The further you delve into the world of plants, and, through gardening, build a mental picture of the conditions and environments in which they grow, the more easily you become distracted by a peculiarity; a plant seemingly out of place. This could be a garden perennial appearing inexplicably at the margin of a country field, or a runaway snapdragon brightening a crack in the pavement. I remember spying the tubular current-red flowers of Himalayan honeysuckle cascading from a high brick wall in west London, and wondering how it found such a foothold. But more thrilling is an echo: plants pitching up long after the bones of a garden have perished. Historically popular, daffodils have been known to outlast houses, quietly multiplying in the footprint of a dwelling — and a gardener — long since vanished. I recently spent a year reviving an overgrown garden in rural Suffolk, in which rare fritillaries and grape hyacinths once cultivated by a well known plantsman were reemerging four decades after his death. These were referred to as the plantsman’s “ghost” — recurring reminders of a significant place and person, and an atmosphere since buried by time.
Reading the history of a garden or landscape through its botanical inhabitants is, for me, one of the most exciting dimensions of horticulture. It is why, for years, I have wanted to explore the island of Skomer off the coast of Pembrokeshire, in the month of May, when it turns a vivid purple-blue; when it is revisited by the ghost of a landscape long gone.
Skomer is the bigger of a handful of relatively small, semi-inhabited Welsh islands, retaining the original Viking name meaning “cleft island”, for its narrowly connected headland. There is evidence of human habitation on Skomer dating back thousands of years, and farming was practised until as recently as 1950. Like so much of Britain, the island was once wooded, with three square kilometres of sea-sprung volcanic rock covered by salt-gnarled and wind-checked deciduous oaks. Judging by nearby Pengelli Forest, a remnant of ancient woodland on the Pembrokeshire mainland, there might have been alder and ash present too, and an understory of scattered hawthorn. On the woodland floor, bluebells would have flushed cobalt-blue from late-April into May, flowering beneath the unfurling broadleaf trees in that age-old and iconic sylvan partnership. But Skomer’s wood has since fallen to agricultural clearance, grazing livestock and the rapacious destruction of rabbits introduced in the 14th century, disappearing in its entirety. The bluebells, however, survived. Unpalatable to most mammals, they bloom today as boldly as they ever have done; and as briefly, as though the wood were still about to close out the light above them for summer (as does the bracken that took its place). They are now an unlikely spectacle lying curiously unsheltered, a great carpet rolled out each year below the sea mist and sunshine.
All this I learned on a May-time boat trip around Skomer back in 2016. From the rugged coastline below, pitching on the shore-bound waves, our party could see the film of blue spread across the island’s windswept fields, and I wanted very much to be up there: to walk through acres of bluebells exposed to the sky on an island scarcely inhabited.
Returning at last, seven years later, I couldn’t have hoped for better timing. Britain’s bluebells flowered earlier than usual this year, and in the first week of May they were at their peak across the island, forming dense mats from Skomer’s eastern “neck” up to its broad central fields. What’s more, the sea mist did not lift until well into the afternoon, obscuring the horizon in an alluring blanket of white for most of the day.
I walked into the arboreal ghost following a meandering woodland path that wove ever deeper through this strange hybrid of a landscape, surrounded by nothing but flowers. It was the greatest of sensations. All the while, the thin mist carried the sounds of Skomer’s resident seabirds: the low murmuring of ground-nesting puffins, the corvid croak of red-billed choughs circling somewhere above, and the unmistakable call — the long haunting whistle — of curlew out near the rocks. I heard, too, the “long quivering ripple” of oystercatchers, and thought of the Welsh writer and ornithologist Ronald Lockley, who once lived on the nearby islet of Skokholm, recording their fluctuating population. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, which saw Skokholm requisitioned by the military, he and his wife and daughter spent 12 happy years isolated on the tiny island south of Skomer, working its land and studying its birds. They called it “Dream Island” for the unimaginable diversity of wildlife they encountered and the Crusoe-like experience of living amongst it.
Skomer, like next door Skokholm, is remarkable for birdlife — it is truly a bird island. Its thriving occupants include gannets, guillemots, peregrines, storm-petrels, half the world’s population of Manx shearwaters and the largest colony of Atlantic puffins in southern Britain. Only a set of farm buildings, clustered at the island’s centre, breaks the illusion of a rock inhabited solely by birds; the former farmland — once woodland — now pitted all over with a great density of avian burrows. Skomer is managed by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, and day-trip crossings are operated by Pembrokeshire Islands boats.
I have vowed to stay the night at the farmhouse hostel next time I come: at night you can walk the coast paths in the company of swarming nocturnal shearwaters, which flock from the sea to feed their chicks under the cover of darkness. But it would also give me the chance to be among such a proliferation of flowers as I have never experienced before: cushions of pink thrift, clouds of white sea campion and, for a fleeting period, that spectral wash of blue, caught between the blues of sea and sky, that unites landscapes past and present.
Words and photographs by Matt Collins.