Monday, June 30, 2014

Unscripted Remembrance

A few miles from my home, there is a 0.7-mile (approx. 1 km) rural lane which is as straight as anything the Romans ever built. I drive along it, in both directions, practically every day of the week. It is bordered on each side by broad grass verges, along each of which is a row of mature trees, planted about a century ago (Figure 75.1). Whatever the season, or time of day, it is impossible to drive from one end to the other without contemplating on its semi-natural beauty.

Figure 75.1: This quiet, peaceful lane, with its parallel avenues of mature trees, fuels contemplative silence. It is, therefore, a fitting site for what has occurred.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Its main ‘design fault’ was its absence of pavements (sidewalks). Ramblers and dog-walkers have always been compelled to trek beneath the trees, and cyclists have had to take their chances alongside two-way motor traffic. Last year, these long-standing problems were finally addressed by local government. The plan was to construct a tarmac pathway, two metres wide, beyond the tree line on the west side of the lane. The rationale was to improve conditions, particularly those of safety, for cyclists, pedestrians and horse-riders.

Naturally, there were objections. Most were predicated on the belief that there would be insufficient space – for walkers, bicycles and horses alike. Horses bolt, cyclists wobble (and frequently manoeuvre like morons) and those on foot tend to wander, or stop and start without warning, sometimes in an iPod-induced parallel universe. The other main concern was that there might be an unforeseen effect on wildlife. How true that has proved to be.

Construction work began in January. A shallow, two-metre-wide trench was dug, bordered by a continuous timber frame, lined with hardcore and finished with steaming tarmac. The project took two months and I glimpsed its progress on a daily basis. Within days of completion, non-motor traffic had increased significantly. It looked to me like money well spent. The only unfortunate consequence was that the whole grass verge had been churned up by backhoes and dumper trucks. Throughout the Spring months, I would drive by, wondering when a team of landscapers might arrive to level the ground and tidy the mess. However, maybe for economic reasons, there has been no further activity. Grass has grown where it still can, as have nettles and weeds, and both the west and east verges have been left untended.

The lane has never looked more attractive. On this, the last day of June, the entire west verge, from kerb to footpath, is adorned with thousands of brilliant red poppies (Figure 75.2), petals fluttering in the breeze and intermittently catching the sunlight through the long canopy of trees.

 Figure 75.2: The poppies grow. I did initially wonder whether their mass germination was intentional on the part of local politicians as the pathway was being planned. Frankly, though, it would be hard to credit them with such intelligence and foresight. Nevertheless, this fortuitous display should be welcomed and enjoyed by all.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Of course, on the east verge there is not a single speck of red – not this summer, at least. The reason for this unscripted, gorgeous colour explosion is simple and uniquely poignant. During World War I, vast fields in Belgium and France were disturbed by intense warfare, machinery transportation and mass grave-digging. Thereafter, in the trench lines and no-man’s lands, poppies bloomed; and this species has symbolized fallen soldiers ever since. The poppy – Papaver rhoeas – grows freely on roadsides, wasteland and, not surprisingly, ploughed agricultural fields. According to experts at London’s Kew Gardens, its seeds can lie dormant for up to eighty years. Disturbance of the soil brings them to life.

Perhaps, in the coming weeks, I should collect a few handfuls of seed pods and scatter their contents on the east verge across the lane. This year is, after all, the centenary of the beginning of World War I (Figure 75.3), which led to the deaths of sixteen million souls throughout Europe – in just four years.

Lest we forget.

Figure 75.3: Information about the global commemoration of the WWI centenary can be found at

Copyright © 2014 Royal British Legion

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery