England basks under a ridge of high pressure, the day in June is hot and humid, and the meadow smells slightly of honey and vanilla. During the long winter months, this piece of land was as indescribable as any other; now it is a crowded galaxy of multicolored plants, glittering as if under some sort of spell.
The dominant color is the yellow haze of the buttercups, with hints of white coming from the daisies, but the meadow reveals more and more detail as you dive in. I bend down to examine a single patch and find two dozen species, including yellow rattle, fox-and-cubs, eyebright, red clover, knapweed, lady’s mantle, pinewood, heather bedstraw. , trefoil trefoil and an early purple orchid. In other words, more diversity in about a square meter than I would expect to find in vast swathes of the wider countryside, even within this national park. Chimney-swept butterflies, white-tailed bumblebees and blue damselflies flit among the endless flowers.
Like all species-rich prairies, this one is the product of a particular history of human-land interaction. In this case, it was a working hay field that ceased to be smoked when a tuberculosis hospital was built in 1919. Farmers still cut the field every year, but the nutrients leached out. soil, weakening the dominance of grasses and allowing flowers to flourish.
Britain once owned 7.5 million acres of these grasslands, the composition of which was shaped by local factors, creating distinct regional ‘fingerprints’. But in the last century, when traditional farming techniques disappeared, almost all of them were lost.
There may be a silver lining. Wildflower meadows are notoriously difficult to do, but as more and more people choose to leave their lawns off leash, there are cases of prairie plants like knot clover, eyebright, meadow saxifrage and even rare orchids that reappear – in some cases a direct legacy of lost grasslands on which houses and gardens were built. It is a testament to the latent power of the earth and the miraculous results achieved by simply sparing the mower.