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Word from Wormingford

04 April 2014

A flower prompts memories of a bike ride in Ronald Blythe's past

AS ALWAYS, the fritillaries halt me in my tracks. Since I search eagerly for most seasonal treasures, I have never understood why a small group of them under the walnut tree are not seen until they wave at me to stop. They are about a foot high,and stand up well in the not-quite-mature spring grass. Each bloom has six matt, lustreless petals, and it declines rather than droops, with dark threadlike stalks. Every April and May, from time immemorial, they show themselves in my orchard to remind me of what I have cometo think of as their native land - Framsden, in Suffolk.

It is there, at the long pasture in the dell, which is covered with these speckled, bell-shaped, vaguely sinister blooms - the British species of genus Fritillaria liliaceae. It was an hour's bike-ride from my house, and a proper pilgrimage for a member of the Wild Flower Society. And Mrs Fox, tall, elderly, and generous, standing at the gate to welcome us where snake's heads grew.

For 50 weeks her long meadow was no more than two acres of dank grass, with a lush drainage ditch severing it; but when the fritillaries came, it turned into the Plains of Enna when Persephone set foot in them. There they were - hundreds, thousands of them, some a papery white, but most a muted purple colour with the reptilian markings that gave them their nickname. Nightingales sang over them. There was a cold wind blowing, as well as these mysterious spring flowers.

It would have been a Saturday afternoon when Mrs Fox was at home. There were so many of them that we never knew where to tread, and when we left she would give us little fritillary bouquets. This was the time when country people believed that the more you picked the more they grew - a policy that rioted when it came to bluebells.

Fritillaries were so called by the Romans after their dice box, or shaker, which was one of the few personal belongings that a soldier carried around. This, and a chequer-board. "And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them and upon my vesture did they cast lots."

Matthias succeeded the tragic Judas by the luck of the draw. The rattling dice-boxes decided great matters. And here is this dicey flower, with its suggestive markings, among the primroses every year in my garden - often a meal for blackbirds if I don't protect it.

I will keep those that Mrs Fox gave me until they shrivel to nothing on my desk, but I never pick mine. I walk to them, and watch them. And tread around them. Tidying up a "Rambling Rector" rose so that it knows its place; hanging up a fallen apple branch; raking sodden leaves; and hearing the rooks carrying on, thinking of Framsden and Mrs Fox and her countless snake's heads. -"Put them in water as soon as you get home, dear. They'll last: you'll see!" And her joyous dog - "Get you down!"

I must make a proper remembrance of Framsden, and place a single snake's head on the windowsill, but the March wind, how icy it is, and the nesting birds, how they sing! And the continuity of all things. At matins, we sing the Benedicite: "O all ye fritillaries, bless ye the Lord. Praise him and magnify him for ever."

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