I once caught the meadow at Magdalen College, Oxford, at exactly the right time. Thousands upon thousands of Fritillaria meleagris glowed like garnets in the afternoon sun. Relatively few of them, however, leaked out between the iron railings to allow a close view of those little chequer-patterned heads and the experience was somewhat frustrating.
Obviously if you let all and sundry into a city meadow you are likely to get awful trampling, but I so wanted to be among the flowers. That, to me, is where the magic of a meadow lies – the middle. I didn’t like to see the flowers caged.
I’ve grown snakeshead fritillaries in pots – they looked pretty but dutiful, and I longed for their fairy godmother to send them to the ball.
I have a few in my relentlessly dry garden, where they come back year after year but never increase, and I feel slightly guilty about them even though I can’t remember planting them. They shouldn’t be here, they should be in a water meadow, with pollarded willows in the background and larks singing overhead.
I’ve lived in the Cotswolds for more than 20 years but this year for the first time I managed to visit North Meadow at Cricklade – now THIS is where snakeshead fritillaries are supposed to be.
Britain’s un”improved” meadows are critically endangered. We have lost 97% of them since World War II – many were ploughed up and fertilised to death while we dug for victory but they are still being nibbled away by roads and dreary housing estates. This one is easy to get to because the A419 runs nearby, you can hear it thundering. I wonder how much ancient water meadow was obliterated when it was built? I expect that the nitrates raining down from exhaust emissions are encouraging lush grass growth to stifle our delicate wild flowers too. Nevertheless, it’s a site worth celebrating. It is managed by Natural England, you can find out more about this ancient Lammas meadow here – we need to cherish our little shreds of ancient pasture and meadow for they are magical places.
We visited on a bone dry Sunday morning in early April – I had seen reports of fritillary flowerings on Twitter and was determined to get there, even though we had other things we were supposed to be doing. From a distance you could see nothing, and my heart sank, but as we crossed the sparkling river (the source of the Thames is nearby) I began to see little glints of maroon and specks of white. We walked along the meadow paths (around and THROUGH the meadows, hurrah!) and the flowers became more and more dense but they were only just beginning to bloom, we were too early for the full fritillary frenzy.
Even so, North Meadow is bigger than Magdalen’s meadow and the first flush was pretty impressive. I could see that there was much more to come, and vowed to return.
Ten days later, I was passing through the area again and managed to get to Cricklade just before the sun went down. As I got closer the clouds seemed to thicken, the sun fell faster and faster “Please, just a little glimmer of sunshine, pleease…” I muttered.
I was only going to be ten minutes but I walked along the paths for an hour, hoping for that ray. I was the only person in 110 acres. I could see, just, that the display would be spectacular with a bit more light. I lay on my stomach on the path and took a dark and blurry video for social media purposes. I took dark and blurry photographs. As my family at home ate without me I loitered and dawdled and finally turned to go back to the car as the sun hit the horizon and a weak glow seeped across the field. Hey presto – a million fairy reading lamps were lit. My photographs don’t do the sight justice but you get the idea. I’ll try again next year.