A couple of weeks ago I played truant from the writing and went on a trip to Somerset. Somerset is one of my favourite places. I lived there for seven years in my haunted cottage and it's a place I love re-visiting whenever I can. It's a county that feels particularly steeped in history and folkore.
On this occasion I was combining some natural history with some English Civil War history. We were on a trip to find the Large Blue Butterfly at Collard Hill, a few miles from Glastonbury. The Large Blue died out in the UK in 1979 but has been brought back from UK extinction as a result of the re-introduction of butterflies from Sweden combined with some very hard work on the part of the National Trust to make sure it has exactly the right habitat and conditions to flourish. At Collard Hill visitors are allowed to wander freely trying to spot this rarest of butterflies.
We had a hot day for our visit and our sense of anticpation rose as we toiled up the hill in the sunshine. I was looking around for something the size of a Morpho, such as I had seen in Costa Rica. After all, this was called the Large Blue butterfly, clue in the name. As it turns out, the Large Blue is tiny. But it is bigger that the Small Blue so that makes sense. We spotted quite a number of them and they are exquisite. It was difficult to get a good look at them because they didn't keep still for long. It was even more difficult to get a photograph. They weren't really opening their wings much either as it was a breezy day and they are so small that when the wind blew they would get carried away. Even so it was a wonderful experience and lots of fun.
After the butterflies the battle, and we went to visit the site of the Battle of Marshal's Elm, August 4th 1642. This was one of the earliest battles - or more properly a skirmish - in the English Civil War. The Royalist Sir John Stawell led a troop of eighty horse to prevent the MP John Pyne and a troop of 600 Parliamentarian foot soldiers from reaching Shepton Mallet. Stawell drew up his troops on Walton Hill as the Parliamentarian column approached and sent dragoons to take up positions in quarry-pits at the foot of the hill in preparation for an ambush. The Parliamentarians faltered when the Royalist dragoons opened fire, then Lt Colonel Henry Lunsford led a charge down the hill with the rest of the cavalry. The inexperienced Parliamentarians broke and fled, leaving seven dead and twenty wounded. This was the start of a very active period in the Civil War in the South West of England. This is Walton Hill today (above) a place where the present tranquility hides a rather more martial past.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk about life during the Tudor and Stuart period in the villages around North Wiltshire. (Cue excuse to show a picture of Prince Rupert of the Rhine!) One of the most interesting slides was a graph showing death rates (it doesn't sound fascinating but it was!) So there would be peaks at times of national epidemic, such as the plague of 1665, and also local epidemics of influenza, cholera and typhus. But in the early 1640s there was the most enormous spike in deaths in the area which co-incided with the English Civil War. The nature of the war was as described above; there were some big set piece battles but a lot of the action was skirmishes between small groups of soldiers, which couldn't account for the huge increase in death rates in small villages. Most people weren't fighting - they were trying to go about their daily business. In fact only one person in my local village was killed by a soldier during the Civil War period. The speaker explained that the huge rise in the death rate was because of the Royalist and parliamentarian armies travelling through and occupying the area. Not only did they bring disease with them, a seventy percent increase, but they also stripped the countryside of all resources so that people were starving and so were far more likely to succumb to illness. This more than anything brought home to me the effect of something like a Civil War on the ordinary population.