Bluebell season is beginning. In the next few weeks, woodland floors will have a fine blue mist hovering above them. This flowering season is so sensuous: there’s the sound of bees buzzing in and out of the flowers, the smell of their blooms, the cool spring breeze in the woods where they grow, and that magical blue colour. These plants are protected and you can’t pick them, though it is a mystery why anyone would want to when a bluebell bouquet droops so quickly and looks miserable compared to the sea of flowers it has been stolen from.
You also can’t really enjoy them through pictures alone. Clever photography does bring you an idea of what a bluebell wood is like, but it is still a pale imitation. You need to be there, standing under the freshly-washed spring tree leaves and staring happily at the flowers to really enjoy them.
In some areas, a relative of the English Bluebell has gained a foothold. The Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica, is a chunkier flower with blooms all the way around its stem, rather than the droopy one-sided shape that you see in the native Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Close up, you’ll spot that the pollen on the anthers is blue rather than cream. Far off, these garden escapes just don’t manage to create anything like the wild mist of their relatives. Occasionally among wild bluebells you’ll find a white flower, and sometimes even a pink one from time to time.
They also mix with some of the first wild orchids to emerge each year: the Early Purple Orchid, Orchis mascula. This has rich purple blooms and spotted foliage. Wild garlic, Allium ursinum, and Wood anemones, Anemone nemorosa, also flower at this time of year and in the same habitats. If you see a good swathe of the white anemones, you’ll know you are in an ancient woodland: they spread so very slowly that a carpet is an indicator that they’ve been allowed to thrive for centuries.
In some parts of the country including the Lake District, bluebells cover the open fell sides. This is rather disconcerting, as they are supposed to be woodland plants. And indeed, they are the ghosts of a woodland long since felled. It is as though the layers of the landscape have been peeled back, leaving just one final clue as to what was once there. Most of the time, though, you will find them growing in woodland glades. Here are some standout places to see them:
Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire
A splendid day out. Make sure you look up at the many species of trees here as well as at the bluebells growing around them. Duddon Valley, Cumbria. Drive along the road to Hardknott pass and you’ll find the ‘ghost bluebells’ that tell the story of the woods they once grew under. It’s a strange sight on the open fell sides. This part of the county is also excellent for cycling: if you like going up some of the worst climbs in the country, that is.
Chapel Bank, Croydon
Yes, Croydon actually has some really rather lovely nature reserves and Chapel Bank is one such. It is so peaceful and full of plants that show this wood is a very old and precious one indeed. Among the bluebells are patches of Early Purple Orchids, which makes this even more of a treat.
Hembury Fort, Devon
A secret little Iron Age fort by the Dart, which is one of the finest rivers in Britain. The mound of the fort is intact and there are some superb walks around the area that’ll take you a couple of hours. Ranmore, Surrey. As well as wonderful views over Surrey, this area has some lovely and large bluebell woods. It can get rather busy at this time of the year, though: mornings are best.
The areas around the Treetop walkway have lovely mixtures of bluebells and cow parsley which tends to emerge just as the bluebells are starting to fade.
There are patches of bluebells on Hampstead Heath but you’ll be even better served in Highgate Wood, where the blooms are plentiful. There’s a lovely cafe there too.
Isabella Plantation, Richmond Park
Lovely not just for bluebells but also other spring flowers including azaleas. The streams and ponds have lovely water birds on them including the very smart and strange Mandarin Duck.
Chalet Wood, Wanstead Park
A beautiful area that’s managed as part of Epping Forest and has wonderful bird life as well as the bluebells.
In recent years school children have been planting more bluebells in Hyde Park. They are slow to spread so it’s not exactly a blue mist yet, but in shady spots under trees the flowers can be found.