open country

Had I not asked my colleague for a crash course in architectural terms, I would not have looked at the detail on West Linton Parish church.

I would not have run my eyes over the curves of the traceried windows partially hidden behind a yew tree. I would not have chosen to point out the collar-beam roof or the string courses round the spire.

Somehow the gathering of facts unwittingly encouraged a mustering of intellectual minds, a group of people who started as strangers when they arrived for my guided walk and created a close unit for the day. They chattered along the tracks and I felt very comfortable in their company. The recipe was simple – good people on a good day.

As we gathered on the Lower Green in West Linton near the attractive parish church, the sun warmed us. I thought of the group like oil in a salver that is turned, droplets separate then collect and so on. At the old bridge in South Slipperfield, built in 1620, I noted that the sky was overcast.

Focused on the interesting renovation of Hardgatehead Cottage, now a holiday let, we followed the Roman road to the quarry. The cows came to the fence with their calves at Ingraston Farm to look at us and we looked at them. A big boy calf suckled his mother greedily and milk dripped to the ground.

A colony of sand martins (photo, top of page) had dug their tubular nests in the soft banks left by quarrying at the now disused Sand Hill quarry. We left them chattering above in the air here collecting food which they take back into the eyes in the sand bank.

There is a giant sow thistle by the road. The verges are bursting with summer blooms – clovers, speedwell, foxglove, thistles, lesser stitchwort, chickweed, purple heath grass, wild oat – nothing rare but nature is such a beautiful gardener. A delicate plant climbs through grass blades with the same power as a strong thorny one.

Our short time in South Lanarkshire continued the carnival of flowers with tall verges holding swathes of meadow sweet and lady’s bedstraw. Just further along the road to Medwynbank, a huge thistle crowned with a large flower head was prominent. At first I dismissed it as a giant knapweed because it had no prickles.

The butterfly lady, Sarah-Louise, who collects records for the butterfly conservation society, was sure it was a melancholy thistle, Cirsium heterophyllum. I stared at it, then I ran my fingers up and down the stem, along the leaves and over the bulbous sepal cup.

Melancholy – why so sad? – can a flower be in a silent and depressive state as it stands proudly in the most salubrious surroundings? I thought about that word as we all adored this purple bloom under the warm afternoon sun.

In the fourth century BC, Hippocrates characterised the symptoms of melancholia in Aphorisms as fears and despondencies that last a long time. In the tenth century, a monk described a sufferer of melancholy: “The patient wanders among the tombs at night, his eyes are dark, his mouth is dry, the patient hardly ever recovers and the disease is hereditary.”

These descriptions are from early medical viewpoints and do not relate to our thistle in the sun’s floodlight. Our thistle belongs to the artists’ sorrowful strokes and the poets’ mournful musings. Charlotte Bronte wrote of her sister Emily’s poems, “I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating.”

Albrecht Durer made an engraving called Melancolia I which portrays the disorder as being in a state of waiting for inspiration to strike.

On this walk, which returned to West Linton through North Slipperfield, I was inspired all day by the company, the wild flowers, Jean’s long red pigtails, the butterfly lady who counted ringlets and small heaths for hours, the honeysuckle climbing high up a tree and Anne Paterson who arrived from Edinburgh with a plastic bag and an eccentric straw hat.