Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Meadow Meetings

Buttercups at Paxton Pits
Our magnificent show of buttercups deserves a closer look, but first, just stand on the path and gaze across to the trees on the far side.  Now try not to hum "Fields of Gold" by Sting, or Eva Cassidy!

Meadows are great inspirational places and it is no coincidence that all of the best music festivals are held on dairy farms. I remember going to one of the first festivals at Pilton and being greeted by a hippy dressed as Gandalf. He was stirring a fresh cow-pat with his staff and muttering some kind of friendly incantation. That memory alone tells me that it was after the hay-cut when the cows had been let onto the field to graze the new growth. The music wasn't that good (Hawkwind were headlining) and there was hardly anyone there but I enjoyed it because it was our very own Woodstock.  I recall a sunset with rows of huge elm trees in silhouette and Glastonbury Tor behind them. Sadly the elms all died in 1976.

Glastonbury Tor
Did you know that Magna Carta was signed in a meadow full of buttercups? It was drawn up by King John's barons in Bury St Edmunds and later signed at Runnymede near Windsor on the 15th of June in 1215. We will be celebrating the 800th anniversary next week.

I was thinking about this when I was looking at our meadow and it occurred to me that Runnymede would have looked pretty much the same. It lies next to the Thames and is now owned by the National Trust who have posted pictures on-line. Sure enough, it's a field of golden buttercups.

I naively thought that the name just means runny (i.e. wet) meadow but I was only half right, in Saxon times it was the "meetings meadow"; a sort of early House of Lords. I like the idea of a meadow being a place to meet and make big decisions.

Grass pea
My mighty brain dredged up another field, the "Field of the Cloth of Gold," but I could not remember where it was so I looked it up. It's another Runnymede; another meetings meadow. It was 1520 and it was in June, but this time the king was Henry VIII who was at the negotiating table with King Frances I. That buttercup meadow is in France, near Calais, but it was a part of England at the time.

If you are going to hold a big event in your meadow, it is best to do it after the hay is cut in July or August because the hay is such a valuable crop. It is the process of hay making that encourages buttercups because it ensures that cattle are kept off until the flowers are over and hay making spreads the seeds. In fact, you know when it is time to cut the hay because all the buttercup flowers will be over and the seeds will have turned black. You don't get a good show of buttercups anywhere, except in hay meadows.

Our meadow at Paxton Pits has a very short history. It was created in the 1950s from the gravel pits that also created the lakes in Rudd and Cloudy Pits. Some of the oldest and best examples of meadows have not been ploughed for centuries but very few escaped the "Dig for Victory" campaign in World War II. In fact, many meadows were used as airfields in both wars. The best example is Portholme Meadow.
Children explore the meadow
Portholme is the biggest meadow in England and it spans a huge bend in the Great Ouse between Huntingdon and Godmanchester.  Because it was naturally so flat, it became an airfield in the First World War when planes did not need runways, just flat grassland. The biggest aeroplanes to fly from there were Vickers Vimy bombers, like the first biplane to fly the Atlantic with it's pilots Alcock and Brown. The aeronautical activities saved the field from being ploughed up and so today the meadow is managed on behalf of the London Angling Club and it is famous for its wild flowers.

After hay-time a field near our village in Swaledale was used for the annual sports day. Each village had a show day or a sports day that was held on the flattest most accessible meadow and I'm sure that the same was true all over England. We didn't have a sports field until the hay was gathered in and anyway, in those days football was for the winter, cricket was for the summer. Some of those classic dale's shows are still held and the programme always includes fell running races, dry stone walling competitions, sheep dog trials and a lot of fabulous Yorkshire food.

One final thought: Summer meadows were the places that we went to for picnics and where we went courting. It's an interesting thought that some of us might not have been here now but for an amorous encounter among the buttercups. That might explain why so many of us are born around March!