DANCES WITH DAFFODILS
Preserving a spring tradition has become a community affair for one Gloucestershire village
Deep in the Gloucestershire countryside, a rural neighbourhood works together to protect and celebrate a remarkable seasonal spectacle
The village of Kempley in Gloucestershire has a special reason to welcome the festival of Lent. In the days preceding Easter, a floral tapestry of sunshine yellow spreads across the fields, through the forest and along the hedgerows and byways. It reaches as far as its two neighbours, Dymock and Oxenhall, which, together with Kempley, make up an area known as the Golden Triangle. This is the annual display of the elegant Lent Lily or wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus), whose delicate beauty makes its cultivated cousin look bold and brash by contrast. Although the first sighting can vary by a week or more depending on the weather, it never fails to appear early each spring, making the most of the light filtering through bare branches before leaves dress the trees.
Many of Kempley’s 280 residents remember the 1950s, when the flowers were harvested and taken by rail on ‘The Daffodil Line’ to markets in Birmingham and London. Schoolchildren would sell posies for just under a shilling, while their parents were employed in selecting and boxing up the blooms. London ladies would travel on a ‘daffodil special’ ticket to pick bunches that they would sell in East End hospitals, bringing a little bit of the countryside to the city. There are tales of the road from Kempley being coloured yellow with dropped daffodils on the way to the station at Dymock, which then bustled with trade.
The railway closed in 1964, and, in order to conserve diminishing numbers, picking the flowers has long since been banned. But old photographs in the Dymock community-owned pub, The Beauchamp Arms, are proof that they once extended further afield. Sadly, modern farming practices have taken their toll, leaving ‘ghost fields’ where wild daffodils once stretched to the horizon. It’s a fact that makes the remaining acres all the more
precious to ramblers, horse-riders, birdwatchers, dog-walkers and the local community who are determined to conserve and celebrate them. Ever since 1975, when three women came up with the idea of raising funds for the parish church by organising walks and serving refreshments, the three villages have held daffodil weekends, spacing them out through the season so that each can benefit. Margaret Brooke was one of the original trio and still volunteers: “There was no internet then, so we made posters and wrote letters to publicise the event, and baked buns by the dozen. Now there are 65 of us helping with the lunches and teas in Kempley alone. Others make or sell crafts, homemade cakes, preserves and plants.”
Their efforts paid off and now, during Kempley’s daffodil weekend alone, more than 400 visitors per day arrive from near and far to wander though the golden blooms. Sponsorship from the nearby Three Choirs Vineyard pays for the hire of a minibus, so people of all abilities can see the main sites. This is driven by Maggie Brocklehurst, who also serves as a daffodil guardian, collecting seed that will generate new bulbs in three years and be planted nearby – but not too near the garden variety, which has been interbreeding with wild abandon. (A suggestion to ban the usurpers was considered draconian.)
Maggie’s husband, Martin, helps to co-ordinate the event, and leads guided walks along the Daffodil Way, a footpath opened in 1988 that takes in eight miles of forest, meadow, 15th-century barns and farmhouses, perry orchards and cider mills. Along the way he explains that this native woodland species has been present since the Ice Age, that it thrives in unimproved grassland (where no fertiliser has been used) and is a boon to wildlife, being the first source of nectar for the bumblebee that plays such a
crucial role in pollinating crops. Local farmers are compensated for protecting the fields until the flowers die back, when sheep are allowed in to graze for a restricted period. “Most landowners are supportive,” Martin says, “and a highlight of our tour is being able to walk through drifts of daffodils in the Long Meadow at Friars Court Farm, owned by William and Kate Blandford. People who have retired out of the village come back for this weekend, and we have fourth-generation visitors who want to see for themselves the springtime phenomenon they have heard about.”
St Mary’s Church is another draw. The medieval building contains frescoes that are remarkably clear, having been fully revealed only in 1956, and are some of the best preserved in Europe. They were whitewashed over during the Reformation to cover what were then regarded as idolatrous images. While the church is no longer in regular use, owing to flooding problems, it is maintained by the Friends of Kempley Churches on behalf of English Heritage, and is open during daffodil weekends.
The Daffodil Way isn’t the only local walk that takes in this natural spectacle. The Poets’ Path is an easy, figure-of-eight route, passing by the glorious Ketford daffodil bank, which would have been enjoyed by writers Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, all of whom lived in the area around the time of the First World War, and are commemorated in Dymock. (None of them, as far as we know, aspired to improve on Wordsworth’s famous poem: ‘I gazed – and gazed – but little thought/what wealth the show to me had brought’.)
Last year was one of the most successful events so far, both in terms of the display and the money raised – £6,000 by Kempley alone (and a total of £13,000 from all three villages). It’s enough to maintain the village hall and St Edward’s Church across the road, described by John Betjeman as “a mini cathedral of the Arts and Crafts movement”. Local resident Ann Young, who was christened and married there, recalls, “As a child I remember standing at the farm gate selling daffodils, and the family car was often piled to the roof with them.” She farmed until retirement five years ago, and is now one of the Kempley ‘Baking Ladies’.
Ann’s story, stretching from birth to retirement and beyond, is the perfect example of this resilient rural community. In a time when the new and novel often wins out, they instead chose to turn to a beautiful part of their past, celebrating it, sharing it with the public and, in doing so, ensuring the daffodils and the villages they surround last long into the future.
Daffodil weekends this year will be held on 17, 18 March (Kempley); 24, 25 March (Oxenhall); and 31 March, 1 April (Dymock). For more details, visit kempleytardis.org.uk.
Wild daffodils carpet the ground in the village of Kempley, where Maggie Brocklehurst (below) drives a minibus for visitors
Martin Brocklehurst (left) leads walks along the Daffodil Way, where drifts of the springtime blooms can be seen
The funds raised help to maintain St Edward’s Church and the village hall. Daffodil petals are even made into natural confetti (below right)