I am writing this on 30th April as the Tour de Yorkshire whizzes through Ilkley and we are all reminded how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful place – riverside, heather moorland, limestone scar and pavement and deciduous woodland all within easy reach. This week, like countless others – residents and visitors – I stood spellbound gazing at sheets of bluebells in Middleton Woods. That wonderful blue tinged with lilac, so hard to capture on camera, only reveals itself as you stand, slightly tilting your head so the light is just right and the whole vista merges into that intense hyacinth blue, and, of course, you’re bathed in perfume! But I also enjoy the accompaniment to the main bluebell choir – the celandines still starring the verges, the gold splodges of kingcups in damp patches, the delicate whites of anemones and wood sorrel and, of course, the numberless shades of green: new leaves on oak and hazel, unfurling fern fronds, the shining blades surrounding the white starbursts of wild garlic.
Only a fragment of our native woods now survives. Place names give us a clue to what it was once like: all those Royds, Riddings and Stubbings indicating where our ancestors cleared the trees, and shaws telling us where birch, alder and willow scrub once flourished. To those ancestors, after the long dark chill of winter, the Spring must have been hugely welcome. And not just to bathe in life-affirming, hope-inspiring green. You could eat it – and they did. Imagine, after months of oatmeal and rusty, over-smoked bacon rind, gathering your salad of garlic and dandelion leaves, enjoying your nettle broth and dock pudding: cleansing the blood, replenishing the vitamins and titillating the palate.
There are so many plants that are associated with woodland and most of them were also useful. Take one of my favourites – woodruff – with its insignificant white flowers and whorls of leaves encircling the stiff stems like delicate collars. Dried, it flavoured a kind of punch, deterred moths from your linen and, hung in bunches from the rafters, it “ doth well atemper the air, cool and make fresh the place to the delight and comfort of such as are therein.” (Gerard). Wood-sorrel, another favourite with its modest white bell-shaped flowers and shamrock leaves that close at night, was used as a diuretic, to treat fever and reduce inflammation and, served in salad, “is good for them that have sicke and feeble stomachs.” (Gerard) No wonder it’s also called Alleluia.