Having a Blackthorn Winter?

 

The first trees are beginning to bloom in the Cotswolds; in a few days’ they will be billowing clouds of white blossom.  My father, a countryman through and through, would always mark the occasion by repeating the old English warning of a coming “blackthorn winter” and “the cold blow” ahead.  But was he correct?

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The blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), also commonly known as sloe, is frequently used as a hedging plant where its tangled and viciously thorny branches make an impenetrable, stock-proof barrier.  When left untrimmed it grows into a small tree.blackthorn-blossoms-crowd-an-old-cotswold-green-lane-copyright

I haven’t found a referral to the earliest date for a blackthorn winter but it almost certainly goes back centuries for the blackthorn is a ‘magick’ tree and often used in witchcraft.  But can it really dictate the weather?  Common sense says ‘no’ unless, of course you believe in magick.

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Pretty flowers hide vicious thorns

There appears to be a problem with my father’s and others belief in the blackthorn winter.  The tree that blooms first and so often referred to is not blackthorn but the cherry plum, another Prunus – Prunus cerasifera.  Sometimes known as the Myrobalan Plum, it is also found in hedgerows and when allowed to grow to full height is often covered in red or golden cherry-sized, edible fruits.  It was introduced from southern Europe about three hundred years ago.

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Prunus cerasifera, the Cherry or Myrobalan Plum

So, blackthorn or cherry plum?  For the time being we will be having a “cherry plum winter”.  The sloe will blossom in about three weeks’ time when we will probably have the blackthorn winter too for one thing is proven: in England, we are far more likely to have a spell of wintry weather now than we ever are in December.  Either way, let us hope that it is a good year for both trees for then we can look forward to cherry plum pies washed down with a nice glass of sloe gin.

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Cherry Plums

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Sloe Berries

Footnote:  according to the British Meteorological Office, the term “blackthorn winter” originated in the Thames Valley, the birthplace of my father and where I was brought up.  It will be interesting to know many of you use the term and where in the world you are located.

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Respect Your Elders

Of all trees few can be held in as much contempt as our native elder, Sambucus nigra.  It grows almost anywhere and in such profusion that it is dismissed as a ‘weed’ and it is true that its habit of self-sowing and growing through treasured garden plants can be a nuisance.  Despite all of this, however, it is also one of the most useful of plants both in the wild and the shrub border.

This variegated form of Elder is very useful for brightening up a shady place
 
Search any hedgerow and the Elder can be found.  It is easily identified, even in mid-winter, for its bark is dull, dry and scaly, with prominent pairs of leaf buds; these are some of the earliest to open in the spring.  Young leaves can even be found during mild spells in the winter although these are replaced if damaged by frost.  Perhaps the simplest way to identify a leafless plant is to break off a stem for the centre is hollow and filled with whitish pith. Generations of country children hollow out these stems to create ‘cigarettes’ to smoke; in fact I can claim only to have smoked elder – and that stopped once a spark burnt the back of my throat!

Perhaps the glory of Elder comes in spring when the trees burst into flower. Large, flat heads (corymbs), consisting of hundreds of tiny scented flowers smother the plants and for a short while the countryside carries their pungent odour.  These have traditionally been the first crop to be harvested, their flowers steeped in water to make Elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’, these days now sold commercially. Elderflowers can be used dried in herbal teas or, when fresh, swirled in a light batter and dropped into hot oil to make delicious and unusual fritters.  Adding the flowers to stewed gooseberries or when making jam is a very old method of counterbalancing the tartness of the fruit.
Within weeks the flowers which were held upright will have faded and drooped as berries form.  Even when green, streaks of colour hint of their ripeness to come.  By late summer, the clusters have turned almost black and make a welcome addition to fruit pies or, used on their own, in jam and wine making.
The medicinal uses for Elder are equally varied.  According to the herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy all parts of the plant can be used: roots for kidney problems; bark against epilepsy and the leaves, when mixed with geranium and garlic, to soothe eczema and rashes.  The flowers and berries are used for relief of coughs and colds and it has also been claimed that the flowers can restore blindness.  As with all herbal treatments caution and common sense should be used – I’m not brave enough to suggest that you try any of them out!
The dark berries  of the elder – the red ones are hawthorn
For a tree with so many uses that has been part of country lore for so long it is not surprising to find it has many names.  A widespread alternative is Judas Tree for tradition states that it was the Elder that Judas Iscariot hung himself from.  It is from a derivation of the name Judas that Jew’s Ears fungus which commonly grows on elder gets its common name.
 
 
 
 
 

Turf Cutting on Exmoor

A few weeks ago I blogged about cutting peat – or ‘turf’ as it is known on Exmoor – for burning.  It is an ancient tradition, now past.  You can read that post by clicking on the link here.

When I first visited Exmoor forty-five years ago one of the first tasks I was given was to ‘turn’ the turf, literally just turning it over and over so that the wind dried it.  In many ways it was a boring and monotonous job but it had to be done for it was the provider of heat for the farm, both water and cooking.  Being alone, high up on the moors, was never lonely for the isolation, even for a lad, was awe-inspiring.  I loved it.

Recently, I was flicking through the pages of a book that has been in our possession for as long as I can remember and came across a photograph of an Exmoor turf cutter.  I’d never noticed it before.  The book is called ‘People of all Nations’ and was written about 1920.  The photographs are wonderful and show a way of life long gone.  

click on the photo to enlarge

With the benefit of hindsight, it is a pity that I took so few photos of my early days on Exmoor.  At the time, it seemed that the unchanged life of the moors would go on for ever.  Little did I realise that I was witnessing its passing and  I feel very privileged to have been a (very tiny) part of it.  What has endured has been its influence: my arrival quite by chance on Exmoor and being taken into its heart has been a subject of discussion recently with Phil Gayle on BBC Oxford.

The caption below the photograph reads:

Cutting Turf on the Rolling Heights of Exmoor. With his primitive cutter this Devon labourer is procuring long strips of turf at the opening of the shearing season.  The turf is stacked into barns in which the sheep are herded on the eve of shearing.  They rub against it and lie on it, thus ridding their wool of much dirt and grease which would detract from the value of their fleece were it present when shearing began.

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Bonkers about Conkers!

Every little boy – and many a gown-up one as well – loves toplay conkers at this time of year.  Or at least, I assume they still do; it is possible that it may have been banned from the school playground under health and safety grounds.  When you think of it – not only did we frequently impale our hands with the meat skewer we had pinched from the kitchen drawer to pierce the conkers with, we quite often cut ourselves with our penknives as we trimmed the strings to the right length. And what about those shattered splinters flying through the air like vegetative shrapnel – no-one thought about wearing eye protection then.

However, the traditional sport of conkers isn’t threatened so much by legislation as by the recently imported leaf miner moth (Cameraria ohridella) which first appeared in southwest London in 2002.  With no predators it has spread at an alarming rate and now it is reckoned that nearly all trees in England and Wales are infected by it.  The moth’s presence can be detected by the brown-black blotches that cover the leaves, disrupting the trees ability to synthasise fully.  This in turn weakens it which has made them much more susceptible to disease, especially bleeding canker which is now threatening their very existence.   In some years, leaf damage is more severe and the leaves can drop very early indeed.  As a consequence, some trees are looking in very poor shape.
 
 
 


The secret valleyhas numerous mature Horse Chestnuts.  They are fine trees, up to 100ft or more tall and look especially splendid in spring, their white flower spikes contrasting with the freshness of their newly opened green leaves which, at that time of year, are still unblemished.  In the 400+ years since they were introduced to Britain from the Balkans, they have become an integral part of a child’s growing up.  We learnt how branches of the ‘sticky’ buds, the dormant leaf buds, becoming ever more shiny and sticky as the sap rises within the tree, can be cut and forced to open into leaf early in a jam jar of water.  On hot summer days we learnt, usually when lying beneath the trees in their cooling shade, how to make ‘fish bones’ by shredding the leaves with our fingers until just the skeletal veins of the leaves remained.  When we wanted to be nasty we knew that we could hurl the hard, green nutshells armed with their sharp spikes to embed in our enemy’s backs or scratch their legs if they were wearing shorts.  And, of course, we held conker competitions.

Horse Chestnuts in full bloom on a fine late spring day
 
Now with all the trials of pests and disease plus the dreadful summer weather, conkers are few and those that have matured barely half their normal size.  It has even been suggested that brussel sprout competitions may have to be held instead although I doubt if they will give the satisying dull thud of the real thing even if they were frozen first.  However, this years World Conker Championships have taken place this month as normal – it was first held in 1965 and, unlikely as it seems, attracts competitors from all around the world.  You can find out more by clicking on the link below.
Not all is gloom and doom for the Horse Chestnut for it is now thought that some bird species are beginning to learn about this new food source and research is being carried out by the University of Hull and others to monitor this suspected behaviour.  There is little that we, as gardeners or conservationists can do at this stage to assist other than to report any signs we see of birds feeding on the trees.  We just have to hope that the Horse Chestnut doesn’t disappear from our countryside in the same way that the Elm did in the 1970’s and 80’s.

The difference in size between the two trees is quite marked – as is the autumnal tints of the frost damage part of the smaller one 
 
In the secret valley, we also have a number of the smaller, red flowered Horse Chestnut, Aesculus x carneaca, and this does not seem to become infected to the same degree as the white flowered, Aesculus hippocastanum.  Although they do produce conkers unfortunately they are neither of a size or quality suitable for a serious round of conkers.  Horse Chestnuts, by the way, are poisonous to horses – they get their common name by the scars on the branches where the leaves once were: a perfect horseshoe complete with marks where the nails would be. 
 
When you get to know a place intimately – whether it’s a garden or a landscape – you notice things that the casual observer misses.  In the late spring of 2011, we had a biting frost that killed off not all but some of the new young growth of numerous trees – just where it touched.  Some trees remained unscathed, others  were totally destroyed and some just part.  This is what happened to one of a pair of Horse Chestnuts visible from our little stone cottage.  One tree has always been much more stunted than the other, although as their girths are the same, I assume they were planted at the same time.  They stand side by side but one, when the river bursts its banks is under water for a few days longer than the other.  Is it this that has caused it to be so much shorter or is it this rare burning of the leaves by frost?  It took months for the tree to recover, finally sending out new spring green leaves and flower buds at the end of July contrasting greatly with the remainder of the tree whose leaves had not been harmed.  Likewise, the older leaves turned their autumn colours and fell earlier than the newer ones.  This year the tree, which now looks quite poorly, has reversed with the damaged leaves turning golden – in the ten days since the photograph was taken, they have fallen while the remaining leaves are yet to get their autumn tints.

Almost hidden from view, our old stone cottage stands well above the little winding river

 In 2011, we had a very late frost blackening both the leaves and flowers – it took months for the tree to recover

 

The secret valleywill be a much poorer place if all the Horse Chestnuts succumb to disease and have to be felled.  Let us hope that future generations can play beneath them as we have done.

Sources:
British conkers getting smaller
World Conker Championships
Conker Tree Science Project

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Ireland’s Connemara Ponies

Rugged and beautiful, Connemara is situated on Ireland’s west coast.  It’s a wild place: a rock strewn landscape softened by the lush green of field and bog; of purple heather interwoven with the golden flowers of gorse; of towering scarlet and purple fuchsia hedges; of blue sea and empty, sandy beaches and of vast skies.  On a warm, summer’s day there can be no more benign a place yet when the gales and driving rain arrive, you are reminded that there is nothing but open Atlantic until you reach the shores of America. It is here that the Connemara pony, as enigmatic as the land that produced it – gentle but tough – developed.

The origins of the ponies are lost in time.  Some believe that they date back to the Vikings, others that the local breed crossbred with shipwrecked Spanish Armada horses.  What is known with certainty is that during the 19th century they were crossbred with Hackneys, Thoroughbreds and Arabians until by the early 1900’s the pony bloodlines were being lost.  In 1923 the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up to preserve the breed, the result being that the Connemara is now thriving with societies, clubs and shows worldwide. 

The most important of all of these shows – and rightly so – is the one of its birthplace, the Connemara Pony Festival at Clifden, held each year during August.  It is to the Festival that I was lucky enough to be invited last week.

 
My interest in horses, I have to admit, is somewhat limited.  I ride and (even if I say so myself) am quite good at it, despite only learning ten years ago but I do find the prospect of sitting watching horses for three days going around a ring rather daunting.  But this is Ireland and the craic is as good as you would expect it to be – here you can wander in and out of the showground, the locals are happy to chat to you about anything and everything and the setting is superb: a small showground in the centre of a pretty, brightly coloured town bounded by a dark brown, peaty watered river and backed by mountains.  And of course, there is Guinness!  A bonus was the weather – hot and sunny, every day.

I stayed and watched some of the jumping competitions before my attention waned.  The standard of the riding was very mixed but fun was had by all and it was interesting to see how the children just climbed back on board and carried on without, it seems, a second thought.  Perhaps that is why so many of the top jockeys are Irish ….

However, when it comes to ‘loose’ jumping, I can stay all day.  To watch the ponies move without the restraints of rider and tack, I find fascinating.  Here, the atmosphere is very much more relaxed and the banter never ending.

After a long day, what better way can there be than to end it with a stroll through the town, visiting a bar or two along the way?  Clifden is also a stronghold of traditional Irish music and from every open doorway the sound of the fiddle eminates.  Traditional music has been a lifelong interest of mine and I have had all the elements of a terrific day out – horses, Guinness, Ireland, song and warmth.  I walk back to my house, twenty-five minutes outside the town, set high up on the cliffs, as the sun begins to set.  The perfect end to a perfect day.

This seems an opportunity to talk of my own horse, Barney.  A giant of a horse (who, by coincidence, also came over from Ireland), gentle, wicked and a lot of fun, he helped teach me to ride by ensuring, I like to think, that the saddle was safely underneath me when I landed after a jump.  After months of treatment for lameness, he was ‘put down’ – a very sad day.  However, I now have Bart who compared to Barney goes like a Ferrari.  An ex-eventing horse, he is beautifully schooled and very disciplined, it has taken me a while to feel comfortable with his power and speed.  More of all this on a later post – below is an image of him and Ernie, our other horse, as a taster!

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Dropping In Unexpectedly

We are sociable animals here in the secret valley and nothing pleases us more than when friends call in unexpectedly as they pass by.  It doesn’t matter whether there is just one or twentyone, we can always find enough in the store cupboards to water, and feed them too if needbe.  More often than not, they are on their way somewhere so a cup of tea, or something a little stronger, is all that is required.

Not the secret valley but still in the Cotswolds.  If you click on the photo to enlarge it you can see that the river Windrush has as many twists and turns in it as our little river

Most of the time visitors arrive by car or on foot for the lane that brings you into the valley is as inviting and sinuous as the little winding river itself: it takes you across cornfields, through trees which create, at this time of year, a leafy tunnel before entering a fold in the hills lined with an avenue of cherry and lime trees.  It is here that you get your first glimpse of the river and beyond the meanders the lane turns sharply over the bridge taking you a few more yards to the door of our home.

The villages of Lower and Upper Oddington – you can clearly see the lines of the old ‘ridge and furrow’ field plough marks that can date back a thousand years or more

The secret valley, as I have mentioned before, is a landscape in miniature.  Everything is small – the road, the hills, the views, the river, even the stone built bridge you can pass over without noticing it.  If it all sounds very idyllic that is because it is.

A couple of weeks ago we had some very unexpected guests although we could hear them arriving for quite a while before they finally did so.  It was the unmistakeable sound of a hot air balloon losing height.  Hidden by trees we could not see who was landing but went off to investigate – She-dog leading the way – and to assist if required.  The multicoloured stripes told us it belonged to Charles Teall who lives some miles away and who had once taken me for a flight, although on that occasion we had not landed on our doorstep – for details of that flight click here.

Charles’ wife, Liz, incidentally, is a very talented potter and we have some very nice pieces of her work.  She, like myself, is interested in traditional folk music but, unlike me, she can sing and play the whistle and tabor; she also belonged until recently to a local Morris dancers side.  Have a look at her work by clicking here.

By the time we reached it, the balloon had already landed.  It never fails to surprise me just how large it is and just how small the basket is.

She-dog is normally fairly cautious and we thought that she would be nervous of the balloon.  As always, she proved us wrong and felt it important to inspect every part of the balloon: below, the folding meets her approval.  Talking of approval, those of you that follow She-dog’s exploits may have been wondering what is the latest on puppy news: there isn’t any.  On the last two occasions she has refused to co-operate.  She obviously felt that once was quite enough!

I am always surprised how neatly everything folds away and into such a small space.  There is always a mobile support team to assist where necessary so our help wasn’t required.  Once packed we were able to catch up with the latest news over a drink and reminisce about our trip flying over the Cotswolds.  The aerial shots were all taken on that day.

The counties of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, which form the greater part of the region known as the Cotswolds, have some of the best surviving examples of ridge and furrow.  To find out how these were created, click here.

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A Very English Day Out


Last Sunday turned out to be a glorious day after twenty four hours of much needed rain. Thank goodness it did for a friend had organised that most English of traditions – a posh picnic on the lawns of a large country house, followed by a concert in the music room.


And so we found ourselves eating smoked salmon sandwiches, coronation chicken, salads, ending with strawberries and cream, all washed down with an endless supply of champagne. But our friend didn’t just do us proud with the picnic, she had invited an eclectic mix of guests. There was an art historian, an art restorer, an explorer, a porcelain restorer, myself a garden designer amongst others. And we were international as well, for amongst the guests was an American, a Persian, myself part Polish – but the pure bred Brits did outnumber us….


Boarstall, where the concert took place, is a fourteenth century moated gatehouse. Of course, a building with such a long history has seen many changes and events, a major one being during the (English) Civil War when it was besieged for ten weeks. Damaged by cannon fire, ( the bricked up ‘patches’ can still be seen), upon its surrender the main part of the house, church and village were all destroyed by the victorious Parliamentarians. The mansion and the church were rebuilt but only the latter remains, the house being demolished once again in 1778. Since that time the tower has remained virtually unchanged. Now owned by the National Trust, it is lived in by tenants who organise the concerts.

We had come to hear a young soprano, Luci Briginshaw, sing arias from the great operas, accompanied by Peter McMullin on the piano. Luci’s story is rather like an opera plot in itself – a nice one fortunately rather than one where everyone gets murdered or dies of consumption! Busking in Covent Garden market, Luci was heard singing and invited to perform at Boarstall.

The music room at Boarstall is on the top floor of the tower and is reached by ancient, spiral stone staircases. Light and airy, it holds about 100 people so makes an intimate space where you can really relate to the performers and fellow audience. Luci’s singing was delightful, a pure clear voice, she obviously will – or deserves to – go far. Not just a wonderful coloratura soprano, for her encore, she accompanied herself on the piano singing a great blues number.

After the concert, Luci joined us all with a tour of the tower (how cross I was that, by then, I’d taken the camera back to the car) followed by afternoon tea, where she proved that she had a great personality off stage as well as on.

You will find a link to Luci’s website here, for Luci should be heard far and wide. And if, by a remote chance, Luci you should read this post, thank you for a memorable day out. Can’t wait to hear you again. Bravo!

Invasion of the Ladybirds

If ladybirds landing on you are traditionally a sign of good fortune to come, I wonder what the latest invasion of hundreds of them coming to hibernate in my bedroom means? Probably not much as I have evicted the majority of them! However, there is something rather special when a wild creature, however small, chooses to associate closely with you and without fear.
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Now I appreciate that a small bug like creature is not exactly prone to a shaking attack of nerves when a human face peers closely at it – not even mine – but they must have some sense of concern when we recite the children’s rhyme “Ladybird, ladybird fly away home”, surely?
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Having realised that they are likely to get ‘crunched’ once the window is shut, they moved further indoors following one another in single file. Of some concern, was the number of Harlequin ladybirds, a foreign invader originally from the Far East but brought here to Britain on plant imports via the USA. These only arrived in the country as recently as 2004 and are now found in every English county, much of Wales and beginning to colonise Scotland. Of the four ladybirds in the picture above only the top one is our native Seven-spot Ladybird.
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I know it’s a bedroom but I really don’t think I want this Harlequin to perform in front of the neighbours! As, to my knowledge, they don’t hybridise with our native species I suspect that this Seven-spot was about to become a tasty snack. This photo really makes you appreciate the difference in size between the two species.
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Having reached a suitable corner they begin to jostle for position, gradually forming a tight clump where they remain during the colder days and nights. Strangely, the central heating system has no effect on this dormancy, whereas a return to milder conditions outside makes the colony disperse around the room to reform at a later time.
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Now a tight cluster, these groups began to hold several hundred individuals. It was then (and without even bothering to take a photograph, very remiss) that the eviction process began until just a few dozen – which we consider manageable and charming – remained. Despite claiming not to be remotely superstitious, for safety’s sake I did recite the traditional chant.
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“Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, for your house is on fire and your children will burn”
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No More Cheese Rolling…..

Another great Cotswold tradition has come to an end thanks to Health & Safety issues. Cheese Rolling, which has taken place at Cooper’s Hill for centuries, has been banned.

As a protest and in support of the cheese makers, I went out today and bought some of the same local type they use. Not a 7lb wheel, more a slither but it was the gesture that was important. And it tastes very good too. My photo below does not do justice to the texture, the smell and oh, the taste: ecstasy on a biscuit!

So what is cheese rolling? A 7lb Double Gloucester cheese is set in motion from the top of the steep hill – and it can reach speeds up to 70 miles per hour – and us ‘locals’ then chase it. The first person to reach the bottom and cross the line is the winner. Yes, you are right -it is another barmy English tradition.

Cheese rolling is not for the faint hearted as competitors are catapulted through the air such is the force and momentum generated by the hill’s steepness. Injuries are common but not as serious as you might think – a few broken bones but that is of little consequence to those that want to take part. What is more odd, is that the Health and Safety concerns are not about the competitors but the spectators, for the event has become so popular that over 15000 people attended the last one, which is usually held in May. With our little country lanes totally jammed and the hill only able to cope with 5000 people, the numbers are quite obviously a problem.

But there is some good news: a revised version of cheese rolling may take place next year. If it involves eating the cheese rather than risking life and limb running after it, I may just enter the competition…….

[Acknowledgement to the Daily Mail for some of this information]

Old Twelfth Night – it’s Wassail Time

One of my great pleasures is to hear traditional songs being sung and I know quite a number by heart. A favourite is the old Wassail song sung on Wassail Day. The Cotswolds proved to be one of the last places where these old songs were commonly sung and they were written down for posterity by Cecil Sharp in the early 1900’s.

Here we go a-wassailing, all through the leaves so green, here we go a-wassailing, so early to be seen…”, goes the song and tomorrow, is Wassail Day.

Purists hold wassail on Old Twelfth Night, the 17th January (as against the ‘new’ date of the 6th), which is the date prior to 1752 when the calendar was changed and days ‘lost’. So wassailing will take place as night falls in orchards throughout England. However, with the dwindling number of orchards, the ceremony takes place less and less. The photo below is of a newly planted orchard at daffodil time.

I have never been to a wassail in the Cotswolds but, years ago, when I spent much of my early adult time on Exmoor, I wassailed the orchard attached to a local pub. As darkness fell, we carried flaming torches amongst the trees, drank to their health and placed pieces of toast (photo below) dipped in cider amongst the branches. And we sang the wassail song and many other old songs too. And just as we began to relax, and the cider take hold of us, guns were fired through the branches to scare off bad demons, bringing us back to our senses. That orchard has since been built upon and the tradition there lost.

The blackened faces of morris men, that attend some wassails, are also there to frighten evil spirits, for this has it’s roots in pagan times and has nothing whatsoever to do with race, as is now sometimes thought. PC means that many morris men no longer do this. The ceremony shown on the video below has both morris men and a wassail queen. I don’t recall seeing the morris when I took part, or a young virgin for that matter, but perhaps that is due to too much cider and too many years passing. There is no wassail singing on the video and only a glimpse of morris dancing – the latter I hope to write about, with other local customs, in the future.


If the wassail works there really will be “…apples down in capfuls, buckets, bushels, bags and all…” and, if not, a lot of fun will have been had regardless. And in the final words of the old song, readers, may I “…wish you, send you a healthy new year…”