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.
Yesterday it rained so hard I had a day off, wondering if the ditches would be starting to fill up. My friend John Urquhart came round and we discussed things over tea. He belongs to a fishing syndicate which leases a part of the River Lark. Unlikely as this may seem the fishermen have a keen interest in the invertebrates, as these provide the food supply for the fish. He described an invertebrate scoring system they have been using, which has made him concerned about falling numbers noted in the River Lark this year. Further, their syndicate had not managed to catch a single trout all summer.
Come to think of it I hadn’t seen many insects, considering the amount of bramble cutting I had been doing. Was this significant, too? The decline in insect populations has been well-described, with a huge loss in insect numbers over the last few years. The reasons are likely to be complex, and related to human activity.
Today it stopped raining and I returned to Harp meadow for more clearing of brambles and nettles. Things started to become more interesting in the afternoon as I reached the bank of the St Edmunds Way footpath. As this year has been so dry the base of the ditch is , well, full of nettles, yet there have been many times when the entire path is underwater. Despite all the rain it was quite possible to walk about at the bottom of the ditch. The ground is now damp, which made it easier to dig up the nettles. And there were other species of plant there! Bullrush, yellow iris, meadow-sweet, water-mint, gypsywort, woody night-shade.
I found a fallen barbed-wire fence, and several trees growing within the ditch . The drain under the Cullum Road is not obstructed,although there were a number of rotting branches which I pulled out. I left hopeful that by the end of this winter to have improved this part by reduction of the stinging nettle load and introduction of other damp-loving plants. And I even saw an insect! A solitary ladybird. I was sorry to leave, but am aware the dark comes much more quickly. Next week will be worse as the clocks go back – I must try to be use the mornings wisely
A quick update on my bramble art-work- I have added leaves using brambles and nettles as printing material and oil paint. Yet it still does not convey the energy and violence I had hoped for. What next?! Add some barbed wire? Make a few rips in the cloth?
I make another trip down to “Harp Meadow”- there is an area now which is relatively bare of brambles- might it be possible to go over it to remove the roots and re-plant or re-sow? In my enthusiasm I have purchased some seed suitable for wetlands from British Wildflower seeds- a company that takes seed form meadows with different environments. And I have things in my garden a few hundred yards away: woodruff, bedstraw in pots, pulmonaria.
Needless to say I was hopelessly over-ambitious. Whoever said that bramble roots were easy to pull and only superficial should take a look at mine. Nettle roots are a pleasure in comparison- getting underneath them with a fork and ripping up the yellow root with all the pink side shoots intact is really satisfying!
I have also thought of another source of help and advice: Coronation Meadows was founded in 2012 by HRH Prince Charles to commemorate 60 years of the Queen’s reign. It specialises in nurturing wild meadows, and has an excellent website full of good advice. The trick, it seems, is to leave the meadow to grow from early Spring until July/August, then make hay and follow up with grazing to keep the grass short. There is no “Coronation Meadow” in West Suffolk- just one on the East side near Woodbridge. I will find out more about this, as it would be great to have one for the Millennium of the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds next year, 2020.
I showed two boys around the site- they seemed to enjoy it! Brandishing bullrush spears we moved across the enormous sea of nettles, and into the wood. I was glad that the tracks of the visitors two weeks before were still useable.
We got as far as “Ginger’s House”, but I still could not see the entrance. You can just see a bit of corrugated iron on the right of this photo beside a huge stump of a fallen tree. Woody nightshade was growing over the top.
The boys managed to reach the railway carriages from the other side and entered inside with more courage than I had. Inside were large numbers of bicycles.
A restoration project? I have since learned that the previous owner, now deceased, used to repair bikes, which gave me some comfort, as at least they weren’t stolen.
The atmosphere lightened up as we reached the open meadow at the top (labelled “Long Meadow” on the Warren Map of 1791). This is still a big open space, despite the brambles, blackthorn and other things moving inwards. Standing near the side was a beautiful hawthorn, which seemed to have three trunks! The central one was actually a small elder, whose leaves were now turning coral coloured in the late October morning.
My guests departed, but it confirmed my thoughts that when I have a firmer plan it would be great to have young people helping out. I have contacted the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, who like the idea, too. Making paths? working with a small patch through the year? Doing surveys? I could see this as a mutually beneficial way to go.
I press on with trying to clear the brambles from around the railway carriage. It is slow work, making large piles I hope can substitute as hibernation “tents”. These piles are getting higher
I muse about all the wonderful things I could do with the carriage: a library? an art-space? a dyeing headquarters? I think of summer days and picnics. In the dying light I am cheered on by a single yellow iris:
There is less litter about, too- these brambles are very thick and people have not been here for a long time. The only bottle I found was a wine bottle with the stamp : “Original 1878”- clearly a better class of drinker gets this deep into the undergrowth!
The work is slow, but I am getting slightly more efficient with a technique of bashing the dead stuff at the bottom, then cutting though the thick stalks at the base with loppers and pulling hard. It is satisfying when this technique is rewarded with an enormous dragon of a bramble up to 10m long, but it doesn’t always work as the plants shoot out at right angles, root at both ends, and if you pull in the wrong direction this soon becomes counter-productive as they tangle into themselves. And they can flip back in the wrong direction, catching at your sleeve, back or head. One can only respect the bramble’s ability to put up a defence.
I am getting closer. At the back there is a fence, which made the Southern aspect easier than I thought. The Western side was very dense, and took a day, but there was the opening to the carriage…
Unfortunately it was not the only opening… There is a large hole in the roof, too. Unless there is a major renovation my plans will need revision towards picturesque degeneration.
In the meantime I have been carrying out dyeing experiments. I have some nettle fibre (from India, but there is no reason why the UK could not produce it) and wanted to know if it would dye with indigo. I had been growing Japanese indigo in my garden. The wool (at the top) by comparison dyes much more easily, but some blue is definitely possible:
I have also been “eco-dyeing”- a technique of steaming the mordanted cloth with plant materials. Experiments were done with various prunings: cotinus coggygyria, geraniums and marigolds on cotton and silk. I liked their anarchic and unpredictable effects
Then a thought occurred to me: Perhaps I could venerate the brambles and nettles in this way, too! It seemed only appropriate to honour them in some way.
This was my preliminary effort. It looks too tame. In no way does it reflect the exuberance or viciousness of these plants. I will need to over-print or paint to get the thicket, the different stages of life and death and the tangled complexity they should convey.
The brambles are slowly reducing. The North Face of the railway carriage on Harp Meadow is now revealed. The East face lies in the shade of a willow tree and has fewer brambles. To the South there is a high fence. The West side remains thickly covered.
There are now several large compost heaps mainly from bramble, and even their roots have been dug out. I am left wondering how far one should go? If this project is about conservation then a balance must be struck. There is NO danger of this becoming a bramble or nettle-free zone, but a certain amount of cover has been removed. And what about introducing plants? I am tempted to sow some wild digitalis once the nettles on the East side have been subdued. Yet the Suffolk Wildlife Trust advises against planting. Surely seed would be OK? I have been in contact with the Trust and hope to learn more soon.
Is it possible to be too romantic about wild places? It is not a new thing to like wild plants: the Bury Herbal was illustrated around 1100 using existing texts and paintings beautifully illustrated from life- perhaps on this very same spot! The plants were used for medicinal purposes and there is the Blackberry.
Looking through the images online from the Bodleian Library is like looking through a plant list of the sort of things which would do well on this site- they even have madder and woad, although I have my doubts the woad was correctly identified. I have already dug up a large rhizome of yellow iris which needs splitting and re-planting- a job for another day.
An expedition! I have been a member of the Bury Watermeadows Group over the past year, and enjoyed our work parties trying to increase the diversity of plants in the water meadows behind the site of the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds. They have experience and interest in wild places. I invited them to have a look. Also invited were the committee of the Bury Society and the committee of the Suffolk Organic Gardeners. Others came too, and collectively there were around 50 people with wide knowledge and experience. Also some delicious cake.
We set off in two groups and people gamely tramped over quantities of stinging nettles to enter a wooded area I hadn’t found before:
This had the effect of creating paths, at least temporarily. Also so nice to have other people’s more experienced eyes. I realised I had concentrated on the awesome challenge rather than the lovely things already there:
There was a tall dead tree resembling a ghost with circular holes burrowed into it. Who lived there? Bats?
There was a large nest high up in some poplars. Was this a squirrel’s dray or see some huge bird?
Toadstools sprouted from dead tree stumps – both little brown ones and huge bracket fungus:
People were generous with their observations and advice. The general view was that this is a precious place in the heart of the town, and that its wildness was valued. Different areas lend themselves to different approaches. A dye garden in Harp Meadow? Sheep in Long Meadow? Promote wateriness in the water meadow? more woodland in the woodland area? There shouldn’t be any hurry to do things, but the Suffolk Wildlife Trust might be the best people to advise. I have resolved to contact them.
With lack of use this site has become overrun with two, highly successful plants. The bramble is beautiful and bramble jelly delicious, but it fair to say one can have too many. It roots at both ends and branches at right angles. Its thorns are relentless. At the moment I don’t have much good to say about it.
Nettles, on the other hand, are underestimated for their value. Fresh green ones can be made into a passable vegetable, and I have successfully cooked the following with them:
Stinging nettle “pesto”
Green eggs and Ham
Stir-fried with ginger and garlic
Taller nettles are good for making cord “in the green” or extracting fibre – this year I left a bunch to “ret”, but never got round to the next stage of hackling the bast into a finer fibre. I have made tiny vessels out of nettle cord and added it to weaving. I like the course texture and satisfaction of using something beautiful which is otherwise despised. Nettles also act as the “guard-dogs” of the plant world as they deter other humans. (Brambles, I must admit, are more effective in this regard)
All things to do with nettles I have learned from my friend Fay Jones. She is the local queen of nettles. I took her round the plot yesterday, striding through acres of nettles with increasing enthusiasm:
Fay recommended a website dedicated to nettle textiles, and a new book just re-published – “From Sting to Spin” by Gillian Edom. By coincidence I am attending a Textile Study Group Day this week-end with the Cambridge weaving guild on using nettles for fibre in Nepal. Plenty of potential here!
We clambered on through the site, hoping to find the entrance to the corrugated iron hut. This, after all, was going to become our nettle headquarters. Someone said a tramp called Ginger had lived there once, but this must have been many years ago as there was no sign of anyone now, and it proved impossible to get though the brambles. How can they be controlled? I hope we can find a grazing animal prepared to take them on. or perhaps I should be more charitable towards brambles? I recall how the long tendrils were used in Asturia as I binding cord for thatch- is it possible they, too, might have textile possibilities?
Sunday it poured with rain. And poured and poured. There was flooding in several parts of the town. I imagined the water meadows would be submerged- but no! They looked much the same, presumably acting like a sponge. Any thoughts of carrying on with the clearing were halted by the rain.
I spent some time looking through Facebook messages- all of which were supportive. There was a comment about horses being kept in the stables with riding lessons from Rosie and Ted. There was a pony called Pig. – I remember donkeys when I first came here in 1993. Foxes and herons have been seen. Someone says she feeds robins and great-tits.
Activity was impossible yesterday, too, visiting my son Robert in Felixstowe. He suggested we visit a water meadows nearby run by Suffolk Wildlife Trust: Newbourne Springs was a delightful area which reminded me of our site: it had been left pretty wild, with lots of nettles and brambles and a boardwalk made from railway sleepers bound with chicken wire for grip underfoot. There was also a bench looking out over a marshy vista- simple and lovely. Although three times the size of our area it had many features in common- something to aspire to perhaps? I noted their website boasted of nightingales, orchids and Hebridean sheep.
Back in Bury St Edmunds I walked round the site with a couple of friends: we spotted a bees nest in the ground- presumably a sign the earth was still dry. I lent Guy my “Farmer’s Friend”- a carbon fibre stick to thwack your way through nettles. Thus we managed to get further in past the railway carriages into a space I had not found before. We loaded an old cooking stove onto the wheelbarrow, but left a sink and old bedsprings for another day.. Around another hedge, and much to my amazement there was a further building! A barbed wire fence was in the way, and it was growing dark. Further exploration will need to wait.
I was pleased to have a day off yesterday; my back was aching from the enormous compost heap created by Gate 3, and I knew that more unpleasant work around the railway carriages was ahead.
My excuse was that Friday is now a day for weaving: at least 2 Fridays a month, in the agreeable company of members of the Bury St Edmunds branch of the Guild of Dyers, Spinners and Weavers. Most of the women are busy spinning and happy to share ideas about what to do with the water meadows. They knew the previous owners, and confirmed my memories of donkeys on the site. Their ideas were (not surprisingly) orientated around dying, spinning and weaving. A dye plantation! (I like this idea on harp meadow) I can picture us having dyeing sessions there, replacing brambles with madder and woad, and generally confirming our reputation as a coven. The railway carriage can be converted into a dyeing workshop!
And the meadows? Well sheep, obviously. Medieval Bury St Edmunds did well from the wool trade along with its neighbour, Lavenham. What sort? I have been warned that sheep get foot-rot on damp ground. The wool quality was important: Beaumont? Blue-faced Leicester? The debate developed into more exotic possibilities: Spinning Yurt Holidays; a Wool Festival; halter-training of sheep and strip-feeding- using lines of electric fencing to move them along systematically to graze the meadows.
I would need an animal willing to eat almost anything to sort this place out!
Back to hard labour today. I continued to open up the area around gate 3, dragging many more piles of nettles and brambles into a heap:
I also (finally) started the chainsaw to open up towards the entrance to the railway carriage. I stuffed an ancient sleeping bag and other stuff into a sack and after many, many additions to the heap I was there! A lot of bicycles! How interesting. More to be explored tomorrow.
As I left this inauspicious site the sun was reflected high in the trees above. Briefly I was encouraged:
Today an article appeared in the Bury Free Press: “Water meadows purchase will safeguard land”. Stephen is (unusually) holding a fork whilst I laugh a little nervously. We are standing in a huge patch of stinging nettles and water-mint wondering what we have done
This is not a small area; I am used to gardening in various sites, but 14.85 acres is a totally new concept. The site lies in the middle of Bury St Edmunds in the Parish of St Mary’s. It has not been managed for many years. It occupies the floodplain of the River Linnet and is often waterlogged- I have memories of wading to work at the hospital back in 2017. This year it has been relatively dry, and the ditches have filled up with stinging nettles and other plants. We need more water.
The area has been farmed intermittently. Old maps filed in the St Edmundsbury Chronicle record the area: the Warren map of 1791 shows various enclosed pieces of land, presumably divided with hedges. With such a tangle of undergrowth now would it be possible to recognise these?
Here it is labelled Sexton Meadows- were the names of the individuals sextons? Our patch is roughly in the middle, and made up of six of these areas. A triangular piece of land is still recognisable as it lies between 2 footpaths, older than the road, Cullum Road, which now runs through it, and forms the Northern boundary. This triangle is labelled Harp Meadow, presumably as it is harp-shaped. There is also a long strip on the perimeter labelled (not surprisingly) as Long Meadow
Another useful map was published in 1834 by Payne: here the land is labelled as belonging to the Rev’d Sir TG Cullum, which must explain the name of the road built in the early ’70s. Friars Lane was the original road, turning North into the town onto Westgate St. This is indeed an ancient road labelled in the earliest map by R Gottfried in 1295 as Fryers’ Lane. I imagine Gottfried to be monk from the Abbey, due to celebrate the 1000th year of its foundation in 2020
Where to start? We walked around the perimeter wondering how to get in. We found four gates, all padlocked and very overgrown with ivy, nettles and brambles, and one barricaded with large fallen tree trunks. This was the first task, to open the gates, and we even had a timeline to work for as I have invited various members of the town to have a look next Wednesday!
Gate one (as I now call it) leads into Harp Meadow and was fairly straightforward once a spade had been added to the bolt-cutters to cut the undergrowth at the base. I had quite a pleasant day cutting brambles away from a pretty hawthorn tree and starting a compost heap. Walking into the centre of the meadow felt exciting. I soon realised my aim to reach the railway carriage submerged by brambles was overambitious, and will have to wait. Before leaving, however, I spotted a plant I did not recognise- this turned out to be gyspy wort- a water plant with dyeing properties. I collected some leaves and stalks and simmered them, leaving some wool in overnight for a quick dyeing experiment: a tiny pinch of iron turned the colour a deep green (right)
Gate two was a little more complicated as fused with ivy, but was released just before the photographer from the BFP arrived- we all trooped together into a magical space yet to be further explored.
Gate three has left me with backache and a sore finger. After two days of cutting brambles I have entered the space beside another old railway carriage. The place is surrounded by litter: old boots, furniture and a festering sleeping bag. It is so overgrown that so far I have not succeeded in reaching the door of the carriage. Two sacks of rubbish have been disposed of so far, but there is loads more to go. An enormous pile of brambles will, I hope, double as a hide for small mammals. This is so disgusting it hardly has a place in a blog which I had hoped would provide a romantic nature diary; however it is the reality of human activity.
Gate four looks impossible without a large chainsaw. I have a small one, but failed my chainsaw exam (twice), which was the best thing as I have a healthy respect for using it and won’t do so on my own. The gate will connect with Long Meadow, but I am not convinced this can be achieved before Wednesday- we shall see. The week-end looks set to be one of more hard labour, rain or not.