I leave the forest shadows, click through the gate and enter a contrasting openness that is ‘Ellers Wood & Sand Dale’, a Site of Special Scientific Interest hugging the boundary of Dalby Forest.
I look to my left. The land rises clumsily, gradually. Springs flow down; underground, over-ground then under my feet reappearing to create a marsh to my right. I turn and look across the marsh. It leads to a pond hosting dancing damselflies beyond which Thornton Beck can be heard weaving through the coppiced hazel and alder. The broadleaved wood was once extensive. These remains are lucky to survive the vast conifer planting of the early to mid 20th century.
But survive it has and this site is rich. Rich in species, rich in colour. The soft-yolk yellows of spring cowslips and primroses are the first signs that exciting things are about to happen. Violet and butterwort blues move on to the mustardy-greens of twayblade, the sickly pinks of a variety of marsh orchid and the glossy golds of spearwort. As the garishness smoulders, the down-like tufts of cottongrass begin to blanket the marsh. Their stems appear too weak to stand up to the slightest of mid-summer breezes yet are strong enough to support spider webs dripping in dew early morning. It’s at this point that I think it’s all over for the botanical year. But, I’m wrong. It’s not until September has chilled the August air that my favourite wildflower, grass of parnassus, is at its best.
I take a break from my walk, slipping down the slope to the marsh. The path is faint. I stop. My weight draws water over my boot. As it creeps close to the laces, I move on. It’s this that makes photography so darned difficult here.
Grass of parnassus is everywhere, is easily overlooked, unremarkable in many respects. But, when I take a closer look….the intricacies, the colours, the grace! Not a grass but a member of the Saxifrage family, grass of parnassus is named after Mount Parnassus in Greece. Each flower sits atop a slender smooth stem which stretches up from ground-hugging, heart-shaped leaves. In the flower itself, a luminescent pearl, in pale powder-pink and nestling in a golden coronet is guarded by five notched petals. These petals appear plain, clean white from a distance but they’re actually etched lightly with elongated veins. Look further and the veins are slightly green.
I would have thought that such delicacy would require a less rugged, less damp habitat but, apparently not. The perpetual wetness of the site and the high rainfall that I complain about so much is perfect.
The ‘History of Thornton Dale’ by Reginald Jeffery & Keith Snowden, (if you know or are local to Thornton and haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it) mentions that, when the hills became home to the conifers in the 1920s, a villager worried about the loss of the grass of parnassus. He need not have worried as I can happily report that this beautiful little flower is not only alive and well but flourishing.