First you notice the heavy, spicy scent. Then there’s the colour, an intense, violet-blue unlike any other blue you’ve ever seen. A lake of bluebells in a woodland glade is a feast for the senses.
Because they grow throughout Britain, except on mountains and marshland, bluebells acquired many local names including culverkeys, auld man’s bells, ring o’ bells, fairy bells, witches’ thimbles and, in Elizabethan times, English jacinth.
Some of those names suggest that bluebells were a favourite of the “hidden people”. Certainly, the only folklore attached to the plants concerns their minders, usually bad-tempered goblins.
They didn’t frighten everyone, though. The gooey sap from bluebell stems was used in bookbinding, and to stick the feather flights onto arrows. Starch from the bulbs stiffened the lace ruffs worn by fashionable Elizabethans. And although every part of the bluebell is poisonous, medieval monks used the powdered bulb to treat leprosy and tuberculosis.
Bluebells store their poisonous glycosides to deter grazing animals, and pack themselves into huge drifts that exclude most other plants. But while they’ve survived in some woods for centuries, we mustn’t be complacent. Trampling feet, habitat destruction, and hybridisation with the Spanish bluebell are all current threats.
Although it’s really a woodland plant, hyacinthoides non-scripta will grow on shady banks, or even in the open if the soil is damp enough. But in the dappled woodland light, those sheets of blue are something special.
Moved by the spectacle, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his journal in May 1871: “In the clough, through the light, they come in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue...”
Bluebells flower throughout May, making the most of the sunlight before the trees come into full leaf and block it out. Enjoy their sight and scent at Raincliffe Woods, Scarborough; Bridestones Moor, Pickering; Stray Head Banks, Whitby; or Nut Wood and Wauldby Scrogs, Cottingham. Bluebells are a sign of ancient woodland and a protected species, so please don’t pick the flowers or tread on their leaves.
Until plumbing became commonplace, water had to be carried from the nearest pump, well or spring – usually a job for women or children. But apart from those everyday sources there were many holy wells, cherished for their healing powers. Around 200 survive in England.
One is in Harpham, a village lying between Bridlington and Driffield. Railings surround the small, stone-built well house, which resembles an old-fashioned beehive. The water was reputed to cure eye disorders and headaches, and was said to calm the most difficult of animals.
The well is dedicated to St John of Beverley, born in Harpham in the seventh century. John was a healer who studied in Whitby at Hilda’s abbey, and later became Bishop of York.
He retired to the monastery he’d founded at Beverley, and stayed there until his death in 721. His bones were later moved to a tomb in Beverley Minster.
May 7 is St John’s feast day. On the nearest Tuesday – this year it’s the 10th – there’s a short service in Harpham’s church followed by a procession to the well house, where the railings are garlanded with leaves and flowers.