English Perennial Flax, by June Cleal

Local naturalist, June Cleal, shares a delightful poem inspired by the discovery of English Perennial Flax on the Hartondown Hills.

In early Summer, as a child

I would walk to Harton Down

and see the flowers growing wild

just outside a Tyneside town.

In that place a garden grew,

Flowers of every shape and hue

Yellow Rattle, Knapweeds, too,

there was one, cerulean blue,

with fragile petals five in all,

that grew against a limestone wall.

An English Flax, so very rare,

every summer flowered there.

Such a wondrous, special find

fuelled my young Botanic mind.

No other bloom could ever be such a precious one to me.

Perennial Flax © June Cleal

When I was a small girl, during World War 2, I lived in South Shields, an industrial town at the mouth of the River Tyne. From the age of three, I used to go with my mother to the Harton Downhills (known to us as the Blackberry Hills) about a mile from home, for a Sunday afternoon walk. The Magnesian Limestone hills had a wonderful population of calcium loving plants and many colourful butterflies.

This was when my love of nature, and especially our wildflowers, began. Each year I saw the rare blue flax in flower but was not able to name it for many years because it was never mentioned in the books that I was able to use.

As a young adult, I eventually named it and many years later, when I was living in Durham city, I went, with David Bellamy and members of a Durham wildlife group, to Thristlington Plantation, a limestone quarry. There, Dave pointed to a blue flower and asked if anyone knew what it was. I replied automatically Linum perenne anglicum. He was very surprised that anyone knew it and explained its great rarity. He added that the Quarry, some miles south of Durham was the northernmost place where it was known to grow.

 I said “Are you sure, because when I was 12 years old it was growing on the Blackberry Hills in South Shields?”

He asked me for a map reference, and I sent one, together with a list of all the plants that I could remember growing there.

Soon after that. David became famous and was rarely seen in Durham. I thought no more about the flax until, about three years later, I saw a book in the University Book Shop, called The Flora and Vegetation of County Durham; it was an academic book, very large and it listed all the plants known to grow in the county. I looked up Linum perenne anglicum and, to my amazement, found my name printed there. I was credited with my knowledge of the flax. Doctor Bellamy had sent his students to investigate and it was still growing on the Hartondown Hills. The hills then became a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the rare flax. For me, Linum perenne anglicum is a very special flower.

June Cleal
Local naturalist