I spent all of yesterday in Great Torrington in north Devon. The good people of Torrington, and arts company Wolf and Water, are holding a festival to celebrate the Reverend Keble Martin, sometime vicar of the parish and author of The Concise British Flora in Colour. This groundbreaking book was published in 1965, and had pride of place on my mother’s bookshelf. I grew up with the book, as my mother and grandmother took me to explore the flora of north Buckinghamshire in the fields behind the house, at the local brickworks, along the Grand Union Canal, and roaming across the Chiltern Hills looking for rare orchids.
Torrington is an extraordinarily lucky town, because of Torrington Common, a full 365 acres of woodland and grassland looked after by Torrington Conservators. During the day, I ran led two wild flower walks on Torrington Common, telling folk tales about the plants we found (we identified these with the help of my mum’s copy of Keble Martin). Then, in the evening, it was the first outing for my new storytelling show of British botanical tales – we had a big audience and a great evening at the Plough Arts Centre, I hope to return here soon.
One of the folk tales out on the Common was about ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), which Keble Martin notes is ‘abundant on neglected pastures’. Ragwort is considered ‘bloody evil stuff” by most farmers as it is poisonous to livestock and a notified weed. I remember it from all those wild flower walks when I was little, not just because of its prolific yellow flowers, but also the rather dramatic orange-and-black cinnabar moth caterpillars plastered all over the plant.
The ragwort story comes from Ireland, where the plant is known as ‘bolyawn’. It concerns a lazy lad called Tom who is ambling along a lane trying to avoid his work, when he is fortunate enough to encounter a leprechaun in a hedge. He grabs hold of the poor little fellow and demands good luck, so the leprechaun leads him to a field full of bolyawns. He points to an exceptionally fine plant and tells Tom there is a crock of gold underneath. Tom has to fetch a spade, so he ties his hanky to the plant to distinguish it from the others, lets the leprechaun go (I’m sorry to say with very bad grace), and nips back to the farm to fetch a spade. When he gets back, he finds there is an identical hanky tied to the stem of every single ragwort plant in the field. Ah, those pesky leprechauns. Beaten, Tom returns to the farm empty-handed apart from a fine new talent: cursing.
Torrington Common is well looked after, but we found a solitary ragwort plant standing proud in the grass, identified readily even by the kids. Everyone knows ragwort and everyone knows cinnabar moths. Then, after the story, an idea from Mandy of the Torrington Conservators: why don’t we give Tom a black and orange striped hanky? Then the cinnabar moth caterpillars can cover the ragwort over the whole field…
Great idea! I love the way that stories change and evolve as they are shared.
My thanks to everyone who came along yesterday for sharing the stories, for your enthusiasm for the material and for all your ideas and insights. Thanks and congratulations also to Peter Harris and Peter Stiles of Wolf and Water for an excellent Keble Martin festival.