Wildflowers and Birdsong

primroses reduced

A copy of Mr Oliver Holt’s talk, ‘On first coming to Sherborne’ given to the Sherborne Historical Society in 1983 and later reproduced in print, has just arrived by post. Outside, in this corner of South Wales the ground is covered with frozen rutted snow and the sky is overcast and threatening, but I have been back in memory to a wood near Sherborne, where Mr Littleton Powys, accompanied by a vague boy figure called Oliver Holt, had taken some of us on a nature ramble. There we heard the high-pitched call of the wood wren and I was able to show Mr Powys Herb Paris and a birds-nest orchid in flower. ‘Well done’ he said. That was a moment of triumph I have never forgotten. As I read Mr Holt’s paper I could smell the wood violets he mentions. How many have I not gathered in my childhood along the south side of Leweston Road white, blue and pink which I tied carefully with wool adding long strands of a fern like moss to be put with them in a shallow bowl. Along that same road I had a secret source of bee orchids, the finest I have ever seen – not like the ones growing on chalk hillsides but nine or ten inches tall and with four or five open bees on them. Conservation was not so urgent then, and I happily gathered a dozen or more to take home.

These are the words of Nora Dibble, born Symes, in Sherborne just before the start of WW1 and they constitute the opening paragraph in Nora’s wonderful 7,000 word memoir of her time growing up and going to school in Sherborne where she was inspired by her teachers to later become a teacher herself. Nora’s words conjure up a Sherborne with its surrounding lanes and villages full of wild flowers and birdsong. She also introduced me to Oliver Holt who shared the nature rambles directed by Mr Littleton Powys. Being relatively new to Sherborne I wondered who Mr Powys could have been as, by reading on in Nora’s account, I was amazed to find that a shrike had nested in his garden and he summoned her and other members of the Lord Digby’s School hockey team to see and marvel at the nest. The fact that shrikes are now so incredibly rare and that they had once nested somewhere in Sherborne was an absolute revelation to me. Where did Mr Powys live and where was the old hockey field? I had supposed it to be somewhere off Acreman Street as there is a road named Powys Green running off this street but then Rachel Hassall suggested I looked in Katherine Barker’s A Sherborne Camera. In this book we are reminded that Littleton Powys lived in Quarry House which is in The Avenue and of course over his garden hedge would have been the hockey pitch, where the Lord Digby’s School teams played, with access from Tinney’s Lane. So this would be where the shrike had chosen to build its nest – inconceivable today but it speaks volumes about how town and countryside must have met and merged in days gone by.

Nora went on to tell about the collecting of First Finds. How much too do I owe to Mr Littleton Powys, chairman of the governors for most of my school life and a great lover of English literature and of natural history? To encourage interest in the latter he offered prizes for various competitions that he himself had set. For the First Finds competition we had to see how early we could find specimens of wild flowers and bring them live to school, where they were recorded, with name, date and name of the finder, in a special notebook. Just imagine a batch of eager young first-finders arriving at the door of the science lab on a Monday each clutching a paper bag containing the first primrose, daisy, celandine, chickweed or whatever, all to be checked in the famous notebook. Many started off but fell by the wayside. One year I succeeded in collecting over 600 specimens. I owe my grandfather (Edmund King, one time licensee of the Woolmington Hotel) a great debt in that he taught to me the names of many wild flowers, as I learned to speak, so that the task was less arduous than it might have been. I won Mr Powys’s prize in this section for about four years running.

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Celandines in East Mill Lane

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A patch of white violets growing in Purlieu Meadow

Wanting to know more about these long ago nature rambles and First Finds forages, I managed to borrow a copy of the account by Oliver Holt that had been sent to Nora and it is contained in Three Sherborne Memoirs. Oliver and his elder brother were brought by their father by train to Sherborne in January 1918; their mother had not accompanied them as it would have been too painful an experience for her to leave her young sons in the care of the headmaster of Sherborne Preparatory School, Mr Littleton Powys and his wife Mabel. Two senior boys were summoned to take care of the two new arrivals. Oliver remarks that the two boys are kindly fellows the latter especially. He is Alec King, the second son of the Rev. H R King’. The following day Mr Powys called all the new arrivals together with ‘Come on you new boys! it’s a fine day for a walk’ and so Oliver took the first of what would be many walks ‘down to the station, up the narrow tree-hung canyon, across the Terraces, up the yet steeper lane between the woods, along the plateau at the top, then down through the ruts and mud of West Hill. As we went along Mr Powys beguiled the walk in a hundred different ways by pointing with his stick to this or that simple form of the nature that he loved: the rosy buds of the wych elms; the scarlet moss-cups – quite a rarity – in a hedge bank and the greenish flowers on a clump of spurge laurel set against its dark polished leaves. Twenty years or so later Oliver would buy some scented white violets from a flower seller in the middle of London and tucking them into his buttonhole the scent would waft him back to a lane a mile or so south of Sherborne where the same violets, remembered from his childhood, would be blooming.

oliver's illustration

Oliver Holt’s highly skilled illustration of ‘Townhall Clock’

Oliver gave a talk to the Powys Society on Littleton Powys which was also reproduced in Three Sherborne Memories and I became very keen to find my own copy of The Joy of It, the memoir written by Littleton Powys in 1937. The only copy I could get hold of was in Australia and was described, by Serendipity Books of West Leederville, as having ‘damage by insects and with scattered foxing throughout’ but what really leapt off the computer screen at me was the inscription that it bore ‘To Alec King’ – could this be the same Alec King who took Oliver Holt under his wing when he first arrived at the prep school? I just had to send for this copy. While I waited I was very pleased to discover that I had my own family connection to Littleton Powys. In July 1869 my great grandfather George Collings married Fanny Payne in St Nicholas Church, Nether Compton. The Rev Goodden must have been unavailable on the day as the curate from Bradford Abbas came across from the neighbouring village to officiate and that curate was the Rev Charles Powys, unmarried at the time, who would go on to marry and found the famous Powys dynasty which I would learn more about, I was sure, when my book arrived from Australia. While I waited for my book I made up for my complete lack of knowledge of Littleton Powys by searching for information on the internet where I found the best possible introduction to him given by his publisher http://www.sundialpress.co.uk/Littleton%20Powys.html

alec in book

My book has arrived from Australia and the inscription ‘Alec King with love from E.C.K’ is confirmed by Rachel Hassall to have been sent by Emily Constance King to her son Alexander who had been a pupil and later a teacher at Sherborne School. Alec was one of the sons of Henry Robinson King who was a teacher of Classics at Sherborne School for 42 years from 1883. Rachel has shared a photograph of the family now held in the School archive. As I began to read about the life and times of Mr Powys I was very aware of what it might have been like for Alec King to begin reading this book with all the memories it would evoke in him, when it arrived in the post where he was by then settled with his wife in a new life in Perth, Australia.

HP KING reduced

Alec King standing right courtesy of Andrew King and by kind permission of Sherborne School

The Joy of It is so well named and I enjoyed every word of it. Littleton Powys grew up in the deepest of countryside, completely unfettered, where he seems to have soaked up all he could about the world around him like blotting paper. He was born in the vicarage in the village of Shirley in Derbyshire and from there the family moved to Dorchester and finally to Montecute. He was one of eleven siblings. Littleton went first to Sherborne Preparatory School then to Sherborne School, on to Cambridge before beginning his teaching career in Bruton. Then came a move to Aberdovy in Wales before he finally returned to his old preparatory school in Sherborne as headmaster where he would spend the rest of his life. One of his brothers was an architect and on two acres of land in The Avenue Mr and Mrs Powys had a house built which they named Quarry House. It had been intended to quarry the stone from on site to build the house but the excavated stone was rather inferior and so building stone was brought in from elsewhere. The garden walls, however, were constructed from the stone from the site and calling the house Quarry House must have been very appropriate as it was built on the site of its very own quarry.

I scoured the pages of The Joy of It searching for mention of Nora or Oliver and I was not disappointed so I will finish with a most revealing extract which will give a window into this extraordinary man and the luck of some who were fortunate to have been in the same vicinity as him at an important point in their lives.

On two occasions my young friend Oliver Holt and I conducted a party of girls into the woods near Sherborne; he was to help with the birds, and I with the flowers and butterflies. Naturally enough with youth as a guide the birds were the chief interest. These excursions were most enjoyable. And it gave me much pleasure to see young Oliver standing in the middle of the wood surrounded by girls pointing rapidly first in one direction, then in another, then in another in some spot where a black cap or nightingale, a chiff-chaff, a willow wren or a woodwren was singing. Perhaps our greatest success was this: we were making our way through the wood when Oliver suddenly said ‘There’s a golden-crest; but its song is not very strong. Listen! I could hear nothing, but quite a number of the girls heard it. Then it showed itself and very soon afterwards I saw another, and said ‘Now we ought to find the nest.’ We watched the little birds flitting from twig to twig until they finally reached a spruce fir; then we saw one of them go to what we felt sure was the nest; and when we came nearer there indeed was the wonderfully built nest. I doubt if any one of our companions has forgotten that experience.

It gave me great pleasure too to be allowed to judge their collections and competitions; every now and then there would appear upon the scenes some unusually observant girl. One particularly comes to my mind who was far ahead of the others in her knowledge of the flowers of the neighbourhood. On one occasion I came across in her collection of dried flowers a specimen of elecampane (Inula Helenium). I knew one place where this somewhat rare plant grew, and suggested to her that she had found it there. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘I did not pick it there, though I know it grows there; but it grows in two or three other places. If you go along the Thornford Road, and turn up towards Honeycombe just opposite Almshouse Copse , and go over a gate, then across another field and over another gate (and you will have to be careful getting over that one, for it is very rickety), you will see it growing in abundance, and it looks simply lovely.’ There must have been scarcely a hedge, or a field, or a wood, or a lane that this girl had not explored with her eyes wide open looking for the flowers  which gave her such pleasure. What memories she will have through life! Some years afterwards I suddenly met her in a Sherborne street no longer a schoolgirl. I greeted her and asked how she was faring. She said ‘I am at the university now, and specialising in biology which is what I am going to teach; and, Mr Powys, I do thank you for the interest you took in my flowers, and the encouragement you gave me’. Few words spoken to me have ever given me greater pleasure than these.

Although Mr Powys does not mention Nora by name I feel absolutely sure this is her. She concludes: I should like to end with a quotation from Wordsworth’s ‘Lines above Tintern Abbey’ quoted in Mr Powys’s autobiography The Joy of It, and which he wrote in a book he gave me: ‘Fair Nature never doth betray the heart that loves her’.

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Picking primroses, Nether Compton, Easter 1953

My father was born in 1915 in Nether Compton and he spent his childhood and grew up in this lovely hidden village. When my brother and I visited he would love to show us secluded and secret places and we would then return to find them ourselves as we had the same freedom to roam that Mr Powys, Oliver and Nora had experienced. Here is a photograph of my brother and me returning from a walk dressed in our Sunday best on Easter day 1953. On close inspection mud can be seen on our shoes. I have a bunch of carefully picked primroses in my hand. The flowers had to be surrounded by a ruff of their fresh green, crinkly leaves and the posy would be placed in Granny’s special little pewter vase, just the right shape to support these little beauties, and then placed high on the mantelpiece. What memories come back to me at the sight each year of the first primrose.


Britain’s smallest bird variously described in the past as the wood wren, the golden crested wren or the golden crest is now known as the goldcrest. Luckily, unlike Mr Powys in his later years, I can still pick out its high pitched call and I often hear and sometimes see it in the cypress trees as I walk along Foster’s to Hound Street. My knowledge of birdsong is limited and what little knowledge I have gained has been with the aid of a cd. How I would have loved to have been on one of the long ago nature rambles with Mr Littleton Powys, Nora Symes and Oliver Holt.

Barbara Elsmore April 2017


This entry was posted in Gardening, Local History, Sherborne life, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Wildflowers and Birdsong

  1. barrybrock says:

    That’s brought history to life – thank you Barbara.


  2. Wildflowers, birds and local history, all woven together into a lovely story.


  3. Lynda Kiss says:

    So enjoyed reading this nature story – I remember going on nature walks when I went to school briefly in Lymington, across the toll bridge over the river towards Beulieu. Primroses are my favorite flower – thank you so much!


  4. Rachel says:

    Another wonderful piece of writing, Barbara. You have really evoked spring in Sherborne. I wish I had your knowledge of birds and flowers. Thank you for sharing this with us.


  5. Robert Arthur says:

    As a child growing up in Nether Compton I well remember Rosie Collins as she gave me my first paying job of cutting her grass with an old Ransomes mower and weeding the garden. I think i was paid half a crown for two hours plus a cup of hot chocolate.
    I think I would have been about nine or ten at the time. Was not to sure were this was until I recognized the church and the fish pond.


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