This is a diary of what happened when one couple bought an area of water meadows in the ancient town of Bury St Edmunds. It is not a nature diary nor a historic record- more a stream of consciousness.
A month has gone by and The Lockdown continues. Things have been growing in abundance, particularly the nettles. Time passes easily- there never seem enough hours in the day. The weather has been sunny and warm with no rain; water levels are falling and even the wet meadows and the woodland are becoming more accessible.
There are so many signs of life! A duck with 9 ducklings based herself in the ditch by the wet footpath; a tree-creeper built a nest on top of a railway carriage. Most exciting of all, a swarm of bees took up residence in the crook of an elder tree where it stayed for three weeks before disappearing again.
I finished some weaving projects which had been languishing, using the nettle/camomile dye and various others from previous experiments. These were hung in various parts of the site and seemed to take on their own power in the context of the surroundings:
I am inclined to do less and just enjoy things- I am becoming more aware of my behaviour and that of the few volunteers who still come- we all have an urge to “tidy” things. It is difficult to resist. One person takes this to a high level by placing the nettles in a neat pile, then smaller sticks, then longer ones, all in a neat order:
Flowers are coming out on Harp Meadow. The yellow flag iris, vetch and a woad plant I moved from the allotment. It looks happy enough amongst the nettles
I am also pleased to see the return of Gypsywort in small groups:
What can be done to restrain ourselves? A path is being created around the site, getting easier as things get drier. This would at least steer visitors in a suggested direction. And the man courtyard is gradually becoming clearer: the Recycling Centre re-opened a week ago, and the rubbish collection will start to reduce once more. This feels hopeful.
Spring has definitely sprung, and the Lockdown continues. I am realising how incredibly lucky we are to enjoy this wonderful place, and particularly at such a time.
Easter has come and gone, with churches shut up. Even the church garden is now out of bounds. Surely see honouring of this festival was needed? Ostera, is, after all, a pagan goddess of Spring.
By Eduard Ade – Felix Dahn, Therese Dahn, Therese (von Droste-Hülshoff) Dahn, Frau, Therese von Droste-Hülshoff Dahn (1901). Walhall: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen. Für Alt und Jung am deutschen Herd. Breitkopf und Härtel., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4643479
For Palm Sunday I took some willow branches and placed them in front of the door of St Mary’s:
The willow looked austere rather than celebratory. I was then recommended a programme on Radio 4: Pussy Willows and the Yew Willow is what was used, but I was using the wrong willow! Goat willow has more interesting yellow flowers. I set out to find some, and found one specimen growing on the side of the Cullum Road, with glorious sprays of fragrant flowers.
On Easter Saturday I cut fresh branches and made a cross
Early on Easter Sunday this was attached to the door of St Mary’s:
The weather has been dry, warm and sunny . Established plants have burst forth, and seeds sown over the winter are sprouting. The ground is drying out fast: areas where it was dry before are now too dry to sow. Boggy areas are becoming more reachable.
We have been working on a “woodland glade”- formally a patch of nettles surrounded by a ditch. Now the ditch has a stepping stone, a leafy bower with honey suckle, and a wonderful climbing frame of a tree with a balance bar, which has been cleared of nettles and brambles. The air smells of mint inside the glade. It has been sown with woodland seed and planted with forget-me-not. I must admit I normally weed this out of my garden, but it takes on a new beauty in dappled shade.
Nettles are endemic- such a successful plant they have overwhelmed almost everything. At least they have their uses:
Butterfly food; hide for small animals; dye plant; food for humans rich in iron, Vit C and Folic acid; cordage and fibre from the bast, deterrent!
Butterflies abound in the sunshine. Peacock butterflies are particularly obliging with the camera:
Last year I enjoyed Fay Jones‘ Stinging Nettle Workshop at Lackford Lakes. Fay is an endless source of creativity, and I had been looking forward to more woodland wisdom in her workshops on pine and birch- now all cancelled.
I made stinging nettle pesto, which keeps in a jar in my fridge and is added to eggs to make ST tart (with grated cheese on top) or ST pie, spreading over puff pastry before adding feta cheese and beaten egg- all delicious, health-giving food in these interesting times.
I had a dyeing session with nettles, too, but the colour didn’t look that strong. I found a bag of frozen dyers’ camomile in the freezer and put that into the pot, too, making a dense yellow:
The nettles will soon be strong enough to make cordage- getting the timing right is critical as too young and they are too wet and not strong enough, too old and they get too woody.
Plants are beginning to emerge. I put various leafy vegetables into a small bit of prepared earth on Harp Meadow- they are coming up in straight rows, unlike everything else on the patch- I look regularly to see what is coming up and have made a piece of felt which reflects this- wanting to find new life!
Flowers are coming out, too: I am having to learn new ones. The Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) is dotted around Harp meadow, nodding daintily. Also known as Lady’s smock, Mayflower or Milkmaids: what pretty names!
Anna, the reptile expert, came to check the corrugated iron for her biodiversity study one sunny morning. No reptiles so far, but some vole nests, which might provide bait….poor things.
The rubbish still troubles me: Since the closure of the Waste Management Site I have been hoarding the worst of it in the carriage on Harp meadow. Yet I am also getting used to it. The rusty iron in particular has a battle-worn glamour. It has inspired me to make some mono prints labelled “Holofernes”- that odious general decapitated by the Hebrew Warrior-Priestess Judith- no prizes for spotting the various parallels in our current world:
The yard generally looks tidier; the seemingly endless supply of wire and posts has come in handy for mending fences and providing better security. Even the corrugated iron sheeting might come in useful! I can see possibilities in the stable yard: it is pleasant to sit down at the end of the day and look out over the watermeadows in the sunshine. I look forward to easier times when this can be shared with friends: there is a difficult balance to be struck between public access and private space. Having dealt with so much litter over the winter period I have come to the reluctant conclusion that man is the cause of so many of its problems, and that this precious space must be kept as a protected area for the natural world- even protected from my own inquisitiveness and urge to “tidy up”. Yet people need to be able to see this to understand it, celebrate it and be nurtured by its healing quality. There are still things to be done, meanwhile: planting more hedging along the Southern boundary would soften the view of buildings and create spaces for small birds. There is much that can be improved by increasing the diversity of the wild flowers in a variety of habitats. I have ordered new seed mixes and some woodland anemones to arrive in the Autumn- looking forward to that time already!
And in the meantime- more bramble and nettle-thinning to prepare the ground, and nurturing of hedge plants to plant out once the soil is damp enough again.
The world has changed since my last post. The full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is yet to be known, both in deaths and the economic and social outcomes. As far as the water meadows are concerned this must now be one of the safest places in the country. One of the advantages is that people have time on their hands are and keen to get out safely. There has been lack of clarity over what is allowed, but if we have no more than 2 people over 15 acres, with due “social distancing” of 2m, then this seems very safe, based on the police message:
£60 Police fines are introduced if people leave their home property with out good reason.
1) collecting vital provisions or helping a vunerable relative with provisions.
2) medical appointments
3) qualifying work https://www.gov.uk/
ie key workers or work that allows you to stay 2metres away from anyone at all times that you can’t do at home.
4) one form of daily exercise on your own or with members of your household only.
5) official volunteering adhering to the 2 metre social distancing rule.
SCC advises registering your group and individuals at the Tribe Volunteer App https://apps.apple.com/gb/app/tribe-volunteer/id1503012429 or android version https://play.google.com/store/apps/details…
If you have trouble registering your voluntary group email me on email@example.com
I tried, unsuccessfully, to register with “Tribe”, as they were unable to do it at this time. Suffolk Wildlife Trust have cancelled all activities, but are allowing the public to walk on their land. The Church of England have no guidelines for their churchyards, but we agreed there should be one at a time at St Mary’s. Not allowing people on the water meadows at this time seems illogical if the aim is to avoid social contact. We have settled on a compromise of 2 people at a time, not counting Simon, the gardener, who continues to come 2 days a week on the grounds that his job really is not possible to carry out from home, and he has 4 children to feed.
The compromise has been taken up by several enthusiastic volunteers, and I have been working harder than ever.
Meanwhile Spring is beginning to burst. Hawthorn is producing lime green leaves; blackthorn its white blossom; stinging nettles are sprouting everywhere. Today has been warm and bumble bees have emerged, along with butterflies. I have time to watch them. The waters are receding. I watch for frogspawn- I haven’t found it yet, but there are frogs about.
My own activities have centred around the main yard by Gate 2. This has been limited by the closure of the Waste Management site, but this, along with the many changes in our lives, is forcing transformation in our thinking. Old wood? Can be used for an insect hotel (along with moss, nettle stalks, willow branches)
The chair frames have been resurrected: I found some deck chair material for one and upholstery stuff for the other. It is becoming gentrified!
My art-work is becoming more embodied- making nests using stinging nettle root, of which there is no lack
And felt objects:
More seed has been ordered, there seem to be endless things to do, but am I missing the point here? Using this strange time to simply look and connect is very precious.
Spring is about to happen- there is a sense of urgency if anymore clearance is to be considered.
19th February I collect the daffodils and set to work getting them in along the public footpath. It takes two sessions, trying to put them in groups rather than institutional straight lines. Martyn Taylor tells me the bit of “Market Path”beyond the black poplar used to be called Cut-throat Lane- this is confirmed by the magnified version of the 1791 map of Bury St Edmunds on display at The Atheneum.
Simon has been here now for 4 weeks and progress has speeded up thanks to his energy. “Paths” have been laid towards the bank and ditch enclosure using branches cut from overhanging trees. “Tunnels” have been laid along fences for wildlife. A lot of time has been spent doing unglamorous jobs, like taking up a tarpaulin on Harp Meadow, and dismantling a former pigsty, which had been used as a drugs den and then ignited. The mess inside was a tangle of fused plastic, drugs equipment (syringes, needles, glass vials and foil tabs), brambles and charred remains. At the base was a railway sleeper which disintegrated on moving to reveal a deep red interior. I wasn’t sure what the wood might have been originally, and collected a load to try as a dye plant. This failed as no colour was obtained- no experiment is a true failure, however!
I addressed the interior of the caravan. This was a particularly disgusting job- a pile of musty objects amongst rat nests, broken glass and thick layers of dung. The caravan itself is in a very poor state- damp++ I have turned against it.
Simon has dismantled the hut next to the caravan, producing yet more stuff. Some is intriguing, particularly the brass trappings of bridles. Again, the difficulty is how far to go- what to throw away and what to keep.
After three trips to the waste recycling unit I still have a huge pile of stuff to be cleared. I took my friend Brian Jones around- amazed by the site- he stopped by a filing cabinet next to the stables to remark that things aren’t what they used to be!
I am aware that the birds are beginning to think about nesting and will not want much more destruction of their habitat. Us humans seem obsessed with “tidying up”. Attention should turn towards seeding and planting. So far most of my planting efforts (except the snowdrops) have been eaten- I blame the Muntjac deer for this- or washed away by the floods. I have purchased 30 more bare rooted hawthorn. In true orderly fashion I hope to replace the worst of the squalor with hawthorn hedging. And an oak sapling which I grew from an acorn collected in Northern Spain on a pilgrimage in 2018 will replace the pig-sty in the hope it produces peace.
A neighbour Anna Saltmarsh is a biologist interested in reptiles, and has set up a biodiversity survey using sheets of corrugated iron, placed in various parts of the site- I shall await her findings with interest
The weather continues to be be damp and rainy for the most part, but there are moments when the sun comes out, and then I work until after it goes, and the moon is visible
Art-works are beginning to reflect my sense of place: a felted bowl dyed in woad “ground water” and two pieces with lacerations: “this scarred earth”. I wonder if some of the objects in this yard could at least be used for printing- leaving a memorial to what has gone before?
Much to report:
Jan 27 . The skip arrived. There was an abortive attempt to drive it up the footpath. It became clear this was not possible due to overhanging trees, and the van reversed, producing deep furrows in the mud. The contents of the shed filled the skip within 24h. Another will be needed
Feb 4. The willow planting party. Very cold wind, but 16 people kindly turned up and 6 varieties of Osier willow were planted quickly:
Flanders, Dark Dicks, Harrison’s seedling , Purpurea, Viminalis, Triandra
It was far too cold to be too precise about labelling- I hope they will be recognisable once they sprout
This was followed by a walk around the site- I reflected how much easier this was than when we tried before, and nice pictures were taken.
Feb 3 Simon starts! A gardener is joining us for 2 days a week. He comes around the site delighted to be out of an office job.
Feb 5. I ordered 2000 snowdrops “in the green” from Hazel Nurseries in Bury market, and buy a couple of bargain bags of left-over daffodils. My friend Fay Jones came round and needed some persuasion this was worthwhile: Fay is a purist who considers these plants to be foreign imposters, with no benefit for wildlife. Snowdrops first appear in European manuscripts in the C16, and were possibly brought to England by pilgrims visiting the Middle East. This was the explanation given to me at Walsingham, where their display of long-established snowdrops accounts for more modern pilgrims than their Madonna.
I hope I was able to persuade her that snowdrops were justified on the grounds that their intended spot was along the St Edmund’s Way, the long distance footpath running over the site, and it was a gesture of respect for the pilgrims, who would have come this way.. Other ecclesiastical meanings relate to their tripartite shape and their white purity. They are supposed to flower at Candlemas- 40 days after Christmas. Whatever their meaning I love them for being so brave to flower at this time of year and for being an early herald of Spring. I didn’t dare mention the daffodils, probably introduced by the Romans. At least they are a dye plant…
Feb 7 . Simon gets going making a path up towards the “Medieval meadow” with incredible speed. We follow SWT’s suggestion of building piles of brash as a tunnel against the fence- a wildlife motorway
Feb 8 The snowdrops are collected from the market in a wheelbarrow
Feb 9. Storm Clara strikes- heavy rain and very strong winds in fearful gusts. At around 11am the crown of the Black Poplar falls across the main footpath, breaking the fence on our side and the fence of our neighbour, and falling into the back of his garden.
Feb 10. I go with Simon to survey the damage, and meet my neighbour trying to do his best to clear up. All our chainsaws are too small and I contact the council for help. As we are talking two men arrive and take some pieces from the crown of the tree. They are experienced tree grafters and we get talking. They assure me this is a genuine Black Poplar, and very old. Its age alone makes it unlikely to be hybridised. I do not know how long a Black poplar can live for, but this seems plausible in view of its enormous size and its position: it stands at the corner of the medieval bank and ditch, which would have been the outer boundary of Bury St Edmunds where the path led Southwards.
The men show me what to do, and I take 40 pieces from the fallen branch and plant them in the water meadows, hoping that at least a few might live. Later in the day they return and give me a large bunch of Hawthorn saplings: perfect for filling in gaps in the ancient hedge.
Feb 11. I set to work planting the snowdrops. The path I had hoped to cover was too wet on one side, so I kept mainly to the higher bank, and then continued on up the main path towards the stricken poplar.
Towards the end of the afternoon a man started to chatting to me about progress, and raised the subject once again of the poplar: “That’s a Hanging Tree!” he assured me. “This is God’s Retribution for all those poor witches!” This seemed entirely plausible and I had no reason to doubt him, knowing nothing about witches in East Anglia. as evening came on I had a last bunch of snowdrops, and planted them beside the poplar as a small memorial. Reading about this now Bury St Edmunds was a centre for Witch Trials. On the 27th August 1645 a trial took place which resulted in 18 executions by hanging. 16 of these cases were women. Bury had its own Jurisdiction, and this tree lay on the boundary between the town and the rest of the County of Suffolk. Such injustice is worth a memorial, whichever tree it was.
Feb 14. We reached the stable! My friends April and John Urquhart came with me, April taking pictures. The stables were mainly empty, although there were signs of previous drug-taking, and some names written on the wall in white chalk- were they horses’ names?
As we continue to “clean” the area of rubbish I am wondering, yet again, how far to go with removal of brambles and nettles, and how much (if anything) to keep. The caravan is never going to look lovely. Would it be too fanciful to create a woodland garden in this space, with “compartments” as a base camp and growing area. Decisions about further cutting would need to be made quickly as the nesting season will be starting soon.
Feb 15 Another storm, but I can’t resist getting down there for more litter clearance. It is raining, and I am feeling less romantic about the general squalor of the place. Do I really need so much corrugated iron? And yet more rubbish is revealed beneath the endless nettles, which are now beginning to sprout. Encouragement has come through a generous offer of the rest of the daffodil bulbs by Hazel nurseries- the very end of the planting season. I will show up with my wheelbarrow next week!
I have made some bird-feeders using left-over willow from my friend Jane Frost, and hung them up in the courtyard by Gate 3. The tits love them, but the robins prefer to eat seed thrown on the ground
We have ordered a skip to try and clear the site of plastic, ancient bikes, and anything else which takes away from the beauty of this place. It arrives tomorrow. Hurrah!
In the meantime I have continued to cut through brambles, aiming to gain access to the other carriages and (possibly) the larger stable behind the main yard. A complex of decomposing sheds has now been revealed: a second kennel and a collapsed structure next to the caravan. The litter is more horse-related, with bits of tackle under leaf-mould:
As I was working a woman stopped and chatted- she had given the caravan to the previous owner! I was keen to know its history- she thinks it is around 40years old, and started life in Worthing with her parents. We inspected the interior together- she recognised various kitchen treasures from the 1970s, including a frying pan with brown and orange flowers in the enamel, and curtains with a similar design, now VERY worn- a potential art project?
What to do with this space? I had an idea to tidy it up and hedge it with hawthorn. The young hawthorns are sitting expectantly in a tub of compost, but as yet I have been unable to find an obvious periphery to the concrete, which lies about 3 inches below the leafmould.
By yesterday evening I was into a new space beyond the kennels, and in the distance can now see the entrance to the main stable! Brambles all the way there, and a lot more rubbish, too- another week of hard labour ahead.
I was quite wrong about a possible sloe hedge- it was in fact more brambles! I returned to the carriage and cleared more syringes, old bedclothes and a couple of bicycles– then I concentrated on clearing the brambles.
As work progressed further structures appeared. It seemed as if I was uncovering a complex of different buildings. There was a caged shed ?suitable for a large dog with a slightly unlikely NO SMOKING sign on the front. The caged door was easy to open, and inside was my first treasure! A couple of brass-effect plaques from agricultural shows:
I placed the brasses carefully on the ledge above the shed. On the other side, behind a tangle of old brambles, was a small caravan! This had previously been invisible.
As I was about to leave a passer-by started chatting- he was one of the cooks from the West Suffolk Hospital. I took him round the site, and as I mentioned that I had seen a fox he looked behind me and said “There he is!” What a strange coincidence. The fox had come to see what we were up to.
By the time I was finished the yard looked much larger, if not tidier. I carried two cart-loads back to Harp Meadow in the hope they would fit into my car tomorrow. I was left with 20 concrete slabs- does anyone want them??
I made two visits to the Waste Recycling Centre. First with four sacks of drugs equipment, the collapsable tent and a sleeping bag, and second with a broken bicycle, a wheel, and various plastic objects, including a chair with three legs. The bicycle was the most difficult as the new system requires you to lift the item over a barrier and then throw it a couple of feet to reach the skip.
The inside of the shed was just as bad as the metal container with large numbers of syringes, opened glass vials and other drug paraphenalia in piles on the floor and between layers of decomposing fabrics. I was very relieved to see the back of this stuff, but know there is much more to go.
I returned mid-afternoon and looked around.I hadn’t realised how cold it was and frost was still on the ground. A cock pheasant came to see what I was doing:
I could not face any more shed clearance, but got going on the brambles: I could see that a hedge already existed at the back- it was getting dark but I suspect it is blackthorn:
Blackthorn (sloe) makes me feel nervous as its thorns produce inflammation out of proportion to the injury they produce. I am not sure why. It needs to be treated with respect.
Once again it was dark before I got anywhere near completing the task, but the “courtyard” is definitely reappearing.
I returned to the area around Gate 3, this time with some loppers and a rake in addition to the litter pickers. The contents of the metal container were at least as bad as expected. I picked out syringes, opened glass vials and anything that would float in the gruesome tank and then put them in a separate bag. I keep going, clearing brambles to get better access. Once the ground was clear I emptied the container of water using an old saucepan at first, then tipped the whole thing over once I was able.
By the time I had finished the area outside the railway carriage was clear. It had revealed a new shed at right angles in a very poor state.
I mused briefly on decrepitude: there is a beauty in decay and disintegration, and I think this belongs to the idea of a return to earth and the ephemeral nature of life. Plastic and used drug vials can never be beautiful as they do not decay, even if they carry a sadness and poignancy.
And what shall I do with this space? It is quite useful to have a headquarters, but it could be so much nicer! As I turned the other way I am enclosed with more decrepitude:
And yet the place has potential. The idea of an enclosed courtyard reminds me of the very lovely Foxburrow Farm run by Suffolk Wildlife Trust, which has a traditional farm courtyard. One of the lovely features of that place is the amount of hawthorn hedging used to make small enclosures, tunnels and screens. I think this area could be transformed in a similar fashion but simply removing most man-made stuff, leaving the basic structures of the sheds and making “rooms” with Hawthorn. And (of course) fewer brambles and stinging nettles
Invigorated by this thought I dragged four sacks of rubbish back along the path and deposited them on Harp Meadow, ready for another trip to the Waste Recycling Centre tomorrow
It remained very wet on Harp Meadow, and I decided to pluck up courage and do some serious litter picking. I had been avoiding the railway carriages along the path towards Barons Road as I guessed the task would be grim, and it was.
Most of the litter around Harp Meadow is related to drinks in some form or another: lager cans and the occasional bottle of rum seem to get chucked across the fence.
The stuff beside the railways carriages is in quite another league. Various items: a collapsable tent, a plastic chair, ancient bedding, suggest someone or several people, had set up residence a while back. Inside the carriage next to the gate there are around a dozen bicycles in a poor state. The worst by far, however, was a large bin full of stinking water and a pile of partially disintergrated bags containing syringes, needles, opened glass vials and small silver foil holders.
I cut back some brambles to get closer and started picking things out and putting them in a garden sack. The stench was vile, and as syringe after syringe appeared I started to wonder if this was the right way to go.
Luckily it was time to leave, so I went home, leaving everything on site for now, and took the more reasonable bag to the new Recycling Centre on Fornham Road. I asked the men there what I should do and they were unanimous in explaining they are a private company and that this was a matter for the council. Later that afternoon I contacted the council, but they too, were uninterested. They put me though to “public health and housing” , who seemed relieved this was on private land and not in a house or on the footpath. They made it clear it was my problem, and suggested I put the things in a black bag for collection in the usual way. They didn’t think the police would be interested, either as it was not recent activity. Something to look forward to, then!