I used to dream about pink cockles. My copy of The Observer's Book of Flowers blithely assured me that every time I wandered through a field of corn I would find this beautiful flower, the corn cockle, a flaring saucer of pink held on a corn-high stalk. But after a certain amount of wandering, and failing to spot a single pink saucer, I knew I was being taken for a turkey. That was when the dreams started.
What I didn't know until much later is that this statement about the corn cockle had been copied down unmodified from a book written in 1852. Perhaps the fields really were dappled with pink cockle flowers at the time of the Charge of the Light Brigade. But in the age of the Charge of the Combine Harvesters the corn is cockle-free. It's an extinct pink. Or very nearly. For there is still one place, a kind of agricultural time-warp, where you can still see the corn cockle. And that is at Ranscombe Farm in Kent, which has recently opened as a country park.
The cockle's last stand is in a chalky field in the bottom of a wooded valley on the doorstep of Rochester, just a few minutes from the M2. Generations of farmers knew it as Kitchen Field, a sheltered and fertile little corner but one with a serious weed problem. It is better known to wild-flower lovers as Cuxton Weedy Field, possibly the best place for arable wildflowers in all England. The meadow clary, a noble, purple-flowered relative of the sage, was first found here as long ago as 1699. The hairy mallow was discovered here for the first time in Britain during the French Revolution.
Unlike the meadow clary and the hairy mallow, the corn cockle was once too familiar to excite anybody. In fact it was the worst weed of the lot. Its seeds are rough, like pale peppercorns or - with artistic licence - like tiny cockle-shells. They ripen at the same time as the wheat and so are harvested with it. Short of laboriously hand-picking the seed-grain there was no way of getting rid of the cockle. And its removal was devoutly desired because cockle seed was mildly poisonous. Besides, it turned the bread blue. Blue cockle-cake spelt tummy ache.
Then along came mechanised seed-cleaning, and that was the end of the cockle. It vanished virtually overnight, like melting snow, and only reappeared when a farmer ploughed up older cockle seeds resting in the soil. More recently, thanks mainly to herbicides, farmers have got rid of most of our once-familiar cornfield flowers. The wonderfully named Venus's looking-glass, shepherd's needle, devil's curry-comb and round-leaved fluellen, have mostly been driven out.
Yet by some miracle the Kitchen Field at Ranscombe Farm still has corn cockles. They appeared a few years ago and passers-by found themselves looking at a vanished landscape. Today you would need to travel to the Mediterranean or the Balkans to find a pink-dappled cockle-field, and even there they are fast disappearing. And until recently the arrival of the cockle would have been met with a drizzle of herbicide and that would have been that.
But instead something remarkable happened. With a little encouragement from the charity Plantlife, and with the full co-operation of the farmer, the local Medway Council turned Ranscombe Farm into a country park. Medway Council purchased the land in March 2005, with the aid of the Deputy Prime Minister's department and an appeal by Plantlife. The 566-acre farm opened to the public in September last year. It was hailed as a "new generation country park". It is still a working farm but with "opportunities for quiet recreation". There are no cafés, ice-creams or toilets at Ranscombe Farm, only fields, woods and flowers.
The country park is looked after by Helen Morley of Plantlife, whose responsibilities include guided events, running courses on various rural crafts and organising volunteer conservation work. The farm is still managed commercially by Andrew Lingham, whose family has ploughed these fields for the past half-century (after all, the corn cockle depends on farming for its survival). But wherever possible there is a balance between agricultural production and nature. Kitchen Field, for example, is ploughed back each year but not harvested. Other fields are harvested but have wide headlands which were a scarlet sea of poppies this year.
To judge by the scores of visitors to the farm this year, weed-seeking is becoming a new country sport. So far Helen has taken 25 parties out among the weeds, and the demand is "more than I can cope with sometimes". Many visitors are local, but others come from all over Britain, willing to face the horrors of the M25 to see a field of weeds. Do fields of poppies and cornflowers still lodge in our consciousness as visions of an idyllic rural past? Do pink cockle-fields have an appeal akin to Housman's blue remembered hills or the sleepy, willow-lined trout-pools of Rupert Brooke?
Funnily enough, says Helen, the cockle isn't the top draw at Ranscombe Farm. Top billing belongs to a yellow-flowered, sticky little plant called the ground-pine. It looks like a baby pine, it even smells like pine, but it is, in fact, a relative of rosemary and thyme. It is famous, says Helen, for appearing from nowhere when the ground is disturbed. Its seeds sleep in the soil for decades, then seem to spring from the earth at the touch of a blade.
That is the final miracle of Ranscombe Farm. The weeds have slept through the agricultural boom of post-war Britain and suddenly found themselves acceptable again. "Long live the weeds and wilderness yet", said Gerard Manley Hopkins. The cockles are blooming again.
What you can see down on the farm
All these plants are found at Ranscombe Farm. June and July are the best times to visit but some weeds flower into early autumn.
Ground pine, Ajuga chamaepitys (biennial)
Looks (and smells) like a pine seedling but with bright yellow flowers. Grows on field edges and banks, especially where disturbed by rabbits. July-September.
Venus's looking-glass, Legousia hybrida (annual)
So named because of its shiny seeds. The purple flowers open only in bright sunshine. Grows on field edges. May-August.
Hairy mallow, Althaea hirsuta (annual)
Pretty candy-pink flowers on bristly stems. Grows in field borders and banks where the soil has been disturbed. Known at Ranscombe since 1792. July-August.
Meadow clary, Salvia pratensis (perennial)
Glorious blue spikes rising from masses of sage-like leaves on banks and borders. Individual plants may be scores, perhaps even hundreds of years old. June-July.
Broad-leaved cudweed, Filago pyramidata (annual)
Wouldn't win a beauty prize, but it's rare and 10,000 of them flowered at Ranscombe last year. June-August.
Rough poppy, Papaver hybridum (annual)
A dwarf poppy with a black centre and round, bristly seed-heads. Grows in cornfields in chalky soil. June-July.
Round-leaved fluellen, Kickxia spuria (annual)
Hairy, heart-shaped leaves contrasting with tiny purple-and-yellow snapdragon flowers. Grows on field edges and stubble in lime-rich clay soil. June-September.
Wild licquorice, Astragalus glycyphyllos (perennial)
A bushy vetch with cream flowers and big, curly pods. Grows in hedgerows, wood edges and field borders. Not the ancestor of licquorice, but its roots apparently taste similar. June-August.