Many people hang on to keepsakes from their childhood. Photographs, letters, drawings, cards and other reminders are special tokens from times past and distant spaces.

My mother grew up in Ross-on-Wye, a small market town in England, and in her early twenties she came to South Africa on a two-year contract as a young teacher in the post-World War II years. On her return to England she lived in London and got a temporary job as an animal keeper at a small zoo while hoping to find work as an actor.

In London she renewed acquaintances with a young man she had met while in South Africa. He was visiting as a post-graduate student working on his PhD at a university in London. One thing led to another and they married in Ross-on-Wye before returning to South Africa.

Recently, following the death of my mother in April last year, I started going through the boxes of personal items, many from England, which my mother had kept and carefully treasured.

Among them I found a tiny sketch pad with pen-and-ink drawings of English wildflowers. My mother had written on the back that they were drawn by her father and I thought they were rather charming – and appropriate to share on naturebackin.

Pen-and-ink sketch of an English wild rose or dog rose

 I should think that this drawing labelled Wild Rose by my grandfather is of a Dog rose (Rosa canina), a thorny climber that in England grows wild in hedgerows, woodland edges and on scrubland. It flowers during the months of summer

I guess that my grandfather did these drawings when he was at school, also in Ross-on-Wye. The wildflowers are redolent of old English woodlands, grasslands and of a time gone by. In those days Ross-on-Wye ran seamlessly into the surrounding countryside. When I was a small child on visits from South Africa I can remember walking out into meadows, fields and woodlands, and being entranced by the profusion of wildflowers that I had only seen in illustrations in children’s storybooks.

Pen-and-ink sketch of English primroses

Wild primroses flower mostly in springtime, growing best in damp spaces in woodlands and adjacent areas. Wild woodland primroses are one of only two larval host plant species of the rare butterfly known as the Duke of Burgandy, the other host plant being cowslips (in grasslands). Because of changes in land use, woodland colonies of wild primroses are dying out and consequently so are the butterflies. For more see

Sketch of Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), also known as Bluebells

This drawing of Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) details ‘Bluebell’ as an alternative name

The blog ‘A Shakespeare Garden’ notes that rather confusingly both names, Harebells and Bluebells, are used for the same species in different parts of the British Isles ( It also lists many other names for Campanula rotundifolia, including Witch’s Thimble, Witch’s Bells, Fairy Thimbles, Dead Man’s Bells, Aul Man’s Bells, Lady’s Thimble, Blawort and Milk-Ort. Campanula rotundifolia flowers during the summer months. The spring-flowering woodland plant Hyacinthoidesnon-scripta is also known by the name Bluebell and more specifically as the Common Bluebell or English Bluebell.

Sketch of the English Wood Anemone in pen and ink.

The Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) is another spring-flowering plant that is associated with ancient woodlands. The pronounced foxing that stains the paper of my grandfather’s little sketching pad is clearly visible

Sketch of English wildflowers: Wood Violets

Venturing into colour in this sketch of a small violet, my grandfather could have been drawing one of the sweet violets or one of the dog-violets; I gather that both kinds of violet might be referred to as wood violets

Photo of English choirboy taken in about 1911

And here is my grandfather photographed as a choir boy, perhaps only a few years younger than when he did the drawings? He was born in 1900 and I would guess he was about eleven years old when the photograph was taken. He sang in the choir at St Mary’s Parish Church in Ross-on-Wye. The church building is 700 years old and its tall spire is a prominent landmark

Photograph taken in 1965 ofa view of Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Digitised from an old slide photograph taken by my father in 1965, this is a view of Ross-on-Wye. The spire of St Mary’s Church is visible near the horizon on the left of the photograph

Less than three weeks after his fourteenth birthday, my grandfather’s schoolboy world, as for millions of others, was shattered by the outbreak of World War 1. Even though Britain remained unoccupied throughout the war, there was scarcely a village or town that did not lose young men in the carnage on the battlefields of Europe, or at sea or in the air. Ross-on-Wye was no exception. A memorial erected after the war lists 105 local servicemen who fell during World War one. Included in the numbers are an uncle and a brother of my grandfather. The remains of his uncle’s body were never found, and the body of his brother lies in a military graveyard in Belgium.

With childhood firmly behind him, when he was only 16 or 17, my grandfather signed up to take his place in the armed forces during World War 1. In the Royal Navy Air Force (which combined with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force in April 1918), he was an observer aboard British airships involved in reconnaissance, patrols, hunting enemy submarines, detecting mines and escorting naval convoys. The British airships were an effective deterrent to the German U-boats (submarines) that were deployed in large numbers to attack shipping convoys and aircraft in an attempt to blockade Britain.

Old photos of World War 1 airship crew at an English airbase

In the above photo on the left, my grandfather is in the centre, kitted up for going aloft in an airship, wearing a leather overcoat and long fur-lined boots. I would guess that the other two men with him were also crewmen on the airship. Airship crewmen would sit exposed to the elements in a boat-shaped “car” or gondola slung beneath the enormous inflated “envelope” of the airship. Many of the Sea Scout classes of airship had two or three or more crew members. For example, the 3-crew SSZ class airship had the observer/wireless operator/gunner sitting upfront, with the pilot in the middle and the engineer at the back where he could attend to the engine. In addition to a light machine gun these airships also carried three bombs that could be dropped on enemy submarines.

In the above photograph on the right are servicemen belonging, or so I guess, to the Royal Navy Air Service (my grandfather is the man seated on the lower step). With them are two women in uniform who are possibly members of the Women’s Royal Navy Auxiliary Corp. The crews lived at the airbases and the wooden building could well be their barracks. Unfortunately, I do not know at which air base these photographs were taken.

British airship crew at base World War 1

Above is another photo of crewmen at the airbase. My grandfather is standing second from right behind the man who is seated. For more about some of the British airships deployed against submarines in World War 1 see here and here

The relentless British airship patrols contributed significantly to containing German submarine activity and drove them away from the British coast. In addition to their deterrent effect, airships successfully attacked many submarines, and they were also effective for sighting and also destroying mines. The airships were essential to the eventual defeat of the German U-boats and contributed to victory for Great Britain in the sea war. 

As in most wars, World War 1 continued to take its toll long after the battlefields fell silent and survivors returned to whatever the war had left them. For instance, a second brother of my grandfather died in 1930 at the age of 36 of pulmonary tuberculosis resulting from being gassed in a mustard gas attack during the war.

Sketch of wild red poppies in England

When as a boy he drew these poppy blooms, my grandfather was not to know that the poppy would come to be associated with the World War 1 battlefields and vast graveyards of Europe, where the freshly disturbed earth prompted seed germination and subsequent mass flowerings of blood-coloured blooms. The poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae first brought widespread attention to this association and to this day the poppy is used to commemorate the carnage. The body of my grandfather’s brother, killed at Ypres in the last weeks of the war, lies in a military graveyard in the Flanders Fields region

After the Armistice in November 1918, despite the profound dislocations and losses, gradually peacetime pursuits such as cricket, football and other sports were taken up again, including by returned servicemen.

Country cricket team, England, 1920s

Above is a local cricket team (my grandfather front left) and below the Ross Town football club (my grandfather front right). The dates written on the football are 1920-21. Many of these men would have seen active service in the armed forces during World War 1

Country football team, England, 1920s

Another popular peacetime pursuit in the years following the war was amateur theatre. Both my grandparents were involved in many local theatre productions and some were entered into national amateur theatre competitions, my grandmother as a producer and my grandfather as an actor.

Character from the Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, amateur theatre England between the wars

Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were popular, and these photos are of my grandfather in productions of what I assume to be The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, and H.M.S. Pinafore

A Great Depression and another World War intervened in the 1930s and the 1940s, profoundly altering all of Europe and also irrevocably changing country villages and towns such as Ross-on-Wye. Nevertheless, when my grandfather’s first grandchild, aged only three years old, first visited from South Africa in the early 1960s, she was lucky enough to be able to luxuriate in meadows shining with buttercups and woodlands glowing with bluebells that still remained.

Buttercup meadow with small child in 1960s England

I was one of the children lucky enough to have adults in my life, including grandparents who had endured two world wars, who shared with me a sense of wonder in the natural world about us, and I have been fortunate enough to retain that sense of wonder throughout my life.

Small child in with wild English Bluebells in English woodland in 1960

It seems appropriate to share again the words of Rachel Carson quoted in a previous post: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in” (from The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson).

Posted by Carol

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