John Keats called it the “Sapphire queen of the mid-May” in his poem Fancy published in 1820. Two hundred years later we have to move that into April because of another early Spring.
No other flower holds quite the same place in the nation’s hearts as the bluebell. Like our favourite bird, the robin, and our best-known tree, the oak, it has become a symbol of what it means to be British.
This is appropriate, given that, globally, the bluebell has a very limited range: it is confined to the western shores of the great Eurasian landmass, where the Atlantic-influenced maritime climate – generally mild and wet – allows this little flower to grow in profusion.
The name “bluebell” seems to have been with us for ever, so it is surprising to learn that it first appeared in print barely two hundred years ago, in the last decade of the 18th century. The name was in use much earlier, but it was applied to a completely different plant, the harebell, a flower that tends to prefer sunnier, more open settings on our chalk downland.
Tennyson compared a carpet of bluebells to “the blue sky, breaking up through the earth”. But even this is topped by Gerard Manley Hopkins who, in his journal for 1871, wrote of bluebells “in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue”.
Sadly, our spring carpets of bluebells are now under threat on two flanks, both, ironically, a result of our very British passion for gardening. Bluebells are vulnerable to having their bulbs dug up by people wanting to replant them in their gardens – an act that is now illegal, as well as selfish. It is difficult to buy true wild plants since most supplies are of the hybridised form.
Wild bluebell displays are often infiltrated by stands of Spanish bluebells, a popular garden variety with stiffer, less drooping flowers, which freely hybridises with native plants, and creates hybrid flowers. Fortunately, there are still enough displays of pure British bluebells for us to enjoy: from Cape Wrath at the tip of Scotland to our most southerly outpost, the Isles of Scilly.
On a sunlit spring morning, walking serenaded by birdsong, it is hard to imagine a more classic wildflower experience than a British bluebell wood in full bloom.
Welcome to Dockey Wood. The gates are open, the flowers are out, the signs are up, and the volunteers are already patrolling the walk-ways and engaging with the visitors. It is rewarding to know that this tiny wood in a remote part of rural Buckinghamshire is now a global attraction, “for ever and for everyone”.