Country diary: A ghostly old canal enlivened by primroses and stitchwort

<span>A bank of greater stitchwort in Langford Budville, Somerset.</span><span>Photograph: Anita Roy</span>
A bank of greater stitchwort in Langford Budville, Somerset.Photograph: Anita Roy

Signs and wonders. Portents and omens. A walk along an old canalway can stretch the imagination just as effectively as it can the hamstrings. I find myself reading the land like you might read a palm or tea leaves, looking for signs of what’s to come.

It’s been more than 150 years since this section of the West Deane Way was part of the Grand Western Canal, but today, after all the recent rain, it feels like the ghost of the canal is rising up again. Shifting seasons, record-breaking wetness, unseasonal warmth – weather is no longer a simple fact but a series of symptoms, clues to the cause, signposts to the future.

Trudging along in the mud and drizzle, I’m finding it hard to shake the gloom, but my heart lifts at the sight of the canal bank appliquéd with primroses, pale pink lady’s smock, and a sprinkling of greater stitchwort – each of its five petals so deeply lobed that they look like pairs of white embroidery stitches side by side. The name is linked to the plant’s ability to ease the “stitch” you get in the side when you’ve been running too hard, a pain thought to be caused by the devil pricking you with a needle.

The hills here are mostly arable and pasture, luscious green in the spring rain, with square frames of hedging. The air zizzes with the overhead pylons, but down at my level it’s full of birds. Tits and finches frantically dash about with that crazed single-mindedness they seem to have at this time of year, and I can’t shake off a petulant chiffchaff, just going on and on about the same thing.

I am stopped in my tracks by something lying by the path. Dark emerald sheen, as still as a stone. It’s a lapwing. Freshly dead and perfect, its crest curled up like a single brushstroke of ink. I look up, stupidly, as though the sky still held its falling path. I’ve never seen a lapwing in these parts. A common bird of my childhood, its numbers have halved in the past 25 years. It’s so beautiful close up that it seems almost mythic – a visitor from another realm. I pick it up, its body not yet rigid, and lay it carefully in the hedgerow, in among the stitchwort, on the side of the gods.

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