The winter solstice is well passed, and as the days lengthen so do my forays out into the valley below our farmhouse. Our valley hasn’t changed much over the past 500 years. A reservoir was dug in the Sixties, the odd timber-framed house has gained a television aerial but that is about it. As I walk around the valley, I have been trying to imagine my way further back, to the time of Merrie England, a medieval land full to brimming with feasts and festivals.
In East Anglia you are never short of a church or two and as I looked down the valley towards ours I was struck with the thought that there was a time when our churches were emblazoned with bright paints, their interiors catching all the colours of summer and preserving them throughout the winter for the benefit of their congregations.
As a gardener who spends most of the year thinking about the palette of colour only available in high summer, I find this instinctively appealing. Sometimes you can still see the odd stain from the colours they used in among the sea of grey stone. This same colourful vigour fizzed out into the surrounding countryside and into the lives of ordinary folk, touching even the smallest details of their lives.
Take St Mark’s flies: you know the ones, they buzz around with their legs hanging down on or around April 25, which makes for a handy way to remember the saint’s day. St Mark’s flies still go by the same name. They survived Henry VIII’s innovations even if the bright medieval paints did not. The countryside, it turns out, is a handy place to hide.
On further investigation, it transpires that the embers of Catholic England are happily strewn about my garden and indeed the valley below our house. They are there in the packet of marigold seeds on my desk (Mary’s gold). They are in the clump of lady’s mantle greening nicely under an early spring sun (still called lady’s mantle, even on the Royal Horticultural Society website). They are in the St John’s wort I can see from my writing desk.
While hollyhocks are not now commonly known as St Joseph’s staff and no one calls a foxglove Our Lady’s gloves, the star of Bethlehem will flower down in the valley in July, just as it always does, and soon I will see my first cuckooflower, still commonly known to country folk as lady’s smock. Herb Robert, incidentally, is still herb Robert, named after one of the founders of the Cistercians, St Robert of Molesme. He used the herb as a curative for the Black Death. While we can only guess at the efficacy, it was presumably a case of something being better than nothing.
This summer I might go to the beach and see a storm petrel shimmering against the breeze. This bird is still known to most birders as Mother Carey’s chicken, a contraction of Mater Cara (Dear Mother).
As all English gardeners know, if it rains on St Swithin’s Day (July 15) it will rain for the following 40 days straight. St Swithin was a 9th-century Bishop of Winchester, but in his day England had long been Catholic.
Our valley was almost certainly originally evangelised in the 7th century by St Cedd. He came down from Lindisfarne, perhaps on the instructions of Pope Martin I. He preached up and down these river valleys and, while we don’t know much about him, he was clearly successful because paganism melted away.
A great monastery was built at Bradwell-on-Sea on the spot at which Cedd had landed. It has gone now but an ancient and very beautiful little chapel remains. St Chad was Cedd’s brother and successor. The Chad is a little river that ran through the farm where I grew up a few miles north of here. Embers remain, smouldering away, for those who have eyes to see them.
In fact, England was so pleasant, so valuable, so precious, it was known throughout Catholic Europe as Mary’s Dowry. A walk in the English countryside in May, when all is fresh and green and unsullied, when the very air carries all the promise of the summer to come, makes perfect sense of the name.
As I walk around the valley now, I am pleased to see these little embers. They join us in an unbroken line back to Merrie England, to a time when, perhaps, this valley was rather different. To a time of beef and beer and a dash more colour than we have now. The bright embers of almost a thousand years of English Catholic history remain safely hidden in the countryside.
My daughter keeps a pet ladybird. Perhaps it is time I tell her the story of how Our Lady’s bird got its name.
Charlie Hart is a gardening writer. He is the author of Skymeadow: Notes from an English Gardener (Constable)