The Banker's Niece

Read exclusive extracts from my new novel The Banker's Niece. Click here for Chapter 1.

Sunday, 10 July 2011


I’ve at last discovered how to take close-up pictures with my camera, or rather I’ve discovered that there is a special setting for close-ups, so can share another of my passions with you. My camera was thrown out by my brother because it had stopped working but retrieved and made to work again by Frog. Unfortunately, we didn’t have an instruction book and, because I’d never had a digital camera before, I had no idea what the camera could do. Frog has now printed out some instructions for me from the internet.
    I hated biology at my secondary school. The teacher was cruel to us, there were cages of locusts in the lab – climbing all over the glass making scratchy noises - and we had to do horrible things like cutting up dead frogs. One project however, keeping a wildflower diary, enthused me. What’s more, the mother of a friend in the village who was in my class at school, was a wildflower expert.
    Miranda’s mother took us all over the North Downs, where we lived, helping us identify plants and taking us to the secret places where the rare plants like orchids grew. The North Downs are particularly rich in wildflowers because the thin chalky soil is not much good for farming so the hills are left – as beechwood and as closely cropped sheep pasture. Sometimes I headed out alone, coming back with armfuls of wildflowers to press or draw. (I would NEVER pick a wildflower today.*)
    Then, in the summer, I went with my family on holiday to the Norfolk Broads and was able to take a canoe on my own up hidden creeks and discover a whole new world of wildflowers. I felt like an Amazon explorer, imagining that I was seeing things that no other human had seen, going to places untouched by human hand and identifying plants for the very first time.
    The next year they awarded two special prizes at the school – for wildflower diaries. Miranda got first prize and I got second. Exactly as it should have been (although I was pretty peeved at the time).
    The M25 goes through the North Downs now and wildflowers are endangered all over, with some already extinct (I think).** I find this frightening.
    In Devon however we are lucky enough still to have some room for wildflowers, and here are some of them, photographed over the last few days around where I live and by the sea twenty or so miles away. (As you will see, I still have a lot to learn about the best way to capture them on camera.)

Lady's bedstraw. This sweet-smelling plant was used to stuff mattresses.

St John's wort, still used to treat depression.
Any plant with 'wort' in its name - and there are many - was once used medicinally.

We used to call this 'eggs and bacon' in Kent because of the brown markings (bacon) on the yellow petals (eggs). In Kent, with the dry climate and nibbling sheep, it grows about a tenth of the size it does here in lush Devon. Its official name is 'birdsfoot trefoil'. 'Birdsfoot' because its pods splay out like birds' feet and 'trefoil' because it has three-lobed leaves like clover, to which it is related.

This spooky plant was growing in deep shade. I think it's a broomrape, rare parasitic plants, possibly 'red broomrape' which, according to my beloved Oxford Book of Wildflowers (given to me by my parents on my eleventh birthday), grows by the sea in the south, (parasitic) on wild thyme - which is an example of how specific are the needs of some plants.

This tall, triffid-like plant has the splendid name 'hemp agrimony'. My book says it likes damp woods, marshes and riversides but I've only ever seen it by the sea, in Devon and Brittany. Another of my books says that recent research has shown that it might be useful in the treatment of cancer and AIDS.

The lovely star-like lesser stitchwort.
Apparently it used to be chewed to relieve muscular pain and 'stitches'.
Alternatively you could stew it in wine and powdered acorns (yummy).
In Devon they used to say that if you pick stitchwort you risk being led astray by pixies.

Must stop now and go and plant out my leeks and parsnips. And no I don't weed unless I really have to (and then usually only bindweed and couch grass, and I do apologise to the plant and explain what I'm doing before I start).

*Since writing this, I’ve done some research. It is actually illegal to uproot any wild plant without the landowner’s permission, or to pick, uproot or destroy any of the plants on the endangered list.
** One in five native plants (about 345 out of 1,756 in 2008) is either ‘critically endangered’, ‘endangered’ or ‘vulnerable to extinction’ according to internationally recognised criteria.

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