I cannot remember the first time I saw bluebells. But I can certainly recall what my mother told me about them more than 60 years ago. Bluebells, she explained, had to be treated with special care because of their delicate constitution.
My grandmother thought the same about me. They were both wrong. Bluebells, in their natural habitat, are near indestructible. The bulbs from which they grow multiply even more quickly than the rabbits with which they share our woods. But once they come to the surface, unfolding their petals, their character and condition changes. Pick a bluebell and it will soon wither and die.
So although I was allowed — nay, encouraged — to pick daffodils and daisies in Sheffield’s Beeley Wood and sent to collect broom and heather on Wadsley Common, I was instructed to leave bluebells flourishing where they grew.
This prohibition had nothing to do with the belief that the countryside should not be ravaged by weekend visitors. Indeed, our garden boasted a fine collection of ferns that had been brought home from various Sunday excursions. Nor was my mother fearful that I would break some arcane law. Fifty years were to pass before the bluebell became a protected species.
Simply, I was forbidden to touch them because she knew that this most English of wild flowers was intended to bloom and grow, untouched by human hand. And so it was that I spent my childhood in reverence to bluebells.
Every April we treated them with care — in much the same way we plucked ripe blackberries in August and holly at Christmas. These fruits and flowers were part of the British countryside and, therefore, belonged to us. It was our duty to protect them (when necessary) and enjoy them too.
Looking back now, it occurs to me that we spent a great deal of time trespassing. But the idea never passed through our minds. We would have treated the land with no less care had it been our own property. We never tramped recklessly through fields of growing wheat, dropped litter or left gates open. Because we considered it ours, we were as proprietorial about the hills and valleys as about the lawn in our own back garden. And we never picked the bluebells.
In their own way, bluebells are the most accommodating plants in the countryside. Throughout the winter, their bulbs lie patiently submerged below the cold wet earth. And, each spring, they push their way out of the earth before the trees, under which they prosper, have grown so much foliage that they are denied sufficient sunlight to blossom.
They cover the debris of autumn — dead leaves, broken branches, withered grass — with a carpet of shining cobalt blue that ripples like a sapphire sea, as the petals of their hanging heads shimmer in the breeze.
You see, the bluebell’s appearance seems to demand the construction of such extravagant descriptions built around far-fetched metaphors. Yet they have attracted less literary attention than is enjoyed by more prosaic plants.
These days I live on high ground where trees, and therefore bluebells, do not prosper. Ours is a sepia sort of countryside. But, although we lack the colour of the lowlands, we enjoy similar delights.
“If this is the landscape that we, the inconstant ones, are constantly homesick for,” wrote WH Auden, “it is chiefly because it happens to dissolve in water.”
This limestone country — which some call grim, others grey — has inspired centuries of poets. Yet the common bluebell (or hyacinthoides non-scripta) is noticeably absent from our literary canon.
Shakespeare was infatuated by roses. He wrote about banks where wild thyme grows. Ophelia distributed rosemary for remembrance and Puck lay in a cowslip’s bell. But not once in the whole of his collected works (884,647 words) does the playwright mention a bluebell.
The daffodil, its spring companion, appears in verse after verse of poetry, as every schoolboy knows. Wordsworth could have chosen, instead, to pen an ode to the bluebell “nodding and dancing in the breeze”. While Robert Herrick, if he’d had any aesthetic sense at all, might have wept “to see them haste away so soon”.
For its fleeting appearance is part of the bluebell’s magic. Like spring itself, it never lasts long. There is a sad joy about it which is, no doubt, why it so appealed to the Brontë sisters.
Anne — on her way to York to become a governess — was characteristically gloomy until she “looked upon a bank” and her “wandering glances fell upon a little trembling flower, a single sweet bluebell”. The sight cheered her up no end, which — bearing in mind Anne Brontë’s character — was a wonderful achievement in itself.
But while the bluebell is not the subject of endless verse, its name does prove irresistible to countless tearooms and miniature railways. For it is the people’s flower – not the poet’s. It is the humble bloom upon which we stumble by chance, hidden away in woodland nooks. We can walk among bluebells as we take in the manifold delights of spring.
For rural Britain — thanks in no small part to the rains of winter — is still the greenest and most glorious show on earth. As well as being easily accessible, it is free for all to enjoy.
Bluebells are just one part of this countryside panoply. There is much to delight in. I have chosen — for both my life and leisure — the rough country of the Peak District with the North Yorkshire hills of Whernside, with Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent taking second place.
I am pleased to inhabit country where the colour comes from hardy hawthorn and golden gorse. But I do not claim that they have any scenic supremacy over the Cotswolds, the Weald of Kent or the Sussex Downs.
These days I think of the bluebell as a symbol — not only of my childhood, but as a reminder of the need to respect, as well as enjoy, rural Britain. Our woodlands, meadows, hedgerows and streams must be treated with care. Attend to them as nature intended and they will provide our pleasure for season after season. Exploit them and they will wither away like a plucked bluebell.