The great American golfer Walter Hagen had a saying: “Take time along the way to smell the flowers.” He may even have done this in Sussex. Whether he meant this metaphorically or literally I cannot say, but I like to think the latter, for I certainly appreciated the places in which I used to play golf for their flora as well as for the greens (though mixing the two is perhaps not desirable).
Hagen was a bit of a shared hero to me and my late father; we played a lot of golf together in lovely places, enjoying each other, the game and the flora. He was a highly competitive person himself, but one who made time for other pleasures, which he shared with me as his father had with him. His wildflower classroom was the West Country, but for me it was and remains the Sussex Downs. There is no place more special to me than a downland meadow or sheep path, probably in a valley some way from civilisation, with larks above, butterflies around ankles and a glimpse of the sea not far away.
Counting the flowers
My pa used to count the wildflower varieties he found on walks and note these in tiny pocket diaries. If this sounds a little obsessive and very unscientific, I can only agree but hold my hand up to doing the same, though without the diary. The act of counting makes one focus on the flora, so as not to miss any delight. It is a constant reminder of the diversity at your feet and, in that unscientific way, of the seasons’ changes. Without this habit, I would surely have missed that solitary, tiny autumn lady’s tresses orchid and the autumn felwort near Birling Gap just last month.
A major enhancement for all wildflower enthusiasts was the publication in 1965 of Rev. Keble-Martin’s wonderful book of his own illustrations, The Concise British Flora. This was far superior to, and more beautiful than, any previous handbook and an education in itself. My family loved looking up new finds and rectifying old mis-identifications in it. Today’s smartphone app lacks some of that magic, no matter how clever.
Passing on the passion
From a very early age my wife and I inculcated our girls with the beauties of the flowers of chalk hills and the weird and wonderful names to be committed to memory: viper’s bugloss; enchanter’s nightshade; ploughman’s spikenard. Some Latin names too are intriguing: blackstonia perfoliata; eupatoria cannabinum; pulicaria dysenterica and many more. Happily, when a career move away from our beloved Downs became necessary, our next home was on the chalky Chilterns, with many familiar flower friends around us.
A later chapter in arable Cambridgeshire is best left undescribed, but holidays in the West Country reconnected us with my father’s inspiration and kept our appetite alive. I well recall the thrill of ‘discovering’ scores of Southern marsh orchid spikes on a disused Devon railway line; and the competitively rich diversity of a North Cornish coombe.
Returning to Sussex
Eventually, from a by then empty nest, my wife and I migrated back to East Sussex, our floral alma mater, to live among bluebells and wood anemones in striking distance of the Downs. We still sometimes count varieties, because we always have; and still on occasion may reach the magic total of 100, thanks in part to the management of the South Downs National Park. For me, Sussex is wildflowers and not just the emblematic rampion.
I hope by writing to share this with others. Maybe some readers have not yet experienced the breath-taking sight of acres of cowslips in spring, easily ignored by not being on the beaten tracks. How many know that Rottingdean has its own named variety of sea lavender? And what other county offers orchids as roadside wildflowers rather than as rarities in isolated reserves?
So this is the legacy I treasure from my late pa but thanks too, Sussex, for making it so special still; and Walter, for showing that even a dedicated champion can also have a hinterland.