Meeting Gwyneth Parsons

Source: Sturt, Nick. “Meeting Gwyneth Parsons.” Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, no. 70 (May 2010).


I have never seen x Festulolium holmbergii but I know someone who has.  The story either starts last year when four lady members of the Society went to the Rye area to do some early Summer recording, or perhaps we should go back to 1970, the date given by the Sussex Plant Atlas for the inter-generic hybrid mentioned above.

Jenny, Beryl, Elisabeth and Judy stayed a mile up the road from Rye at a most hospitable B&B called The Corner House in Playden.  Learning the purpose of their visit, the proprietor, Yvonne Turner, mentioned that her aunt had worked on the Sussex Plant Atlas and often went out in the company of the much-missed Breda Burt.  The geographical distribution of botanists in Sussex was rather different in those days and in particular in the ‘Far East’ we miss the expert eye and local knowledge of Breda and Gwyneth.

This August Elisabeth took me to The Corner House to enjoy the comfort and five-star breakfasts, and, of course, to do some recording, including a couple of tetrads about which Alan had dropped hints of the heavier kind.  Apart from enjoying the town of Rye and its environs and the three best days of the Summer, we also asked our hostess if we might make contact with her aunt.

So it was we found ourselves sitting in the front room of Mrs G. Parsons in the house in which she had lived for the majority of her life.  There we were invited to view notebooks and other souvenirs from plant recording in the 1970s,while her memories of the time and her anecdotes of Breda and Ernie Burt seemed to turn back the years.  Gwyneth told us that the x Festulolium used to grow in a neighbouring drive.  It was exterminated some years ago when this was given a hard surface – a small piece of information but who else could have provided it?

The tetrads around Iden, we noted, had been worked very thoroughly for the Plant Atlas, and now we had met the recorder-in-residence.  Coincidentally, Elisabeth and I had a similar experience when we were working in the Worthing area in July.  After a number of visits we realised that it was going to be no easy task to get the TQ10M square anywhere near its 271+ Plant Atlas score.  Elisabeth then worked out that it was the tetrad in which Charmandean School had stood – the school at which Betty Bishop had taught Art for a number of years.  Naturally, she had known the territory extremely well.

Since the 1970s when data was being gathered for the Sussex Plant Atlas, social trends have continued to change, particularly with regard to the mobility of the population.  Who now works or lives in an area for so many years that they know its plants as well as a Betty Bishop or a Gwyneth Parsons?  Who is able to tell us when a species was lost as well as when it was found?