In July, I headed to Charleston, East Sussex for a talk about meadows by Iain Parkinson (Head of Landscape and Horticulture at Wakehurst, Kew’s wild botanical garden) based on his book of that name. The book discusses the complex story of the hay meadow and the lives and stories that are entangled in its intricate web. It’s beautifully written and in places, it achieves a perfect blend of poetry, narrative and meadow science. The talk (which also included a very charismatic Keith Datchler – retired dairy farmer, estate manager at Beech Estate in Ashburnham and Trustee of the Weald Landscape Trust and of People Need Nature) was equally informative, entertaining, and uplifting, in a way that quite frankly I didn’t expect. And I caught up with Iain afterwards for a quick chat.
Charleston and the Bloomsbury Set
If you don’t know it, Charleston is worthy of a visit in its own right. The Bloomsbury Set was a group of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists which included Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. They were bohemian and progressive and lived, worked, and gathered together in London and in various places in Sussex in the early 20th century. One of those places was Charleston and in 1916, the painter Vanessa Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant, moved to Charleston (along with Duncan’s partner David Garnett).
Bell and Grant set about painting the house including the walls, doors and furniture and Charleston became quite a meeting point for the Bloomsbury Set. They also redesigned the garden using mosaics, gravel paths, and flowerbeds, all of which make it an important destination if you’re exploring Sussex.
What you didn’t know
Are meadows really that important? Yes, is the answer, and we must do what we can to help them survive and thrive.
It turns out you can be spellbound by a talk about meadows and this alone is an excellent reason for turning up to events such as these. Passion and knowledge are always happy bedfellows and Iain and Keith have both in abundance. They were also joined on stage by photographer Jim Holden, editor Carmen Sheridan, and artist and maker Ruby Taylor who discussed the alchemy of the wildflower meadow along with the four cornerstones of a meadow: people, places, plants and purpose.
From the history of the first settlers who changed from a Normadic existence to enclosing areas for cattle and sheep, to the decline of the meadow with the arrival of the car (hay was no longer needed to feed the horses and meadows were ploughed up), the first lesson of the day was how intricately threaded into our social history the meadow is. They were created for a purpose (to feed cattle) but while that purpose has changed and evolved, they have a purpose still. Yet, by the 1980s, 97% of our English meadows had been lost.
Talking of purpose, today’s meadows are important for biodiversity offsetting, flood control and offsetting new developments, as well as for health and wellbeing. A meadow supports a vast web of different life from the tiny spiders and insects to the grasses used for weaving, making furniture or clothing. And let’s not forget the sensory experience of a meadow. The movement. The sounds, of insects and of grasses gently swaying. The smell. The feel and taste of the air. Our childhood memories of time spent outside.
The man from Kew
Fascinating as they are, meadows are still a curious choice of subject for a book for a man who is known for his love and knowledge of trees. So I grabbed a few moments with Iain to find out more.
Yes, I started my career in the woodlands so this was a surprise change of direction for me. But it takes 100 years to see a tree come to full fruition but with a meadow, it’s much more instant gratification. I’ve been restoring a meadow at Wakehurst for many years and I thought it had something to say. I decided to put it in a book, putting the people that work in or with meadows at the centre. Gradually it became a celebration of meadows told through the vignettes of personal stories, so you can dip into it and see things from the many different perspectives.
Where is the best place to find Sussex meadows?
We are a meadow stronghold here in Sussex and our challenging topography has luckily made intensive farming difficult here which has helped. Smaller-scale farms tend to have meadows. If you’re looking for meadows when out and about, look behind hedgerows, or visit places like Wakehurst or Great Dixter.
How can we all support the environment and more importantly, meadows, both locally and on a larger scale?
First of all, visit a meadow and just sit down and wait. The meadow will find you. Be excited by plants and encourage others to be, especially children. Notice plants and share your knowledge with others. Locally, plant wildflowers back in your garden or wherever you can. And on a national scale, come to events like this and support those who are working to support our meadows.
What are your favourite meadow flowers?
It’s a difficult one but I love Sneezewort which is a wet meadow plant with a white flower known as a cure for sneezing. Oh, and the Roundheaded Rampion – the pride of Sussex (our county flower), of course.
What is your favourite part of Wakehurst and life there?
It’s probably Bloomers Valley down in Dingle Dell. It’s a beautiful meadow surrounded by woodland. The best of both worlds.
But the final word on meadows has to go to Keith, who on being asked why meadows are so important explained, about as beautifully as it is possible to do, “Because meadows are sentiments of our past and the guardians of our future.”.
If you’ve enjoyed this post about the Meadow talk at Charleston, in East Sussex you may also like: