I admit it, I've always been a goody-goody

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The Independent Online

Not long ago I attempted to teach my 12-year-old son some names of wild flowers. It was an uphill task, especially as he seems to think that being able to identify any wild flower at all is very suspect and rather effeminate.

Not long ago I attempted to teach my 12-year-old son some names of wild flowers. It was an uphill task, especially as he seems to think that being able to identify any wild flower at all is very suspect and rather effeminate.

"Were you interested in wild flowers at my age?" he asked me.

"Yes, I was," I said.

"So you've always been a goodie-goodie then?"

That stung me. In fact, it stung me into trying to remember why I had been so interested in wild flowers, and had even got books on the subject. I suddenly realised something I had never realised before - that my interest in wild flowers came from the fact that railway trains are few and far between.

I used to be a train-spotter at my son's age, waiting for steam engines that ran past Gresford on the line between Wrexham and Chester on the old Great Western Railway. It's a steepish gradient there, because the line is climbing a valley out of the Cheshire plain on to the first spur of the Welsh hills, and I can remember, one frozen winter day, a passenger train coming up from Chester that started skidding on the icy rails and just couldn't make any further progress. They had to send for a second engine from Wrexham to pull it up - meanwhile, the motionless engine made occasional fruitless attempts to pull free, and I can still vividly picture the huge pillar of white smoke erupting against the cold blue sky, and the noise racketing from side to side in the valley (first very slow chuffing, then very fast as the wheels span uselessly).

Such excitements were rare, however, and most of the time the line was empty. On the other hand, the woods and fields were full of flowers, and so to stave off boredom between trains, I started spotting flowers. There were masses of bluebells in the woods, and cowslips, and lady's smock in the wetter fields, and I can remember working out the identity of ladies' bedstraw and woody nightshade, coltsfoot and kingcup, groundsel and shepherd's purse, and even the occasional orchid...

Well, all these years later, I again live in a valley with a railway line running through it, and although I have lost the compulsion to take train numbers, I have never shaken off the flower-spotting urge. Steam engines have long since vanished, of course, and if you believed the gloomier sermons of the ecologists you might think that wild flowers were retreating as well, but in my experience that isn't true. The opposite, if anything. When I moved down here, cowslips seemed quite rare, restricted to only a couple of fields in the vicinity, but this year I have seen many cowslips in places I have never seen them before. Bluebells are all over the place, too, escaping from the woods where they do their usual blue-carpet trick, and establishing themselves on the verges of roads, along with purple honesty and white wild garlic...

The wild garlic! That has been sensational this year, and not for the first time. Suddenly, about this time of spring, all those fleshy green leaves lying dispiritedly about on the edge of the woodland sprout keen young spikes, which go white and starry at the top and glitter en masse like a wedding gown spread out on the forest floor. As impressive in its own way as carpets of bluebells. And with a much more interesting smell.

I haven't been to check my wild-strawberry patch yet. It's not mine, of course - I just say that because I don't think anyone else knows about it. They should be flowering about now, and fruiting not long after. The patch is hidden on a piece of railway line, which is of course private property where I would never dream of trespassing, except that I cannot get the wild strawberries any other way. Last year I picked a full basket's worth, and as they are railway strawberries, you can be sure they're free from car or dog pollution. The only danger is being interfered with by a passing train.

What a happy symmetry my life has achieved. Once, flowers were what happened while I waited for trains. Now, I wait for trains to go by so that I can get on with my flower pursuits...

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