In my garden this year I’ve decided to leave a clump of nettles. As well as the basis for an amazing liquid feed, these remarkable plants are brilliant for wildlife and among the insects that lay their egg on them are some of our most iconic butterflies including both the Peacock and Red Admiral.
But for me, nettles are also a something else, something much more poignant, something much more personal, much more intrinsic, for me nettles are direct route back to my childhood.
In the 1950s, play was almost always an outdoor activity, in the garden, in the street, in the park, in our local Stanmer Woods, on the Downs at Ladies Mile or more often than not in the Bull Field at the end of Mackie Avenue
Every summer evening, we kids would all gather at one of these locations and generally some kind of informal game would somehow develop. The games seem to mostly revolve around either chasing and hiding, or hiding and chasing or sometimes, just chasing, or just hiding. Occasionally toy, or more often, imaginary guns would also be employed in these activities, so we could add mowing down the enemy to the basic chasing hiding/format and I can still do a fair imitation of a Tommy akakak akakakakakak Gun to this day.
But why nettles, I hear you ask (and at this point I think I should start using the correct botanical term for this little green hardy perennial) – Stingers, well for me and most of my male contemporaries, play and being stung were almost inseparable and it was rare a evening indeed that I wouldn’t come home without at least some little white blisters up my arm stained, ever so slightly green, from the vigorous application of Dock leaves.
Looking back I don’t know if it was the absence of herbicide, the paltry post war maintenance of the period, or the rich Brighton soil but stingers grew everywhere. Along the bottom of garden walls, through the school railings, on the edges of every wood and inside the woods as well. Each local park had a scruffy no go area, ideal for hiding in, and these would be overrun with stingers. Every field had its obligatory stinger edging and the Downs seemed to comprise entirely of stingers and grass in a roughly 50- 50 proportions but with the addition of Brambles and May bushes each bristling with thorns to further catch out the unwary child, as well.
So every time I go up the garden to feed the chickens and inadvertently brush any exposed skin against my urtica dioica, I’m instantly 9½ again and storming another imaginary enemy machine gun nest.