In 1968, when the world was young and heady, the 19th of May fell on a Sunday, as has been the case this year. Spring that year was slow, but sure, and gave the impression that sooner or later something mighty was going to erupt within the world of Nature. It did, on May 19th.
But May 19th 1968 began with school chapel, which dragged on till 10am. It was, of course, compulsory at boarding schools in that era – on pain of severe pain. Between chapel, and the equally compulsory but utterly inedible Sunday lunch, was an opportunity of less than three hours to go butterflying. Consequently, I ran, in heavy school shoes, dressed as a penguin in full school uniform, the two and a half miles to Marlpost Wood. I entered the wood at the zenith of spring, with the heady scent of bluebells in the air, stuffed my school coat under a bush – and crossed rapturously into a new dimension, the real world.
There, to an eternal delight that must now be shared, I saw my first Pearl-bordered Fritillaries and what was then known as the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary. It must be confessed that I still refer to the latter as the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary at every opportunity, for butterfly enthusiasts fall for the names they first learnt – and, as Aslan himself put it: ‘Once a king and queen in Narnia, always a king and queen in Narnia’. The Pearl-bordered was undoubtedly the most beautiful thing I had seen in fourteen years of life, on account not merely of the juxtaposition of colours, but of the grace with which it flies. The magic is compounded by its affinity with the exquisite blue of its beloved bugle flowers. The
was evidently a living jewel, and a butterfly of strong character. Burgundy
Both butterflies occurred around a few acres of young plantation, where rows of oaks had been inter-planted with lines of Norway spruce, as a nurse crop, next to a broad sunny ride bedecked with clumps of bugle and stitchwort. Speckled yellow moths were hatching, and flopping around amongst bracken fronds old and new, fair weather cumulous clouds were drifting lazily above, for atmospheric pressure was rising, and a distant nightingale sang snatches of some Elysian song. Will people who do not believe that
Paradise exists upon this earth kindly revise their views: it does, only it tends to be transitory and intensely episodic, and you have to be in the right place at the right time. Moreover, human nonsense, such as compulsory chapel, is forever getting in the way of it.
A horribly soppy and naïve song by a group called The Honeybus, who mercifully had only the one hit, was riding high in the charts in May 1968, and was in my mind throughout and beyond that visit. Years later I rewrote I Can't Let Maggie Go, slowed it down and removed the annoying falsetto parts, and attempted to give it some decent lyrics. This heavily revised, near-paganised and unrecognisable version is my song of the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, but like so much of what one holds dearest is inappropriate for open communication. We dare not come out at that level, I know not why.
After an hour and a half in
Paradise I ran back to school, in time for the compulsory lunch. But I had left something behind in the woods, part of me. Instead, I had taken something with me, not merely a couple of specimens of each species, which I set that afternoon, for people collect memories and forge relationships with places. Marlpost Wood has changed unrecognisably since that day (most of it blew down in the Great Storm of October 1986), and so have I. But we remain intertwined, and her Duke of Burgundy and Pearl-bordered fritillaries dwell still within me, not merely within my mind, or my imagination, but within my soul.
Suffice it that 45 years on, to the very hour, I rekindled first my relationship with His Grace the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary and then with the Pearl-bordered Fritillary. The only significant difference was that Sunday May 19th 2013 was Pentecost Sunday (when the churches celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Disciples).