December 1, 2020

Country diary: a beautiful orchid in an unlikely place

Buxton, Derbyshire: The rare broad-leaved helleborine is flourishing beside the tumulus of the town’s historic waste

I’ve long pondered the word “Hogshaw”, which describes a small area of Buxton bisected by a tributary of the River Wye. Aside from the rather mysterious pig associations, the name also conjures childhood memories of dustcarts brimming with rubbish and adding to Hogshaw’s small mountain of bottles and tins, topped latterly by wind-shredded plastic. Until the early 1980s Hogshaw was the town tip and while it might once have been unattractive it has been the site of my most memorable botanical encounter this year.

Broad-leaved helleborine is a scarce and beautiful flower. The tallest spikes can be 80cm high, the upper third wreathed in blooms. Individual flowerheads vary from a ghostly green-white through to deep rose, but all possess, centred in a cup-shaped inner lip, a bowl of dark-flecked lipstick pink. It may be among the more common Epipactis orchids, but Derbyshire has only 100 such localised sites.

What’s most intriguing about the orchid is how it has flourished for decades in an unprepossessing patch of waste ground, topped by willow scrub and layered with an understorey of bramble and the most productive feral raspberries you’ve ever seen. Just across the fence is a tumulus of Buxton’s historic waste, apparently deep with ancient hoards of asbestos.

This is not the whole story. If the helleborine were an emblem of any aspect of Hogshaw it is the redemptive power of nature once the human leash has been slipped. With its decommissioning as a tip, the whole site has flourished, with hazy stands of willowherb and sunshine carpets of ragwort. The old railway clinker and cinders from a million Buxton coal fires have been carpeted in vetches, knapweed and clover that are busy with butterflies and bumblebees.

These former land uses make Hogshaw the classic brownfield site, but its self-willed changes have seen it morph into one of Buxton’s best bits of wild ground. How depressing that it’s now earmarked for major development. I am now pinning my hopes on historical pollution to halt what I’ve come to think of as the main destroyer of urban nature: the unimaginative and abiotic banality of so much new housing.