Bloody warrior, chequered tulip, chequered lily, dead man’s bell, widow wail and even solemn bells of Sodom – there’s something about the snake’s head fritillary (as it’s most commonly known) that seems to stir its beholders to lyrical heights. Here is our guide on how to make the most of your day out at Cricklade Nature Reserve
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Cricklade North Meadow National Nature Reserve in Wiltshire boasts Britain’s largest population of this nationally rare species, whose white and purple bells polka-dot the grass in April and early May. Their success here is all down to careful management by Natural England and the Cricklade Manorial Court: this is ancient lammas land, cut for hay in summer and allowed to flood in winter in a way that has remained unchanged for 800 years.
Of course, it’s not just fritillaries that welcome the special conditions. Early in the season, golden marsh marigolds and pale pink cuckoo flowers add their colours to the picture. A meadow-flower rainbow follows as spring unfurls: purple knapweed, creamy meadowsweet, yellow rattle and swathes of brilliant buttercups. It goes without saying that insects find much to appreciate here too, not least early emerging orange-tip butterflies.
A Brown Argus butterfly, Aricia agestis, feeding from a buttercup at Cricklade in Wiltshire/Credit: Getty
Rivers flank North Meadow on two sides, the Thames to the west and the Churn to the north-east, attracting common-banded damselflies, warblers and water voles. Kestrels, buzzards and the odd merlin wheel and hover overhead, while larks pour down their song.
Fables of the flower
But it’s the fritillaries that remain North Meadow’s biggest draw. Perhaps it’s their delicacy that invites fanciful musing – according to some, wild fritillaries followed in the footsteps of the Romans as they made their way across the land.
These rare wildflowers are growing in an ancient hay meadow north of Cricklade by the River Thames/Credit:Getty
On a more sombre note, comparisons have also been drawn between the shape of the fritillary flower and the bell that lepers once used to warn of their approach. Plenty to ponder as you explore one of the meadow’s three marked trails: the 20-minute Willow Walk, the 45-minute Reedbed Walk or the longer 1.5-hour River Walk beside the River Thames and River Churn.