Travel: Bring on the fritillaries

At one time the sight of a field of fritillaries was commonplace in middle and southern England. Fritillary Sundays were held so that the public could enjoy the spectacle. Now the number of these flowers has so diminished that perhaps only a dozen or so fritillary meadows still exist in England.

At Ducklington in the Windrush Valley, however, the tradition is going strong and on Sunday 27 April, visitors will be welcomed to admire the village's fritillary meadow. Local historian Phillip Best explains: "The field was bought by the Peel family who used to live in the manor-house. They were interested in conservation, and allowed people to come and see the flowers. After they left the village, the church continued to operate the celebration and in fact sometimes some of the family turn up to participate."

This year, as in the past, tea and home-made cakes will be served in the village hall and there will be stalls on the village green selling tea-towels and other items decorated with fritillaries. Phillip Best suggests that visitors also make their way to the church, where they will be able to observe further evidence of Ducklington's association with fritillaries.

The flowers are embroidered on two modern altar frontals and depicted in a fine stained-glass window, dating from the Thirties, by the Arts and Crafts-influenced artist Caroline Townshend.

Fritillaries are also carved into the 19th-century pulpit from Magdalen College, which itself boasts perhaps the best-known fritillary meadow in England. Indeed, Magdalen's fritillaries may well have come from Ducklington. In the 18th century, the living of the parish was under the patronage of Magdalen College; Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica suggests that the incumbent took some of the fritillaries from Ducklington back to his college to plant.

People in Ducklington recall gypsies and locals regarding the plants as a lucrative side-line. Children would take fritillary posies to sell in Oxford and Birmingham, and flowers were even sent to Covent Garden. Ducklington was by no means the only place where such a trade existed. Iffley in Oxfordshire had a tradition of permitting children over nine years old to sell posies in Oxford High Street.

The history of the plant is of interest because it is uncertain whether it is a genuine native wild flower or a garden escapee. The Latin name Fritillaria meleagris describes its appearance; fritillaria refers to its chequered markings and means a dice box, while meleagris refers to the mottled feathering of the guinea-fowl. It has a great many local names, including toad's head, frog cup, dead man's bells, and mourning bells of Solomon. In Berkshire it was known as bloody warrior, from the belief that each flower grew from a drop of Dane's blood. The first botanist to mention it was John Blackstone, who in 1736 noted it growing at Maud Field near Ruislip. If the plant were native to this country, it seems unlikely that early botanical writers would have overlooked it.

What is certain, however, is that the fritillary grows best on damp meadows which in the past were known as Lammas land. This was grazed from Lammas Day in August until Candlemas in February, at which time the stock was removed so that a cut of hay could be made in July. Changes in husbandry, extensive land drainage and gravel extraction have been responsible for the demise of many of these meadows, but there is still one magnificent example to be found - the 108-acre North Meadow at Cricklade in Wiltshire. Here, on the alluvial deposits of the flood plain of the rivers Thames and Churn, three-quarters of the British fritillary population still grows. In bloom, it is an unforgettable sight.

While Ducklington is one of the few parishes to keep up the tradition of a Fritillary Sunday, tomorrow at Framsden in Suffolk, an open day for fritillary viewing will be held at Fox's Meadow, a five-acre site now owned by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. The meadow can be viewed throughout the flowering period, but on the open day refreshments are served and there is free parking. Fox's Meadow is named after a former owner, Queenie Fox, who opened it for charity once a year, allowing anyone who paid a shilling to take home a bunch of flowers. Of course, a pick-your-own fritillary field would be environmentally unacceptable today; you now come simply to look and to marvel.

Where to see fritillaries: Magdalen Meadow beside Magdalen College, Oxford; tomorrow during Fritillary Sunday at Ducklington, six miles west of Oxford; at Fox Fritillary Meadow on open day, 27 April; at Boundary Farm, Framsden, near Debenham, in Suffolk (Suffolk Wildlife Trust also owns other Nature Reserves where fritillaries bloom: details, 01473 890 089); North Meadow at Cricklade, half-way between Swindon and Cirencester - the best fritillaries are at the far end.