Friday, February 22, 2013

Still shady after all these years

The winter sunshine this week tempted me out for a lunchtime walk in the East Kent Downs, a few miles north of Folkestone.

Lyminge nestles in the lovely Elham valley. Queen Ethelburga built a church here sometime after 633AD. The daughter of King Ethelbert & Queen Bertha of Kent, she married King Edwin of Northumbria. When her husband was killed in battle she fled home to Kent with her children, founding an abbey in Lyminge. She died in 647AD.

Lyminge Church
Church Porch
View through Lyminge churchyard
Site of Ethelburga's grave

A few miles from Lyminge, an old sunken lane runs past a scrap of ancient woodland called Postling Wood (Grid Reference TR 14590 40178). The side of the lane is a Roadside Nature Reserve. I'm not sure what management or monitoring takes place here.


The wood itself is coppice and sadly, in my opinion, lacks any conservation designation. There's little greenery on the ground at this time of year; bluebells are starting to push through the leaf litter and wild arum leaves are still rolled up against the winter cold. It's a surprise therefore to find lush green clumps of plants already in flower. But at the base of some ash coppice stools the all-green green hellebore (Helleborus viridis) is quietly doing its thing.


I wrote about these green hellebores last year, when I photographed flowers in early March. 

Green hellebore plants
Green hellebore looking a bit like celery or ground elder.

The flowers are simply beautiful. "No wildflower, save the daisy and the chickweed, blooms so early in the year' (Anne Pratt, 1855)
.


Anne Pratt quotes a poem by Bishop Mant (about the closely related stinking hellebore). The first few lines are equally applicable to green hellebore...

'Within the moist & shady glade
What plant, in suit of green array'd 
All heedless of the winter cold
Inhabits'

It's a wonderful flower for a shady garden; the purest green. And with the added advantage of being very early flowering.


Hellebores don't have petals, the showy green 'petals' are actually sepals. My crudely annotated picture below, shows the position of tubular nectaries, located at the base of the large green sepals. Some consider these to be the vastly reduced, modified petals. The green sepals are photosynthetic, hugely advantageous at this time of year and in shade. They contribute significantly to the plants photosynthetic activity (Salopek-Sond, 2011).


Although it was a sunny day, and it was very early in the year, I didn't see any insects visiting the flowers. 

How delightful to find that green hellebore is recorded as growing in this very spot in 1829 (Gerard Edwards Smith)...
Here's 'the lane leading from the road to Lyminge towards Postling Wood'.


Marvellous! Nearly 200 years later we can revisit! But who is the Rev. Price? Well a brief Google came up with 3 possible culprits.  A Reverend Ralph Price was Rector of Lyminge, Queen Ethelburga's church. He lived 1715-1779. A bit early. Rev. Price had a son called Ralph Price, who also became the Reverend Price Rector of Lyminge. He lived 1745-1811. Still too early. There was yet another Reverend Ralph Price. Born in 1778 according to the Parish Register. Son of Ralph, and I believe, grandson of Ralph. There was certainly a Ralph Price in the Rectory in the 1851 census. Ralph the Third also became Rector of Lyminge and I believe he is our botanist. 

Rector Price was influential in encouraging a local young botanist Gerard Edwards Smith of Sandgate (Folkestone) in his studies (see Peter Gay, 2005). So much so that in 1829 GE Smith wrote a booklet on local Rare or Remarkable Phaenogamous Plants, which he dedicated to his mentor and friend ...


Smith noted (p.7) that 'Helleborus viridus flowered at Postling as early as the 22nd of February'. And it still does; all these photos were taken on February 19th. 

The Reverend Price's record of Postling Wood (Matthew Henry Cowell, 1839) includes some other 'unusual' species: viz. Epipactis latifolia (now Epipactis helleborine) (Broad-leaved helleborine), Convallaria multiflora (now Polygonatum multiflorum) (Common Solomon's seal), Lathraea squamaria (toothwort), Allium ursinum (Ramsons, wild garlic). Toothwort & wild garlic are definitely still there.



Ralph Price was not only Rector and learned botanist. He was also the local magistrate and a landowning farmer. He played a small part in the infamous Swing Riots*, an agricultural uprising, the largest since the 14th century Peasant's Revolt. And it began right on his doorstep. On 24th August 1830, a threshing machine was destroyed by a gang of farm workers in Barham. A few days later labourers from Elham, Stelling & Lyminge smashed a machine in Palmstead. These machines were hated because they replaced manual labour. This affected labourers, especially in the winter, when work was already scarce. Over 100 machines were destroyed in East Kent in a few months. *The riots were called Swing, because threats sent to farmers were signed by a fictitious character, Captain Swing.

A contemporary poster offers a reward for 
information on Captain Swing (BBC Family History)

The riots were not just because of the introduction of threshing machines, they were the just last straw, especially after the poor harvest of 1829. Early 19th century farm labourers and their families were in a desperate plight. Underlying social inequalities in land ownership, compounded by the recent Enclosure Acts, the Poor Laws, tithe system, etc., left many agricultural workers dispossessed and impoverished. Riots, notably aimed at machines, not people, spread from Kent into other southern counties, the Home Counties, the Midlands and parts of East Anglia.

A horse-powered thresher from 1881 (Wikipedia)

Price, the friend of the labourers who were his parishioners, was, as stated above, the local magistrate and a farmer, so found himself on the side of the authorities, and he himself became a target. His own barn was fired on 5th October. Fortunately, early sentencing of offenders by Sir Edward Knatchbull in Kent was less punitive than it could have been. Sir Robert Peel however, took steps to ensure the full force of the law was applied to later rioters and eventually (in England) 19 were executed, 644 jailed and 505 transported. A number of the Lyminge rioters lived through these turbulent times and were eventually buried in Lyminge churchyard.

Gravestones in Lyminge churchyard

So we come full circle. My walk started at Lyminge Church, the parish church of the Reverend Price. A fascinating story unfolded, unknown to me when I began and quite unexpected. And a lovely woodland plant, which Ralph Price recorded on his parish rambles is still there, exactly where he described it.




References
Matthew Henry Cowell (1839) A Floral Guide for East Kent: Being a record of the habitats of indigenous plants found in the Eastern Division of the County of Kent. See page 70.

Peter Gay (2005) Treasures of the 'finely moulded downs'; Cinque Ports Training Area. Sanctuary 34 MOD Conservation Magazine. Page 12-13. Pdf here

Carl J. Griffin (2004) Policy on the Hoof: Sir Robert Peel, Sir Edward Knatchbull and the trial of the Elham Machine Breakers. Rural History, Volume 15 (2) Pages 127-148. Pdf here (it will try to download) 

Branka Salopek-Sond (2011) Reproductive Developmentof the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) The Role of Plant Hormones. Croatica Chemica Acta. Volume 84 (2) pages 277-285.

Anne Pratt (1855) The Flowering Plants of Great Britain. Volume 1. Hellebores page 17.

Gerard Edwards Smith (1829) A Catalogue of Rare or Remarkable Phaenogamous Plants collected in South Kent

My notes on the Swing Riots have been plundered from Wikipedia, Griffin's paper referenced above and the informative Elham Village Database.

4 comments:

  1. Mel, you put us all to shame with your thorough and eloquent posts. I, too, have visit Postling Wood and seen both Green Hellebore and Toothwort there.

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  2. Fantastic and super interesting post, and I love the history and detail you bring to your discussions of places and plants. Really amazing stuff! (Basically, what Steve said.) Also, the Hellebore is really quite beautiful!

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  3. Hi Elizabeth :-) Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I was wondering what else I could write about hellebores having researched them last year, and then I noticed Rev. Price's name...

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