The Forest Floor

Erythronium: it’s a flowering alpine plant that I learned about and saw in profusion this week when I visited an open garden across in Fife. The woodland walk at Weymss Castle, where we were, is known for it. Weymss (rhymes with beams) is not a pretty castle; it’s a hulking barrack of a place, glowering over the Firth of Forth. The views across to East Lothian are pleasing, but, for the time being, a little spoiled as the castle overlooks an oil rig that has been dragged in from the open sea for a service, or to be refurbished, perhaps. But the gardens are beautiful, in an imperfect way. Not overly clipped and tamed, they resemble the natural beauty of a small girl who hasn’t brushed her hair all weekend – tangled, unruly and charming. If I had six acres of walled garden to cultivate I daresay mine would be a lot more tangled. Rare breed chickens run about one section of the walled garden, hiding in poly tunnels and pooping in the strawberries. It is home to one of the largest collections of clematis in Scotland (not yet in bloom), and so their pride and joy right now, in April, is the woodland walk through a carpet of pink erythronium. Originating from North America, it’s a low alpine that loves damp shade – welcome to Scotland little plant, your perfect home from home! The type of erythronium covering the forest at Wemyss is a tiny pink one; it looks like a little lily with its head bowed, so the pink glow is radiated from the underside of the petals. So abundant is it that it’s tricky to find somewhere to walk to avoid crushing it in patches. Had there been anyone in the forest, other than me and my two friends (there wasn’t), the peace and beauty may have been diluted, but it was magical as we picked our way through the tall bare Beech trees whilst listening to the birds.

I read afterwards that some believe Wemyss is haunted. Like a number of Scottish castles, Wemyss is said to have a ‘Green Lady’: a young woman in a trailing dress of green silk, noiselessly floating through its corridors. The rare occasion of her sighting is a certain prelude to death and misfortune. I wondered if she ever made it out of the house and up to the peace of the woods where she too could listen to the crunch underfoot and the rustle overhead. Ah, the romance of ghosts, spooks and spectres; there is nothing like an old house, garden or woodland to conjure them forth.

The Listeners’, by Walter de la Mare

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,

Knocking on the moonlit door;

And his horse in the silence champed the grasses

Of the forest’s ferny floor:

And a bird flew up out of the turret,

Above the Traveller’s head:

And he smote upon the door again a second time;

‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.

But no one descended to the Traveller;

No head from the leaf-fringed sill

Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,

Where he stood perplexed and still.

But only a host of phantom listeners

That dwelt in the lone house then

Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight

To that voice from the world of men:

Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,

That goes down to the empty hall,

Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken

By the lonely Traveller’s call.

And he felt in his heart their strangeness,

Their stillness answering his cry,

While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,

’Neath the starred and leafy sky;

For he suddenly smote on the door, even

Louder, and lifted his head:—

‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,

That I kept my word,’ he said.

Never the least stir made the listeners,

Though every word he spake

Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house

From the one man left awake:

Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,

And the sound of iron on stone,

And how the silence surged softly backward,

When the plunging hoofs were gone.

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