During this week the previous year my phone rang just as I approached Llangelynin Church, a call to inform me that my mother had passed away. I knew the instant it rang. I don’t really believe my mother hovers along with me as I ride through life, saving me from falls on the hillside and keeping my feet in a position of safety at all times, but I do like the idea of it even if only in symbolic terms, because this is exactly what mothers do. And then there was an occasion the previous winter where I actually did lose a stirrup and found it again in the strangest of split-second circumstances, so I feel entitled to the odd whimsical thought during this time of summer rain, rainbows, and humid mist.
Mum was cremated more than 70 miles away, and it’s a place I don’t really wish to revisit for the sake of remembering her as that would feel not only a worthless chore, but insincere. I’m not sure riding to Llangelynin church with a bunch of hedgerow flowers on the anniversary of her passing is especially more apt, because towards the end of her life Mum’s feelings about religion were gradually worn down to an angry indifference. But consecrated places are not always about the constraints of religion. More importantly she loved Wales, and all things flowering, despite her absolute refusal – towards the end – to believe she was ever knowledgeable of plants and once upon a time cherished a large garden. Remembering her at this peaceful, historical spot in the Welsh hills is surely the greatest symbolism of freedom after years of suffering the emotional and mental prison of dementia. Those years when the shadow began to move across her memory until the disease finally swallowed it whole, were the hardest years of all.I realise that collecting flowers on the way to the church whilst astride Storm, might prove problematic. As well as a lot of dismounting I imagine His Lordship might presume I was collecting some of these delicacies on his behalf. So I gathered the bouquet a couple of days before, from the ancient, abundant hedgerows by the church. Before too long I had a small bouquet of natural beauties; Harebells, Foxgloves, Heather, Valerian, Cranesbill, Rosebay Willowherb, Campion; Bracken for greenery, and for fragrance, my own Lavender and Jasmine.
The day of the symbolic gesture – the day I choose to ride to Llangelynin with my bounty – is heavy with low cloud and drizzle. I tie the flowers to the saddle with a length of pink string. Storm is remarkably respectful and gives it only a cursory glance. Undeterred by the worsening weather, we set off at a smart pace, fired by the importance of our quest. On the small rise of Craigfedwen where the landscape would normally roll in front of us for as far as the eye could see, visibility is reduced to a thick wall of mist, and the only sounds are those of muffled bleating. I think about the song my brother and I chose for Mum’s service, by Enya: So I Could Find My Way. Before too long I admit defeat – I genuinely cannot find my way today. The heavens burst wide open and progress across the open mountain is made not impossible, but miserable and uncomfortable. Saturated, I turn for home. The pony gives me some tremendous heart-lifting canters through the wet bracken, raindrops and an array of petals flying in his mane. Does he know? As a symbol of freedom and a nod to the joy of wild Welsh foliage, I reckon we still completed our brief. And I suspect Mum had the last say.
Do you know your Saxifrage from your Stitchwort, your Harebells from your Bluebells? No, me neither. Each May the hedgerows of North Wales, and more specifically the Conwy Valley where I live, are bursting with wild flowers, herbs and grasses, so prolific they are impossible to ignore. Each year I vow to learn to identify some of them. As with most aspects of the Welsh countryside there are strong connections to history. The 15th and 16th Centuries are considered to be the prime time of the herbalists. It was a time of great belief in mystery, magic and superstitions, which naturally gave rise to curiosity and often wildly incorrect conclusions about the properties and values of certain plants.
The ancient woodlands and green lanes here in the Conwy Valley nurture anything that likes a good bog, but then the land climbs towards Tal Y Fan and I find sub species – I think – which have perhaps adapted to a drier soil. It was only when I came to identify the plants on the web that I realised just how vast the subject is, and why this post is mostly pictorial. I know the Latin names are considerably more accurate but I’d never get to grips with that, nor would it evoke much interest if one of my characters were to say Aquilegia spp instead of Granny’s Bonnet.
Time spent gathering this kind of information is never wasted, especially since my fiction is set in this part of the world. Researching is all part of the day job for a writer and, oh … how much richer the story becomes when these snippets are threaded into the narrative. I’m not talking about blocks of description better suited to a Flora and Fauna encyclopedia, it’s the subtle details which underpin that suspension of belief, the transportation into another, possibly alien location for the reader, and hopefully without them realising how you’ve done it.
The absorption of any scene or landscape is not restricted to what we can see, either; smell, touch and sound are also powerful mediums in fiction. Take Wild Garlic. Incredibly pungent and pretty prolific in this area. When the leaves are crushed the perfume wafts a considerable distance and the leaves are indeed edible, but they also happen to look exactly like the poisonous leaves of Lily-of-the-Valley so perhaps edible foraging is best left to the experts. There are in fact many deadly, innocent looking flowers out there which could form the basis of a dastardly plot … so although these pretty hedgerows might be considered pure romance fodder, there’s no love lost when it comes to ingesting some of them.
But I did discover a rather fine recipe for Elderflower champagne. My character, Anna Williams (Wild Water Series) tells me this is the foolproof recipe she always follows, so I think this is possibly a good place to halt my inspection of the hedgerows and start boiling some water!