Widecombe-in-the-Moor looks like a rural idyll, a thriving small community tucked away in a Dartmoor valley surrounded by heath and moor and woodland. Any student of Devon folklore will know this place holds some great stories, of Dewer the devil, of ne’er-do-wells who sold their soul to him, and of the fateful day, 21st October 1638, when lightning struck the church and killed several worshippers in dramatic fashion. There are plant connections here, as well. Widecombe means ‘willow valley;’ and there is a monument in the village to all those who gathered sphagnum moss to treat soldiers’ wounds in the First World War.
The local organisation Dartmoor’s Daughter ran a wildflower and folktales walk at nearby Pudsham Down on a Saturday in June. Twelve or thirteen curious people arrived, taking time out to explore the moor, its wild plants, and some stories. Despite the thick mist and drizzle, we quickly discovered the smouldering remains of a fire and litter: a reminder that not everyone looks after the moor.
We walked the moor, and it rained and rained, possibly the only wet weekend in the whole month. No matter. We shared stories of hawthorn and moss, rock and ash tree, sheltered by a small tor, and then we walked through an area of burned out gorse, all charred tree-skeletons and regenerating green.
Eventually we ended up in a little meadow, the grassland owned by Ralph Mackridge and Jill Millar, who were kind enough to host the event and serve up huge mugs of water-mint tea. We sat among more greater butterfly orchids than I think I have ever seen in one place. Bird’s foot trefoil, knapweed, southern marsh orchids and sweet vernal grass, this was a true Dartmoor meadow in full bloom. We identified flowers, sedges, grasses and trees. We shared stories about owning and looking after the land, tales of good and bad farmers, dastardly trees and cunning fairies, and the messages were clear.
Every place has its own story, and this meadow is no different. There must have been a reason why its hedge-banks were made as they were, many centuries ago, and owners and managers of the land organised livestock, to graze the place later in the season and through the years. Lucky animals! Now the Dartmoor National Park Authority organises pony grazing on the meadow; the link with our local food systems has been lost, but the plants have survived.
Telling stories of the wild, while surrounded by nature, is a totally different experience. It’s like telling Arthur stories in the court itself, seated around the Round Table; or striding into the great hall at Tara and talking to the High Kings of old. Everything in a meadow falls into place, everything just is, coexisting and simply being. These tiny plants, so vulnerable to the whims of humans, so tuned to the changing seasons, simply get on with it – where we allow them to survive.
They’re not in many places now, though. The charity Plantlife estimates that 97% of our wildflower meadows have been lost in less than a century. As agricultural productivity has increased, fertilizer has been applied to the land and more vigorous grass strains have been planted, the old species, and the old stories, have been replaced. Many British fields are now little more than a monoculture of bright green grass. This is the food equivalent of Coke or white sugar for our livestock, who in turn are pushed to their maximum production.
Of course, we are part of this story, and this system. The media has been full of stories of ecological armageddon, the population crash of insect populations, the march of climate change. Yet in the midst of it all, most of us are not very far removed from nature in our everyday lives, even if we are in cities. The food we eat, the choices we make, and the environment we create around us are all within out gift, to a greater or lesser extent.
It’s the conscious connection – that makes the difference – where all change takes root. I believe that stories have an important role to play in helping us to rediscover that connection, between the modern world and nature.
Photos courtesy of Dartmoor’s Daughter. My thanks to Emma Cunis at Dartmoor’s Daughter, and to Ralph Mackridge and Jill Millar for sharing their meadow.