In which I find bilberry in Godshill Wood
Our love for the New Forest is much greater than our knowledge of it.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
I have a feeling Joan Begbie is being a little modest. She points out many plants, places and creatures with confidence as she describes her walks across the New Forest’s heaths, woods, streams and mires with her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon). As I follow in her bootsteps, almost 100 years later, she is teaching me not just to better understand the fall and rise of the landscape of the Forest as we track its hills and valleys, but also the flora and fauna that inhabit it.
This post is therefore a little different from the walks Joan, the dogs and I have taken together so far. Joan has drawn to my attention that there is bilberry in the woods (which she calls by one of its alternative names – often used in southwest England – of whortleberry). In my ignorance, this is news to me. I had only been aware of bilberry before under its Scottish name of blaeberry, and as a plant of the uplands. Even then, I had not gone searching for it in the northern mountains, so had only a vague idea of what it looked like.
So, we went looking for bilberry in a New Forest wood, and I discovered that even the commonest and smallest plants, the ones that get passed by, carry with them wonder and delight if you care to stop and spend a while with them.
Joan said that there was whortleberry along the path that leads from the second gate into the wood at Godshill. I call it bilberry but, whatever name you know it by, we hoped to find it still there.
We were feeling elated after the walk along the wide area of open turf that tracks the south-eastern edge of Godshill Inclosure, dotted with oaks, birch and hollies that have escaped the wood’s boundary fence. It’s a place favoured by New Forest ponies, people and their dogs, and it has a wonderful view, all the way down to Millersford Bottom and then up to Gravel Pit Hill and Godshill Ridge, which carries the main route out of Fordingbridge across the Forest (the B3078).
There has always been a wood at Godshill, but it was once much smaller. In 1810, the Inclosure swallowed it up and the only remnants are those found printed on historical maps. Perhaps there is a whisper of the ancient wood in the old souls of the mosses, liverworts and lichens, but you have to listen carefully. A catch of the wind’s breath as it circles the place where a tall twisting oak once stood, the cry of a buzzard haunting the skies above through both time and place: these are the traces that linger.
A path, sprouting with whortleberry and decorated with trailing ivy, meanders between tall oaks, pines and sweet chestnuts until it falls in with a ride.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
Also, of course, there is the bilberry, an indicator of where an ancient woodland is or has been, and the reason I was here with Joan. But the bilberry – the whortleberry – population she saw that day, back in 1934, is no longer here along the path inside the second gate. We looked, but there was no sign, not a leaf, not a stem. That day, disappointed, we walked eastwards on to Millersford Copse and Turf Hill Inclosure, leaving Godshill and hope of bilberry behind.
The next time I came to Godshill, it was mid-March. Once more, I walked through the second gate, latching it behind me, and passed into the wood. Still no bilberry. Walking on this time in a northwesterly direction, I crossed the gravelled cycle track (which Joan found to be a ride) and carried on towards a clear grassy spot where two tracks intersect, and where on a sunny day butterflies dance among the wildflowers.
There, before I got to the little crossing of paths, I saw it, what I was fairly sure must be bilberry. Growing low to the ground; elliptical leaves a delicate green and finely serrated at their edges. I crouched down and took a green twig gently between my fingers so as not to bruise it. Square-shaped branching stems, no hairs, leaves alternating. The lower stems were woody, with fresher growth above. I took notes and photos, made a quick sketch – all the right things to do when you want to confirm an ID. Turning left at the intersecting paths, I found more in carpets of abundance, growing from among the leaf litter and green mosses.
Arriving home, I surrounded myself with botany books and confirmed I had indeed found bilberry, not where Joan had seen it, but also not so very far away. Here’s what I discovered.
Back I went to Godshill in May, armed with all this information. By this time, the bilberry flowers were blooming. I knelt down next to them in the wood, and again gently felt the square shape of the stem and ran my finger along the delicately serrated edge of a leaf. The flowers were soft to touch; I noticed their globe shape, each flower with its stigma just visible. I saw the zigzag branching of the stems and the buds nestled alternately at each bend.
Then I took some photographs. This drew me in even closer to the delicate form of the bilberry, in one sense, because I could enlarge the frames on the view screen and see greater detail. But it also separated me from the plants. I do find this with my camera: I’m so intent on a decent shot – focus, depth of field, framing, and so on – that I stop noticing little but important details. As an example, I recently posted on my Twitter feed an image I’d taken of an orange-tip butterfly sunning itself on garlic mustard, one of its caterpillar foodplants. It took another Twitter user to point out to me the tiny little orange-tip egg attached to the plant’s stem half a butterfly wing’s-breadth below. I’d missed it completely.
So, I eventually put the camera away, and got myself down as low as I could to observe the bilberry at its own height. This is how to know a plant. Facts are important, of course. Without science coupled with indigenous knowledge we cannot hope to understand how best to protect and heal our beleaguered natural world. But to really know a plant – that means to get close and watch. It means to be still while the ground-level draughts – those curls of air escaping from brisker breezes above – ruffle leaves and gently sway stems and flowers; to be quiet while wood ants scuttle through their bilberry forest, and a weevil, comically long-snouted, grasps its legs round a green stem like a firefighter on a pole; to hold your breath when a spider scrambles close to your hand; to smell the green scent of moss and leaves and the earth scent of soil. It means to see not just the plant, but also the fullness of the small world in which it lives. From this perspective I saw how, in the gentle sunlight beneath the trees high above, the bilberry flowers were luminous, delicately colour-washed with pale green and pink. I will have to go back later in the year to see the blue-black berries, but already I could tell how they would form and ripen.
Later that week, I was walking a little further south, and I looked towards the woods at Godshill, its treetops green against the sky. I no longer thought only, Ah, there’s Godshill Wood. Rather, I thought, There is bilberry there, flowers gleaming in the sun, stems zigzagging and buds growing while the wood ants, spiders and weevils scurry through their own little forest. ‘Learning’ a landscape means not only to know its forms, its geology, its soils, its ups and downs, hills and valleys. It also, just as importantly, means to know its creatures, its plants, where they live and where they thrive.
We’ll be back in Godshill Wood for the next post on this blog, keeping company with Joan Begbie, Bill and Mr. Bundy for part of one of their longer walks, and then heading off on the route I regularly take round the wood to do a butterfly survey. I am grateful to Joan for introducing me to bilberry in the New Forest woods, and I want to return the favour by showing her (and you!) the wood ants’ birch tree, the sunny clearing where wildflowers grow and butterflies mingle, the road of stately beeches, and the way you can take to Castle Hill and the grandest view for miles around.
Some of the books I used to learn about bilberry:
John Hutchinson (1945). Common Wild Flowers. Penguin Books, Middlesex.
The Rev. C A Johns (1908). Flowers of the Field. George Routledge & Sons, London.
Richard Mabey (1996). Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.
Francis Rose (2006). The Wild Flower Key (2nd edition). Frederick Warne, London.
Colin R Tubbs (1986). The New Forest: a Natural History. William Collins Sons & Co., London.