Monday, 14 March 2011

Violets – revisiting childhood memories

Violets have always been part of my life. The challenge of choosing a herbal ally has offered me the opportunity to get to know this plant in a very different way. Until this month, I felt the challenge was running away from me as I’d done nothing practical, but this past weekend at the farm has enabled me to notice new aspects and take a trip down memory lane.

Saturday was the first Springfield Sanctuary workshop. Five of my apprentices gathered together to plant oats, identify young herbs and begin the task of readying the main herb bed for the coming year. Violet flowers were blooming beneath the crabapple tree, so everyone was given a violet leaf to chew and reflect upon.

The expressions on their faces told a story all of their own. Everyone experienced the leaf in a different way. Comments included:-
This is different!
I could happily eat this in a salad
It really cleans your palate!
It tastes nutty
It tastes smoky

I used the remainder of my tiny harvest to put up a small jar of vinegar, using the amazing apple cider vinegar gifted by Nik at a previous Mercian Herb Group. There were so few violets and leaves; I hoped to increase the amount of herb the following day.

Sunday was again a gloriously sunny day with a cold wind. After spending the morning cooking cakes, puddings and a roast dinner with my mother, while Chris and my father battled with the sixty year old water pump, I escaped for an hour to walk to one of my childhood spring playgrounds about a third of a mile away.

On the ordinance survey map, it is called “Town Quarry” reflecting the original use as a stone quarry for the nearby villages and large estate, Copse Hill. Once the stone was removed, it became a place for the disposal of unwanted items – everything from glass bottles and rusty buckets to motorbikes, fridges, prams and once an old Bentley!

For several years, before I went away to school at the age of eleven, my younger sister and I would ride our bikes down to the tip to explore and generally see what we could find. It wasn’t the discarded items which intrigued us, but the spring flowers. We had no primroses or violets in our garden and these grew wild in the tip. I was an avid reader and The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books. I wanted to create my own secret garden, so we carefully dug and transplanted snowdrops, violets and primroses to two different locations at the base of trees.

In the 1980s, Ian Fleming’s nephew bought the Copse Hill estate, in a final attempt to save his marriage. The costs of all the renovations made him almost bankrupt and in trying to set light to both the stable block and the laundry, he was killed by the explosion caused by rising petrol fumes.

His legacy, as far as I was concerned, was to level part of the tip and plant trees. The aim was to stop people dumping rubbish and reclaim the land by sealing off the entrance. This has worked in parts. Where the ground has been levelled and trees planted, there is a quiet grove, with a wide expanse of snowdrops. Hay and straw bales are now stored on what used to be the deepest pit. The rest of the tip has not been touched and still has mature trees and deep gullies. Local people are still dumping unwanted fridges and other items.

It was a lovely surprise to find our first tiny garden still flourishing. The few snowdrop bulbs we planted were now a healthy clump. The violets were yet to flower, but one of the primroses had three pale flowers which shone in the sunlight.

My next search was for the bank of violets where my sister and I used to pick a violet bouquet for my mother each year. It was a real delight to find them growing en masse in the same spot where I used to harvest nearly fifty years ago! I was able to gather a useful amount, which I carried triumphantly home in a paper bag to show my parents.

When we reached Solihull that evening, I added more leaves and flowers to the vinegar and made up a tincture. As I opened the paper bag, my nose was assailed by a forgotten scent. It was light and delicate like the violet blooms themselves - a real joy to discover after so many years.

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