Gardening: Dreaming of daffodils

Patricia Cleveland-Peck offers a golden excuse for a visit to Gloucestershire in spring
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The Independent Travel
Wordsworth's famous hosts of golden daffodils still dance beside Ullswater in the Lake District but the true Mecca for wild daffodils in England is a little-known corner of north-west Gloucestershire, bounded by the villages of Oxenhall, Dymock and Kempley. The area has such a spectacular annual display of daffodils that at one time the Great Western Railway ran special day-excursion trains to bring trippers in to enjoy the sight. People from as far afield as Bristol and Birmingham returned in their charabancs laden with armfuls of the flowers, and gypsies converged on the woods with hessian sacks which they filled with uprooted bulbs to sell in the cities. The local poet John Masefield vividly captured this image:

And there the pickers come, picking for town

Those dancing daffodils; all day they pick;

Hard featured women, weather beaten

brown

Or swarthy red, the colour of old brick.

Local people also benefited from the abundant seasonal harvest by selling bunches from farm gates. Even cycling clubs organised picking jaunts. "You could follow the trails of dropped flowers for miles," recalls Robert Biscoe, a 73-year old local resident. "Now the daffodils have declined a lot, but when I was a boy at Picklenash school, we picked them every year for the London hospitals. We would take bunches to school and then all parade down to the Comrades' Club where they were boxed up. They were then taken to Newent station and put on the London train ... The London hospitals would then reply, thanking us, and the letters were pinned up on the board in the Comrades' Club." Mr Biscoe's ancestors were Huguenot weavers and linen-workers who came to Gloucestershire in the 1770s. He thinks it possible that they settled in this area because of their trade, as daffodils were at one time used as a dyestuff.

The wild daffodil, or Lent lily, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, is a particularly lovely native flower, a true harbinger of spring with its small, two-tone yellow trumpets and fresh green foliage. At one time it grew so profusely throughout England that a Belgian botanist visiting Cheapside, London in 1581 wrote: "... the country women offer the blossoms in great abundance for sale and all the taverns may be seen decked out with this flower." It continued to grow prolifically over a large area until the early decades of this century, when it went into a rapid decline, leaving only local pockets of growth.

That this area of Gloucestershire has remained unspoiled is not entirely fortuitous, for in a quiet way a lot of effort has been put into its preservation. A successful road campaign was conducted with the backing of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which helped to save the daffodil woods from being bisected by an extension to the A40. The proposed road, which would have helped to link the M50 with the M4, was considered by local people to be totally unnecessary and impracticable, running as it would over land which was regularly flooded by the Severn. The daffodil area was but a fraction of the whole, but the campaign succeeded because all interested groups along its length linked up and kept the protest firmly in public view. In March 1994 the proposal disappeared from the roads programme, ostensibly due to lack of money.

The last "Daffodil Special" train ran in 1959 and picking wild flowers is now regarded as environmentally unacceptable, but local people, who are proud of their heritage, still welcome visitors to enjoy the spring ritual. A series of "daffodil teas" are held in village halls and organised walks take place over relevant weekends during the daffodil season. If you are feeling really energetic, one of the best ways to see the display is to follow the "daffodil way", which was set up on the initiative of the Windcross public paths project with support from national and local authorities and the co-operation of local landowners. This 10-mile walk traces a roughly circular path along rights of way and lanes, passing orchards, meadows, woods and brooks. At this time of year, daffodils are never far from sight, but equipped with a brochure (see below) which contains a map and clear instructions, you will discover many other interesting things along the way. You pass the vestiges of an 18th-century canal, a 19th-century railway, and many old buildings including part of an Elizabethan farmhouse, the 14th-century church of St Mary's Dymock with its shingled steeple, and Kempley old church, referred to by John Betjeman as "a miniature cathedral of the Arts and Craft movement", which contains interesting medieval frescoes. There is a convenient pub, the Beauchamp Arms, for a pause for refreshment, and if you don't feel up to the full 10 miles, plenty of short cuts can be made following the link paths on the map. It is a walk you won't forget.

Daffodil weekends:

22-23 March, Oxenhall. Teas to raise funds for St Anne's Church. Also sales of home-made cakes, scones, jam etc.

29-30 March, Dymock. Two-mile guided walk on Sunday from Dymock parish hall, returning to the parish hall for tea.

5-6 April, Kempley. Guided walks from the village hall, 11am and 2pm each day. See the medieval frescoes in the church. Refreshments and produce, village hall, 11am-2pm.

`The Daffodil Way', 50p, and other brochures from Tourist Information Centre, Church Street, Newent (01531 82246).

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