Word from Wormingford

12 February 2016

Ronald Blythe marvels at snowdrops as he works in the garden

IT IS all too easy in a ramshackle old farmhouse garden to miss a great flowering: in this instance, the show of snowdrops that climb from the low eaves of what were once the dairies to the fields, taking in the badger sett on the way.

The snowdrops at the front are glorious enough, but those at the rear are breathtaking. It is oceanic: a white sea, from which rises a long-barren tangle of ancient fruit trees. Nettles will eventually hide their decrepitude. At the moment, the snowdrops are giving them a kind of life, of vitality. And the temperature is delicately warm, like the south of France. All this on the Suffolk-Essex border, the River Stour glittering a mile or two away, and the white cat sunbathing on a window sill.

I read about snowdrops in my friend Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, and in The Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening, 1887 — a mighty work, which was propped up by John Nash’s chair, its back broken, its glorious pages tumbling about a bit in old age, but its information still as fresh as a daisy for all that.

Here and there some pencilled additions, like those in my mother’s Bible, fade in the margins. Snowdrop: see Galanthus nivalis. So I haul down Vol. 2 to find that gála is Greek for “milk”, and that ánthos, of course, is “flower”, added to which that snowdrops will thrive anywhere, and will multiply like some mighty nation and cover any kind of soil. And they are doing that at this February moment. I am in summer-gardening oddments, and silent gulls, blown in from the seaside, take it all in.

What for matins? Something reaching out from the Epiphany to Septuagesima? Or is this too soon? I find myself rewalking old miles, but in my head. Allan — with two lls — had driven me to Pendle Hill, where the Quakers had found the eloquence of silence. It was raining as we drove to its base, and Bowland appeared in variants of drizzle. Allan said something like “There it is, Bowland,” and stayed in the car, and I got out and climbed. It was a little like George Fox, I thought, whose companion was lame; so he found the way to silence alone. He was 28.

Pendle Hill, in Lancashire, needs another 170 feet to qualify as a mountain. Treeless, but evenly covered with cotton-grass, mare’s tail, and butterwort, and dotted with little bushes of cloudberry, it has a sloping flat top and chasmic sides. I remember thinking that it must have confronted young Fox with strange religious questions. Hills do not necessarily make their climbers ask why.

Raindrops the size of old pennies battered me, and thoughts the size of belief battered young Fox. I followed Fox’s path. I could hear Pendle’s rivulets clinking and gobbling their way down to the moorland farms.

Allan and I were on our way to Lindisfarne when this mighty scenic obstacle stood in our path, saying: “Look at me! I told religion to hold its tongue!” All that preaching, all those words, and never a let-up. What about singing? Do Friends sing? Yes, if the Spirit says “Sing!”

Fox was the kind of traveller who described how hard it was to get about, and rarely what one saw on the way. Most English travellers did, then. They were listeners, not sightseers. Hence the immense sound of Pendle’s silence in Fox’s ears. It must have been like God talking to that temple boy in the night.

All I heard on Pendle Hill was weather. It spoke wildly. It orchestrated the huge view. Other than on 11 November, any kind of unannounced silence in church creates anxiety. The ancient building says “I have been talking for centuries.”

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