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“I Knew a Bank Where the Wildflowers Grew……”

Many thanks to Julia Desch, who wrote this piece originally for the Donheads newsletter, but has kindly allowed us to reproduce it here.

My father was a naval engineer and during WWII he alternated between active service and re-building battleships, often also camouflaging them with paint to look like a destroyer and a frigate with a gap in the middle exactly where the engine room was positioned to deflect enemy attention. More on camouflage later.

At five or six years old after the war, I would be taken down the hatchways on board ship to experience the actual engines deep in the ship’s belly. I remember the vibrations, the pistons moving rhythmically, the noise of all the different parts meshing together, the smell of engine oil, boiler heat and the hissing of steam. It was like a powerful animal allowing Itself to be bent to human will. An engine is so much more than the sum of its parts, having temperament and a certain magic surrounding it. We would re-emerge up on deck slightly deafened and disorientated back in the gentler hum, now rocking at anchor, waves idly slapping.

When I was 13 or so, staying on Dartmoor with my special second mother, (my real mother had poor health) we would go wildflower hunting, bringing back specimens to look up and identify. No computers then or camera apps on phones. I just loved the treasure hunt of following clues until an Aha moment delivered the result. By then at boarding school, we were fortunate enough to have a wonderful science teacher who taught us biology and above all botany with jars of plants set out in their Latin families, whose names and parts we had to learn by heart. Every day I thank her for that priceless gift and likewise our Latin mistress who opened the doors to their language.

That same summer we walked many paths and old ways and I remember one early evening

we turned into an enclosed Green Lane leading to a remote moorland farm. My first and abiding impression was receiving a scented surprise of warm nectar breathed in, belonging to every plant in flower and enveloping us. It was a shared moment of heaven as I realised a consuming passion for that elemental world and fell in love with wildflowers and their secret life.

Two high banks rose opposite each other with a perfect partnership of plants, above them the hedges with their own distinctive character and bird life. It was a riot of colour. There were arching pale pink Briar Roses, festoons of Wild Honeysuckle, Blackberry and lower down on the warmer side, Ladies Bedstraw, Campion, Speedwells, Wild Strawberry, and so many more sharing their space with granite boulders. The purple spires of Foxgloves, mixed with pinks and reds, creamy yellow of Ladies Bedstraw and Agrimony in amongst the purple bonnets of wild Columbine was unforgettable. On the opposite side, the cool trickle of water slid down wet mossy stones and fern leaves in every shade of green. It was balm to the soul after the dreary flat colours of wartime. Ferns, Penny Wort, Toadflax, Foxgloves and pure, warm, wet earth offered a deeply restful note. The perfume, the colours and the life they supported were all one and I breathed it in till it engulfed me. Ever since, banks have been special to me.

More recently, I have come to experience differing habitats as nature’s engine rooms with their own rhythms and circuits, pumps and cylinders, both visible and hidden all functioning together in mutual respect offering food, shelter, pollination across species and seasons. Now as I live and walk in The Donheads, I wonder who built them. How long did it take to place the huge stones complete with spaces and weepholes so they slowly accumulated their fragile skin of lichens, moss and a fretwork of roots designed to run deep into or spread across holding the soil together for hundreds of years through floods and prolonged heat? Cog wheels of different sizes and pistons all communicating together, fuelled by sunlight, shade, water and air.

Flourishing banks are energy exchangers, carbon storers, reservoirs slowly releasing their damp coolness. They mitigate summer months of drought and provide shelter in winter months, critical to larval stages as well as others depending on dormancy. They offer camouflage for all kinds of insects and small mammals. It is a wondrous thing to see a pair of black eyes staring out from a hole in a bank or hear the hum of bees below ground. Holes of all sizes, perfectly rounded, transport ‘fuel’, leave soil intact and overhanging growth stops rain from drowning inmates. These seed banks hold the history of biodiversity through centuries.

Take Germander Speedwell, a darling low growing, perennial plant rooting along its stems and clinging to vertical spaces in sun or shade. Clear Madonna blue flowers will open along a stem for up to three months and then seed over another two if left alone with other perennials. Even now in winter the leaves are green and try valiantly not to give up in the face of persistent cutting. We will miss all the joy of scent and colour without plants like these being able to flourish. Foxgloves only flower in their second year. In extreme weather conditions the resilience of wild plants is far greater than just grass. Banks easily deteriorate without variety, lose their soil skin and become bare boulders instead. The engine’s cogwheels slow down and have to change into first gear waiting for lichens, liverworts, mosses and ferns to grow a new fragile skin for plants to key into all over again.

Are we giving our precious banks the care they need to survive and thrive? We could often do better at this time of much needed Nature Recovery with very little effort just by stopping repetitive strimming with its inevitable damage. Imagine a feast of colours and scents on all sides whilst walking The Donhead lanes.

As I approach my 80th Birthday, my thoughts are more about legacy than goals. What will

our grandchildren judge us by? Will they have their own peak experiences through nature? How many have ever seen a bank in full flower or inhaled its warm gift of nectar? If we stop and look with new, “birthing eyes” what do we notice that we never saw previously? If we left 12 inches uncut throughout the spring and summer, except for bracken, we would still have sightlines and so much more. Insects depend on short flights from one source of food to another, preferably the same ones. Their contribution to nature’s engine rooms is more urgent than ever. Recovery belongs to all of us now, present or absent and every square metre counts as ‘stepping stones’, ‘meadow fragments’ or part of a ‘flight path’, or ‘buzz line’ joining longer corridors for wildlife.

Have you heard about The Great Big Green week? It is the UK’s biggest ever celebration of community action to tackle Climate Change and protect nature and you can find out more and join in via You can discover events or offer to contribute by emailing There will certainly be things happening in and around the Donheads.

There is also a new WhatsApp Group called WildAboutTheDonheads which is open to join if you want to exchange information, record sightings, ask questions or find out more about what you see and hear. It is a great way to celebrate local nature. To join contact (0781 0047071).

Some more inspiration: (connecting wildlife corridors for pollinators).

And if anyone is interested in walking lanes with banks please feel free to contact me : Julia Desch,. Email:

Richard adds: as many of you know, Planet Shaftesbury has supported and initiated activities for Great Big Green Week in previous years and will continue to do so for this year's event, which takes place from 10th to 18th June. See our projects page for details as they arise and for more about Chris' website, as mentioned by Julia above.

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