Saturday, March 22, 2008

Juniper Hill

My partner spent her childhood in Oxfordshire and has fond memories of the area around Juniper Hill. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that she introduced me to Flora Thompson's Lark Rise trilogy. Flora was born in Juniper Hill (Lark Rise) at the end of 1876. In 1891 she became assistant to the postmistress in the nearby town of Fringford (Candleford Green). She fictionalised her experience of rural Oxfordshire life at the end of the nineteenth century in manuscripts submitted to Oxford University Press in 1938. The Lark Rise trilogy is now regarded as a minor classic and is a finely crafted, intimate description of life in a rural backwater of England.

I doubt that without my partner's personal interest I would have heard of Flora Thompson or read her books. Until recently mentioning Lark Rise to others has almost always produced a blank look. However, this year, all that has changed as the BBC aired a television series loosely based on Flora Thompson's work. This series has been a surprising success with audiences of around six million people and a second series already promised. I guess the series has been such a success because in an increasingly cynical world Flora Thompson's light touch simply celebrates the goodness of human nature and the beauty of the English countryside.

To film the series the BBC lovingly re-created the village of Lark Rise and the market town of Candleford. Sadly the landscape around Juniper Hill is now despoiled by the geodesic domes of Croughton United States Air Force Base which handles one-third of all U.S. military communications in Europe. If the Goddess is saddened by this overt display of military power that has been firmly planted in the landscape She may also be disheartened by another change.

The villages the BBC re-created are faithful reproductions of villages in the late nineteenth century. However, the BBC seems to have forgotten about the wild flowers in the fields. In the late nineteenth century the meadows would have been full of wild flowers. Today even the most common wild flowers are rare in the English countryside. The charity "Plantlife" regularly examines more than 500 sites across the country for the presence of sixty-five varieties of wild flowers. The latest survey is very worrying. Of the 524 sites surveyed 121 no longer had any of the sixty-five varieties. Cornfields are particularly barren of wild flowers today. In Flora Thompson's day Scarlet Pimpernel and Poppy would have been present in every cornfield. Today 52 of the 107 cornfields surveyed showed no sign of either of them. The situation is hardly better in our woodlands where again once common wild flowers are increasingly hard to find.

The truth is that our land is much lesser healthy than it was when Flora was raised in Juniper Hill and she would no doubt be horrified by the state of the fields and woodlands. "Plantlife" estimates that every English county loses one wild flower species every year. But she and the Goddess would be pleased that "Plantlife" was formed to protect wild flowers, fungi and lichens and the habitats in which they are found.

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