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Word from Wormingford

17 January 2014

Ronald Blythe learns about wild flowers, and potters in the garden

WALKING with mother long ago, lopping the heads off flowers as we went, I was told what a pity it wasto have given birth to such an unkind boy. As Mary and I drove to church, we slowed down to see a fine patch of snapdragon in Barn Hall Lane. Why didn't I join the Wild Flower Society, she said. This I did, and became immensely learned. Only the learning, like the snapdragon (Linaria vulgaris), stays patchy.

A few years ago, I listed all the plants that grew on the once 70 acres of Bottengoms Farm, walking them before breakfast and after supper, and carrying a notebook. It was the tie of set-aside, when fields went untouched for three years; so I hoped I would find some ancient flower from the Middle Ages. But all I discovered was what used to be called the aftermath - the growth that softened and coloured the land after harvest. Poppies, pimpernels.

The Wild Flower Society sent me its register. Yesterday, mid-January, I found that primroses at Bottengoms bloom all the year round, that catkins are showing in the track, that the grass is sodden in a kind of livid green, and that the hellebores (Christmas rose), both white and pink, need to have their muddy leaves clipped for their full glory to be manifest.

Pottering about in the winter warmth, I prayed for the flooded, for New Yorkers, for those without winter flowers - botanical and spiritual. "You are sheltered down here," visitors say.

There was a John Bottengoms who perished in 1375. I see him taking shelter from the cold - the plague, maybe - judging the weeds, crossing himself as he prays to St Benedict (12 January), plodding two miles to mass, bothered by purgatory, envying his betters their ability to pay for a short stay in it.

As one grows old, aspects of belief wither and fall away like petals, leaving a stout centre. Prayer becomes Herbertian, "something understood", and not a religious bothering. Best of all is holy quietness. And then there is gratitude.To have got this far!

Benedict for January. He did wonders in the north, until the last three years made him an invalid. His faith and his creativity wore him out. But what a life! A librarian, a singer, a builder, a traveller, gifted with restlessness and inspired by Christ, he perished in winter, leaving behind him a wonderful warmth. He taught Bede, the first known writer of English prose - and, they said, a light of the Church. Bede is also the only Englishman in Dante. Benedict would have applauded.

When I read these old writer-saints, I hear music in snowstorms.I feel that they would have been uncomfortable with my present winter - and horrified by my central heating. As for the new radiators in Little Horkesley Church, words would fail them. My Georgian ancestors in Suffolk put straw in their box pews, and fastened themselves in for long sermons.

The parson in his lofty pulpit stared down. There they were, his flock. There stood he, their shepherd. Breath floated around the church when they sang - possibly a hymn by Bede which hadn't got lost. "Sing we triumphant hymns of praise." But more likely slow, droning psalms.

An old neighbour, now with God, lacked patience with those who expected to be warm in church - "Put more clothes on!" Archaeology reveals arthritic bones in the monastery garden. Some years ago, I discovered a fitted carpet round a Tudor font.

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