Country diary: wild clematis in winter is a magical plant

Inkpen, West Berkshire: Traveller’s joy, old man’s beard, smokewood – whatever you call it, it has a phantom quality

Within the hour, the fog seeded itself, took root and wound an alchemy through the hedgerow. Wild clematis (Clematis vitalba) has become a familiar companion, roping together every dog walk, ride, run and drive I have done in my home counties of Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire.

This most magical of chalk plants has an ability to appear and disappear, seemingly at will – although this is weather related. In wet weather, the sodden, damson-coloured seedheads turn spidery and go unnoticed. In dry weather, however, the feathery plumes fluff and curl in on themselves to form globes that catch the light. Then they form an ethereal smoke blossom in silver, gold or bronze, appearing at the same hour for days before vanishing, then reappearing. The plant has a phantom quality.

Halfway between the two weathers, particularly in fog, the seedhead centres of the globes each hold a pearl of light in a drop of water. Diffused by fronds like miniature ostrich plumes, they glow like tiny Victorian gas lamps, or dimming fairy lights.

Clematis vitalba in winter.
A hedgerow full of Clematis vitalba. Photograph: Nicola Chester

Wild clematis has many names: traveller’s joy, old man’s beard, shepherd’s delight, smokewood. My preferred name is bedwine, from the old Berkshire border dialect. Adam Thorpe revived the name in his novel of this place, Ulverton. Bedwine twines through the centuries and chapters of his book. It’s a curious name, until you say “betwined” in the accent, dropping the “t”, then the “d”.

This winter, I used the thick vines hanging from tall trees as a swing. Hanging down like ropes in a school gymnasium and stirring childhood memories, the great, twisted, straw-like cables seemed to suggest I should. I stepped into a creaking loop half a metre off the ground, like a nervous novice trapeze artist, above a shallow chalk pit netted with it. A hank uncoiled. It did not break, but I was tipped upside down, scattering wood pigeons, caught by an ankle and the unyielding, twisted vine that had somehow slipped around my waist. I wriggled free and made a slow, undignified fall into the safety net below, just out of a flailing arm’s reach.


Nicola Chester

The GuardianTramp

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