The bluebell wood

The bluebell wood

by Jacqui Gray

In May, something special happens in British woodlands. Nature puts on a seasonal show so magical that visiting the woods to see it has become something of a British institution. The timing can vary, depending on the weather, so you have to be patient – as anyone who likes to follow the seasonal changes knows, nature cannot be hurried. Since I enjoy both nature and photography, I look forward to it for weeks beforehand, and it never fails to take my breath away.

As the time draws near, I scan the woodland near my home, searching for the first sign. For what seems like an age, there’s nothing unusual; the wood is quiet, giving little away. But, then, suddenly, I spot what I've been waiting for. In the leafy green understorey, another colour is emerging. At first, it's the softest haze, like a mirage. But I’m in no doubt: the bluebells are coming into bloom. 

My pulse quickens, because I know that from now on, the colour will keep building. In a week or two, the seasonal spectacle will reach its climax, and when I return with my camera to spend a day under the leafy canopy, I will be surrounded by a knee-deep sea of blue-violet. 

As blooming time peaks, I come back to the cool, green sanctuary of centuries-old oak trees. Hazy shivelights pierce the young foliage, scattering dappled shade. The woodland floor is springy, young ferns shooting up from it like spears, their coiled fronds the colour of podded peas. And stretching deep into the woodland, as far as my eyes can see, thousands upon thousands of bluebells that seem to hover above the ground, like morning mist. 

The mist of deep blue-violet drifts around emerald-green ferns, each colour intensifying the other, so the whole wood seems to glow. Bluebells fragrance the air, a cool, green, earthy scent with a hint of floral that evokes for me a bygone age, when children played in woods, gathered berries and firewood and enjoyed the simple gifts of nature. And into this heady mix, wild garlic adds its starry white blooms and unmistakably pungent scent. All around me, the wood is unfurling, opening, pushing up, shaking free, its vernal energy rising, like the sap in the trees. A transformation is taking place and there’s a joy in the air that is palpable. I breathe out, my senses tingling, my mind soothed.

Crouching down, I take a close-up picture of a bluebell. These are native English bluebells, the type most often found growing in woodlands, and an indicator species of ancient woodland. Smaller and more delicate than the Spanish bluebell, they're recognisable by the way their flowers distinctively grow on only one side of the stem, causing the flower spikes to droop at the tip. Some of the country names by which they're known are charmingly old-fashioned – witches’-thimbles, lady's-nightcap, wild hyacinth, cuckoo's boots.  

Bluebells reappear here every year, fresh and new, as though for the very first time. But they are ancient keepers of the past. They've grown in this little patch of woodland, and many others, probably for centuries, and have bloomed through countless springs, bluing woodlands for generations of families, country dwellers, and nature lovers to enjoy. Alongside the big, old oaks, the cool ferns, and the garlicky ramsons, they've been silent observers as history has unfolded, bearing witness while successive Kings and Queens reigned, scientific discoveries were made, wars were waged, and seismic social and political shifts took place. I ponder on this as I take a last look before leaving.

When I walk in the wood at bluebell time, I feel an invisible connection to nature. For a few hours, in this timeless place, I can step outside the modern world and glimpse something of how it might have been when we lived slower, simpler lives that were more in touch with the seasons, the land and the wild things that grow and bloom around us. The bluebell wood shares that with me. It lets me hear the pulse of spring. For me, it's where the season's beating heart is loudest. 


Featured in our May 2022 issue, "Bloom"