Country diary: Masses of ivy that seem to defy time and space | Mark Cocker

Millers Dale, Derbyshire: Once I’d seen it, I could notice nothing else as it snaked up every tree and clambered across the ground

The light came late to a cloud-bound High Peak, and dawn didn’t so much break as leak like water beneath a poorly sealed door. By the time there was enough day to take photos, I’d stopped at the year’s first catkins on hazel. There, too, were speck-like red flowers at the tips of the buds, and momentarily I recall the small inward shout at finding the first signs of life in a new year.

Ivy that has covered a riverside hazel in woven braids of stems
Ivy that has covered a riverside hazel in woven braids of stems. Photograph: Mark Cocker

Yet how much more in error could I have been! Because this micro-scene involving hazel was framed within an immense mass of ivy. Ivy snaking up every tree in the wood, ivy shoaling as linear or vertical lawns over the tops of the walls and luxuriantly down the bridge parapet, ivy clambering across the ground, so that the whole south-facing slope was an impasto emerald sheet. It occurred to me thus, that, unlike a year, its stock of life doesn’t begin or end; it persists. No wonder people used to take in ivy around this season as a symbol of such continuities.

Unfortunately, once I’d recognised it, I could notice nothing else. Ivy virtually suffocated the whole morning. I saw for instance that the berries on the River Wye’s north-facing bank were green and unripe. Those on the sunnier opposite side were turning black. Yet ivy doesn’t truly ripen until much later. In Greece I’ve seen bird migrants, fresh from journeys out of Africa, fattening up on these unseasonal fruits.

Most of the old trees – and much of Millers Dale wood is less than a century old – had at least 20 ivy stems writhing upwards from their bases. The most impressive was the equal of those cables for towing ocean liners, although the late polymath Oliver Rackham records one Irish ivy trunk that was “thicker than a fat man”.

The most prolific, perhaps the maddest ivy stunt I found – and it seems noteworthy that this irrepressible shrub was sacred to Dionysus – was where it had shinned up a riverside hazel in woven braids of stems, about 12 cords per braid, and then, having lassoed the summit, had clambered back down almost until it touched the swollen waters of the Wye.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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