as I can think of no nicer present. I put the three, heart-shaped bars in my linen cupboard to scent my pillowcases, and rationed them so they would last as long as possible. Fortunately the In-Charge didn't mind using the Imperial Leather instead.

They say it is smell that lodges so deeply in the memory that you can never prise it out.
I believe them.
One whiff of bluebells and I am a child again, waist high in magic, my soul back on the potter's wheel being shaped - again - around that day so long ago.
But colour does funny things to me as well. My mother used to quote a line about the colour of bluebells -  ' man has ever named it yet, that shade half blue, half violet...'
It is probably my favourite colour, and everything about it is encapsulated in another line I once read: - 'blue that is a lovely hurting in the eyes'.

Yesterday, on a sudden impulse, I dropped everything I was supposed to be doing, threw the divine duo into the back of the faithful little green car (the silver beast being still an in-patient) and drove to a bluebell wood that I have known of for years, but never visited. It's a long way away, and after ten minutes or so there was muttering on the back seat.
'We usually walk to our woods,' Under Dog said.
'Don't worry,' Top Dog soothed. 'This is the way to our favourite beach.'
Fifteen minutes later, it started again.
'She's missed the turn off. She's lost,' Under Dog said miserably.
'They're always getting lost. Look at the Master - he doesn't find his way home 'til supper time most days. At least we're here to find the way back.' Top Dog reassured him.

Forty minutes into the journey, they curled up on the back seat in silence, which was quite a statement, as they usually like to drive.At least, Top Dog drives, head thrust forward, gimlet-eyed, his attention only wavering if we pass another dog.
Under Dog, it has to be confessed, drives by looking out of the back window to check where we've been.

The dogs cheered up

They cheered up when we arrived.
It had been a long drive, but we all thought it was worth it. The flowers weren't fully out, but it didn't matter.
They raced off between the trees and I raced back in time on a helter-skelter rollercoaster through all the bluebell woods that are part of who I am.

I was a small child in Cornwall again; an adolescent in the beech woods near our eventual English home; a lover with her swain; a young mother taking her small son to be bewitched. It is always the same.That blue against the acid green of young leaves and I can scarcely breathe. When something pierces you through and through, you always catch your breath - our deepest memories, they say, are held in our breath.

My son, aged 2, encountering bewitchment

As we meandered along the paths through the wood, I thought again of my grandfather, and the gift he had given me. A gift from his own experience, a gift he would have received again in the giving.

Now I realize what a two-edged sword it must have been, because now I understand the perpetual cycle of memory. That happiness and grief are inseparable.
I can only imagine what was in my grandfather's heart the day he took me on that outing. He must have been looking back, just as I was doing now, at the endlessly turning circle that somehow weaves an individual picture for each of us. He had walked those woods with his lover, the wife she came to be, and then with his small twin daughters, long before he bequeathed bluebells to me.

I suppose he felt happiness for my joy and grief for his own sorrow.
For the love of his life, the woman who had first taken him to those woods, died when my mother was only twelve.

My grandparents, young and happy

There are no better words than those of Kahlil Gibran: 'When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. And when you are sorrowful, look again in  your heart, and  you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.'

If a bluebell wood can make you smile and make you cry, then truly it is the sum of all things.


  1. Fabulous post, Lorely. It made me remember bluebell woods of my childhood. Then,we picked them, poor things. W came on with armfuls of them. Going to see bluebells is still a precious moment very spring.
    What a wonderful gift from your grandfather.

    1. Thank you Isobel. Yes - a memory to treasure. I found a small, sad bunch yesterday that had been picked and then just abandoned for whatever reason. I gathered them up and put them in the car and despite the hour plus drive home, they revived very well once they were in water.

  2. that's lovely Lol. and beautiful pics (as always). Sadly Grandad wasn't around for much of our lives but he would have loved to have read that post. x

  3. What a lovely read!

    Ardcarne Plantsplus Garden Centre

  4. The Bluebell-wood, is it Hazelwood?
    The pictures are great!!!! I am so sad, that we have no such place here in our area in Germany. I have only found 3 of them in a nice Park of a manor....

    1. No it's not Hazelwood, although I think there are bluebells there as well. These woods are down at Knockvicar.

    2. You could probably get some bulbs, or some seeds, and plant a few somewhere! It would be a start! They like being under (beech) trees, but they grow very well in the open too - or in an orchard, or in grass.

  5. This is wonderful, Lol. I had a very similar experience with Uncle Henry, Dad's favourite Uncle, in or near Ipswich, Suffolk, when I was very young. Later, as part of the 11+ exams (as they were then!) for entry to Harrison College, Bridgetown, Barbados, I had to write an essay. I wrote about my visit to that blue-bell wood, and guess what! I got in!
    It's probably the only essay I can remember writing.
    How strange that we should have had such similar early experiences and never mentioned them til now!

  6. I grew up in the south east of England and spent many happy hours playing in the coppiced chestnut woodland behind our house. The chestnut stools (tree stumps) are several feet wide and we made them our camps and hid little childish treasures under roots and in any nook and cranny. These are ancient woodlands and in the spring were carpeted with divinely smelling bluebells basking in the dappled sunlight before the canopy grew over. I realise now how blessed I was to grow up in a rare and precious environment where we ran and played freely for hours on end.
    Many years later I walked with my mother for the last time between the woodland carpeted with bluebells and the apple orchards that were in full bloom. It was a magical moment of beauty, sunshine, perfume, colour and togetherness.

  7. It sounds idyllic! How wonderful to have those memories, and a really special last walk with your mother. Thank you for leaving a comment.


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