Country diary: spring pilgrimage to an uncanny bluebell wood

Wrekin Forest, Shropshire: Blue still shimmers across Black Hayes’ secret valley slopes, but few areas are as lush as usual

Bluebells in Black Hayes – the sky above the leafing oaks is spring clear, with an echoing blue shimmer across the woodland floor, but there’s something missing. From a fallen birch in the open glade at the centre of Black Hayes, we hear a field trip of kids head north on the boggy western edge against what was an opencast coal site a few years ago, and a group of fallow deer run southwards down the eastern side against Stearaway Lane that borders Limekiln Wood. This is a place where ash turns to oak, where limestone turns to coal measures.

Surrounded by the remains of pits, spoil heaps and tracks, this part of Wrekin Forest is an anomaly. With its scattering of century-old standard and coppiced oaks, some regenerated hazel, rowan, holly and yew, and a few odd spruce and larch plantings, Black Hayes is strangely open, a kind of wood pasture whose secret valley slopes support amazing lawns of bluebells. It is a place we make a spring pilgrimage to, the best place we know to just stand and look, to breathe them in.

Bluebells in the sunshine
Bluebells in the sunshine. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

Perhaps it’s because the ground is so dry and the weather has been so warm this year, but the population of bluebells has decreased in some sweeps by almost half. The plants are smaller, tufty clumps with bare earth between; flower stems are shorter and fewer, with smaller flowers held with less elegance. From a myopic squint into the distance, the haze and fragrance of masses of bluebells has that dreamily narcotic quality but few areas are as lush as usual. Everything is changing.

Black Hayes is a moody place; it may be sunny and bright, or dark and dour, but the mood is always uncanny, as if it resents trespass. Shakespeare’s Hamlet talked of “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”, and there has always been a haunted feeling of lost souls here, but that too feels patchy now, like a fading newsreel. As the kids and the deer push off in different directions, the wind picks up in the oak canopy and birds fill the spaces with song. A pair of ravens bark at our presence.


Paul Evans

The GuardianTramp

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