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England’s multi-coloured and pleasant land

Friday 02 May 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard changes into nostalgia drive to remember the hay meadows and their multi-coloured denizens of his youth

AS I am not the Dean of Southwark Cathedral in London, who has just banned the singing of William Blake’s glorious hymn Jerusalem as being “too nationalistic,” I have absolutely no wish to offend further anyone who cherishes the words of Blake’s poem and the work of composer Hugh Parry who set them to music in 1916.

But until a mere 50 years ago, England was not a “green and pleasant land.” It was pleasant – very, very pleasant indeed – and although lots of it were greenish, it was more multi-coloured, lit up by flashes of technicolour from birds, bees, butterflies and myriad wild flowers.

Turning hay by hand (1930s)
Turning hay by hand (1930s)
Photo Copyright: Ann Holubecki

Even the greens were different hues, ranging from straw to emerald, depending on the weather and the time of the year. Between the woods in the valleys and the mountain heather, there were patches with every colour of the rainbow.

These were the hay meadows, their swaying grass dancing with poppies and corn flowers and, around the margins, banks of butter cups, daisies, cow slips, fox gloves and a dozen more varieties flourished. Now, ironically, you mostly see these growing in carefully cultivated “wild flower” gardens.

These scenes are still vivid in my memories of childhood and they were brought flooding back this week by plans for a summer of celebrations for the Yorkshire Dales hay meadows (for details, see link).

These hay fields were still an integral part of our countryside when I was nobbut a lad (and a bit later, when my mates and I discovered girls). We never played in them – you would have received a severe rocket from the farmer and perhaps a clip round the ear for treading down his precious crop. But the margins between the hay and the hedge or wall were an exploring child’s treasure trove.

In the hedges or dry-stone walls, rabbits lurked, birds nested, butterflies fluttered and the air was full of the drone of more types of insects than you could count. There were partridges galore and brilliant cock pheasants, and birds that I have not seen for decades like the like electric blue jay and the yellow wagtail, just hanging on to survival in the Dales.

The heavens trilled to the sound of skylarks – now an endangered species – and you heard the cuckoo every day from May until mid-summer. If you were lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a weasel or a stoat and if there was a farm pond nearby, there you could find frogs by the score, toads by the handful and if you had fishing net you could catch a newt.

The hay meadow and the glories of its wild life came to the very edge of extinction and it was the park in the Dales that came riding to the rescue

William Blake was a Londoner but if he ever travelled out into the countryside – and places like Wimbledon and Wembley were in the deepest countryside then – he would have been familiar with all these scenes. And so was I in the decade or so after World War 11.

That was when the changes began. After been forced to the point of starvation by Nazi U-boats during the war, successive governments pressed for more and more home-grown food and the large-scale introduction of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and weed killers began. By the 1960s.England had become a monotone green and far-less-pleasant land.

In the past, I have had several scrapes with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) usually connected with politically-correct planning decisions which seemed to favour visitors over local folk. But in their desire to not only preserve but to boost traditional hay making, they are to be congratulated.

The hay meadow and the glories of its wild life came to the very edge of extinction and it was the park in the Dales that came riding to the rescue by offering hill farmers grants to revert to traditional hay production.

With luck, it will bring back some of the lost wildlife like the yellow wagtail. This is what national parks are for and all they need now is the support of the general public. So this summer, go see – time to make some leisurely hay, whether or not the sun shines.

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