Following in the footsteps of Thomas Willisell, the old soldier who played a large part in the development of field botany and of whom John Ray said 'a soldier who having taken great affection to the botanical studies hath arrived to a great knowledge in plants.' My task, 300 years on – to trace and find those rare Breckland plants, spring ephemerals that only lasted for a short period of time.
With my companion we set off for Suffolk. In what seemed like no time at all, we arrived at Barton Mills roundabout...
Out of the mud
and spring vetch!
Barton Mills, taking its name from a large corn-mill and wharf on the river Lark. Church of flint and tile, biscuit and grey; here we also found a small plant belonging to the chickweed family – the little Mouse-ear, a widespread but local flower in bare, sandy ground.
We stopped off in Brandon to check out our B&B. Everywhere old streets shaded by trees. There is something timeless about Brandon, 'a thoroughfare town' on the crossing of Little Ouse, ancient industries of flint and fur now replaced by forestry. When men were knapping flints, Homer was reciting the deeds of Odysseus. Houses made from flint, walls, pavements, the church too. After settling things with the landlord, we drove off to Bodney church a few miles away, across the Norfolk border in search of Drooping Star of Bethlehem. This tiny flint church stands on a mound overlooking a farmhouse. During the French Revolution nuns fled their country and took refuge in the hall; one was the daughter of the Prince of Conde. Their remains lie in the churchyard, surrounded by firs and elms; a stream runs just below the church and birds sing in the trees...
So far from home –
sleeping nuns protected by
Star of Bethlehem
Our next stop was Weeting, said to be the earliest inhabited part of Norfolk. It was here that Hereward the Wake hid out in what now remains of a moated late 12th century hall. Nearby stands the prehistoric site known as Grime's Graves. Hundreds of circular pits lie scattered about, once flint quarries worked by men who used stone hammers before the pyramids were built. In the heart of Breckland 4000 years drift by...
Among the bracken
and silver birches – antler picks
picking out flintstones.
Then drove on the Lakenheath, with its terrible place in the pages of history. During the Peasant Rising of 1381, after the Black Death, the serfs decided that it was time for their freedom. John of Lakenheath, warden of the barony, to escape the enforcers of the State of Labourers, fled to Bury St Edmunds Abbey. Chief Justice Cavendish was on circuit in Suffolk, and being recognised by one of the rebels, took immediate flight. He tried to board a boat on the river, but a woman saw him and pushed the boat into mid-stream. He was caught and later decapitated, his head taken to Bury St Edmunds and set up alongside those of John of Lakenheath and John of Cambridge, the prior of the Abbey. Lakenheath was originally a hythe or landing-place in the fens. Once the largest US airbase in Britain, now thankfully gone...
On the way home, as though inebriated by sun, moon, stars, flowers and birds, suddenly remembering that life is no more than a temporary home, sheltering us from a winter shower, with all its uncertainties and impermanence.
Dozing in the car I reflected on old Tom Willisell who had tramped these parts so long ago. Once a foot-soldier under Cromwell. then a maker of pegs for shoes. John Ray wrote to Edward Lllwyd on 22 March 1692 – 'T Willisell, who was indefatigable and could endure any hardship, and live as well upon oatcakes and whig as another man upon flesh and wine, and ramble over hills, mountains, woods and plains. Poor Tom Willisell's loss, I cannot remember without some trouble.'
Out of the skull
endlessly grinning –
by Bill Wyatt
Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, England
first published in Blithe Spirit, June 1999