Ancient feasts and festivals still living on

It’s amazing how many remnants of ancient festivals and feasts still remain as part of the UK’s cultural life and mores – somewhat altered over the years perhaps, sometimes almost unrecognisably so, but there nonetheless.

 

As many of these events, particularly those of an agricultural bent, have their origins in the cycles of nature though, I guess it’s not entirely surprising that they’ve clung on, often by their fingertips. While most of us, sadly, have lost touch with the land, we’re hopefully not too far removed from her just yet to recognise her ancient ways and understand their significance, albeit superficially.

 

And as if to prove the point, the church at Thaxted, a picturesque little town not far from my home base of Saffron Walden in north Essex, held a traditional service dating back to medieval times a couple of Sundays ago to celebrate the start of the agricultural year. Called ‘Plough Sunday’, it’s always held on the Sunday after the Epiphany, otherwise known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, on 6 January.

 

Plough Sunday
Plough Sunday

In medieval times, the festivities consisted of the whole village bringing its sole ploughshare into church for a clerical blessing. But by Victorian times, when the tradition was revived, many farmers owned their own ploughs and so a representative one was chosen to stand in for the rest. Modern day tractors, meanwhile, are generally seen to outside – for obvious reasons.

 

But although the implements may have changed, the ceremony itself is still about praying for a good growing season and successful harvest, and is often accompanied by other rural customs such as Morris dancing. After the blessing, the plough was traditionally hauled through the village by a procession of people led by a Fool and a ‘Betsy’ – a young boy dressed up as a woman – who collected money from anyone they met and stopped at as many pubs as possible along the route in order to commandeer a drink.

 

And ‘Betsy’, it seems, is linked to a cross-dressing tradition relating to Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night marked the end of a medieval winter festival that started on All Hallows Day (now Halloween) and finished at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, who made his first recorded appearance at the end of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and who symbolised the world turning upside down.

 

Anyway, the following day was Plough Monday, the first day back at work for farming folk after the Christmas break. But Plough Sunday wasn’t the only agricultural church feast on the annual celebratory calendar.

 

Rogation days

 

Next on the list were Rogation days – the major one being held on 25 April and the minor ones on the Monday to Wednesday preceding Ascension Thursday. Rogation apparently comes from the Latin verb ‘rogare’, which means to ask – in this case farmers asking God to protect their crops.

 

Interestingly though, it is thought that the origins of the major rogation day go back as far as Roman times. It was then that the feast of Robigalia was held and a dog sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, a god whose job it was to protect the corn from nasty diseases.

 

The minor days, on the other hand, were introduced in AD 470 by Mamertus, bishop of Vienne in south-eastern France, before being officially adopted by the Catholic Church. First arriving on British shores in the 12th or 13th century, they were originally supposed to be days of quiet fasting and abstinence to prepare for the Ascension – although they later appeared to descend into raucous days of drunken revelry, much to the Church’s displeasure.

 

Mamertus
Mamertus

Farmers also took the opportunity to have their crops blessed once again, while another popular ceremony involved “beating the bounds”. Here parishioners indulged themselves in yet another procession, but this time around the boundaries of the parish.

 

Led by the priest, his church warden and the choirboys, they prayed for the parish to be protected over the coming year – a habit derived from the Roman festival apparently, which saw revellers walking to an out-of-town grove of trees to perform sacred rites.

 

Anyway, the next big feast of the agricultural church year is Lammas, the first traditional harvest festival of the year. Although of equally pagan bent, Lammas has much more of a Celtic flavour and took place on 1 August.

 

The word ‘Lammas’ itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘half-mas’ or ‘loaf-mass’ to represent the loaf of bread made from the new crop of wheat, which began to be harvested at that time. But the festival was originally known as Lughnasadh in Ireland at least after Lugh, the Sun King and god of Light. In England, he was also known as John Barleycorn, the harvest god and living spirit of the grain.

 

The idea was that as the corn was cut down, so was John Barleycorn. By sacrificing himself, the community would devour him in the form of bread and live on. But because his essence was in the seeds, he was reborn the following year as a new crop, the first and last sheaf of which were considered vital.

 

Harvest festivals

 

As a result, the first sheaf was always ceremonially cut at dawn and baked into the Harvest Bread, which was shared by the community in thanks. The last sheaf, which was treated with equal respect, was made into corn dollies and carried to the village.

 

Here they were given ribbons and clothes and transformed into corn maidens following a good harvest or old crones after a bad one. They would be kept above the hearth in people’s home to ensure a good crop the next year, when they were ploughed into the first furrow of the new spring season.

 

Apparently started by the Anglo-Saxons, the custom was based on the belief that the last sheaf held the spirit of the corn. So it was sacrificed, along with a hare (considered a creature of Eostre, the goddess of Spring and rebirth after whom Easter is named. Her symbol was a hare and she apparently turned into one at each full moon) that had been hiding in the crop somewhere. As time went on, the sacrificing stopped though and little hares were made out of straw instead, before morphing over time into the aforementioned corn dollies.

 

Eostre's hare
Eostre’s hare

Anyway, last but not least is the second Harvest festival of the year (the third being Samhain on 31 October), which is held on the Sunday closest to the Harvest Moon – the full one that occurs around the time of the autumn equinox on 22 or 23 September. Also known as Michaelmas due to the cult of St Michael the Archangel (the one who fought against Lucifer and his evil band of angels), which took hold during the 5th century, it is associated with the start of autumn.

 

But because Michaelmas is the time that darker nights and cold days begin, its celebration was about invoking the Archangel’s protection over the months to come, darkness being associated with the growing strength of negative forces.

 

Sometimes also called “Goose Day”, it was traditional to eat a well-fattened bird fed on the stubble from the newly-harvested fields in order to protect against penury over the year ahead. Goose fairs were common too and, in fact, Nottingham still holds one each year in early October.

 

But in Protestant households at least, the custom of Michaelmas mostly came to an end when King Henry VIII split with the Catholic Church, and the feast duly morphed into Harvest Festival. Here people went to church to sing hymns and give thanks, taking baskets of fruit and veg from their farms and gardens, which were then given to the poor.

 

And so, as truly amazing as it may seem, many of these ancient customs have remained with us throughout the centuries, somewhat altered over the years maybe, but carried with us nonetheless.

 

 

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Essex mysteries: The Dunmow Flitch Trials

Say what you like about Essex, but it is a county that knows how to celebrate its own, sometimes unusual history.

 

Take the Dunmow Flitch Trials, for example. Although they only take place once every four years in Great Dunmow, a small market town in north Essex, they apparently date back to the twelfth century, which makes them an astounding 900 or so years old.

 

And while I doubt the pantomime and light-hearted revelry of it all would have been particularly appreciated by peasants of yore, it certainly went down well with the present day audience last weekend, seated on plastic chairs in a marquee in Talberds Ley park.

 

The Trials are intended to establish the devotion of couples no matter where in the world they come from, who have been married for at least a year and a day. If, in the word of the Flitch Oath, they can persuade a judge and jury of six local maidens and six bachelors that they have “ne’er made nuptiall transgression”, indulged in “household brawls or contentious strife” and, most importantly of all “not wisht themselves unmarried agen,” they are awarded a flitch, or side, of bacon (basically, half a pig cut lengthways).

 

Dunmow Flitch
Dunmow Flitch

The Trials themselves, meanwhile, take the form of a court presided over by a Judge, in our case Dave Monk, who has been a radio presenter with BBC Essex for the last 30 years and played a slightly befuddled old soak. There were also four lawyers in full regalia, three of whom were actual real-life barristers and the other writer and witty stand-up comedian, Steve Bugeja.

 

Two of them were there to represent the couples or claimants, while the opposing counsel was employed on behalf of the Flitch, which stood demurely suspended from its wooden frame throughout the whole proceedings. The opposing counsel’s role was to test the claims of each couple and convince the jury not to grant them the bacon.

 

And so the entertainment began. It all kicked off with a lively procession of local majorettes, clog dancers, a town crier, the jury, barristers, a couple of big solid oak chairs and, of course, the Flitch, carried by burly local men or ‘simple folk’ in peasants’ smocks and straw hats from the Saracens Head Hotel in the middle of town to Talberds Ley.

 

Once in the marquee, my Beloved and I settled down to watch the two afternoon Trials (there are morning and evening ones too), one of which consisted of a couple who lived locally and had been together for 30 years, and another that hadn’t yet made their second year anniversary but who lived in Cambridge.

 

The older couple’s Trial was my favourite though. Soon after they’d first met, an event that he described as love at first sight although she wasn’t initially quite so keen, he’d been really eager to see her. So he tracked her down to one of several potential hospital sites (she’s a nurse) and left a pot plant for her outside the nursing station – his rationale being that cut flowers invariably got nicked.

 

But the defence for the Flitch construed that the real truth of the matter was that he’d stalked his poor Missus relentlessly until she eventually gave in and then got her hooked on drugs (pot plant – get it?). Needless to say, the couple lost and the Flitch won, but it was very amusing all the same.

 

Ancient tradition

 

On the way back to the Market Place though, it was their fate to make a walk of shame behind one of the two wooden Flitch Chairs – although they did seem remarkably cheery about it all. Luckily according to ancient custom, they were still entitled to a gammon (hind leg) of bacon, which actually seemed to morph into a bottle of champagne instead. But that was alright.

 

The second couple, however, who won their Trial in a well-matched contest of wits, were carried shoulder high through the streets on a Flitch Chair by the burly, local smock wearers. Once at the Market Place, they kneeled to take the Flitch Oath, resting somewhat uncomfortably on some stones, before the smock wearers all threw their hats in the air. And following the presentation of a certificate and bottle of champers to the winners, that was that – for another four years anyway.

 

Flitch winners
Flitch winners

Interestingly though, while Dunmow may not be the only place in Europe where the ancient tradition of rewarding marital harmony with a side of bacon exists, it is completely unique in still performing it – which it’s been doing on and off since 1104, it seems.

 

As to how the whole thing came about in the first place, however, the most popular story goes that Lord of the Manor in nearby Little Dunmow village, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife decided to dress themselves up as humble peasants and beg for the blessing of the head of the local Augustinian Priory a year and a day after marrying. Impressed by their fervour, the Prior decided to reward them with a Flitch of Bacon.

 

On revealing his true identity though, Fitzwalter promised to bestow his land on the Priory on condition that a Flitch be awarded to any couple who could prove they lived a life of similar marital devotion and harmony. And by Geoffrey Chaucer’s day, the Trials had achieved such fame that he included mention of them in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in his ‘The Canterbury Tales’, a collection of 24 stories that is deemed among the most important in English literature.

 

The tradition lapsed for a number of years during the 1830s, however, as it was considered “an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood”. But by 1855, it was happily revived by Victorian novelist and master of historical potboilers Harrison Ainsworth, following the publication of his popular novel ‘The Custom of Dunmow’. This recounts the efforts of a local publican to win the Flitch by marrying a succession of wives in a bid to find the perfect one for him. Which is certainly one way of going about it.

 

But as similar traditions are found across northern Europe, I’d be rather more inclined to side with British historian, Helene Adeline Guerber as to origins. Her theory goes that it can be traced back to an ancient Norse custom linked to the pagan Yule feast, which is celebrated today as Christmas.

 

Although Yule is mainly linked to Thor, the god of thunder, lightning, the protection of mankind and, interestingly, fertility, it is also important to the god Freyr. He was likewise a fertility god and often invoked by married couples for his ability to “bestow peace and pleasure on mortals”. Incidentally, he also rode about on a wild boar called Gullinbursti.

 

As a result of all this, a boar was eaten in Freyr’s honour at each Yule feast and could only be carved by a man of unstained reputation. This, in turn, led to the custom of rewarding married couples who managed to live in harmony with a piece of boar meat. So it’s not a huge jump to switch boar for bacon.

 

And with that particular little thought, I rest my case.

 

 

 

 

Buxton: A town that keeps on surprising

Buxton in Derbyshire isn’t necessarily entirely what you’d expect. In fact, I didn’t know what to expect at all really when we went there on a weekend jaunt a few weeks ago to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday. But then I can’t say I’d ever particularly explored the Peak District before, of which this charming old market and spa town sits at the heart.

 

In all honesty it’s probably a bit regionalist of me, but I’d always seen the area as a bit of a poor relation of the Highlands of Scotland, the Lake District and even my own personal favourite – but probably least well-known of the lot – Northumberland. But shame on me.

 

It’s actually a fascinating place, packed full of quirky surprises, and cast in a truly lovely setting. Not so very dissimilar to the Yorkshire Dales, in fact, only somewhat less tourist-y. As a for instance, lots of the hills surrounding Buxton carry the word ‘low’ somewhere in their name, Arbor Low or Grin Low being cases in point. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hlaw’, it actually means ‘burial mound’ and the town is apparently surrounded by lots of such bronze age sites.

 

But just to add to its mystery, Buxton also boasts quite a few firsts. On the one hand, at 1,000 or so feet above sea level, it is said to be the highest market town in England – although Alston in Cumbria also lays claim to the title too.

 

On the other, the town’s oldest building, the Old Hall Hotel, is believed to be the UK’s first ever hotel. It was allegedly built to house Mary Queen of Scots who stayed there at sporadic intervals between 1548 and 1573, after being taken into custody by local dignitary, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I. And it still does a mean pan-fried sea bream to this day, a fact to which I can personally attest after partaking of a lovely meal there with my family.

 

Old Hall Hotel
Old Hall Hotel

Mary was quite keen on the place too allegedly as the warm waters of the nearby natural thermal spring, which emerges from the ground at a constant 82 degrees Fahrenheit, helped keep her rheumatism in check. And it is spring water, at least in bottled form, for which Buxton is probably most famous. You’d certainly be hard-pressed not to find the odd bottle or two in most supermarkets or motorway service stations in the UK these days anyway.

 

But to get back to the Earl of Shrewsbury for a moment. He just happened to be married to Elizabeth Talbot, otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick, who by virtue of a few smart marriages scaled the heights of 16th century English society to become fabulously wealthy, helped along in such matters by her own shrewd business sense.

 

Bess of Hardwick’s legacy

 

Anyway, Bess built herself, among other things, nearby Chatsworth House, which must be among the most lavish and flamboyant stately homes that I’ve ever set eyes upon. In fact, as an emblem of its if truth-be-known somewhat vulgar over-the-top-ness, all of its window frames are even covered in gold paint. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its sumptuousness, the 126-room country pile has also starred in loads of films from “The Duchess” to “The Wolfman”.

 

Although I must confess that I wasn’t particularly taken with its interior, which I found a bit oppressive, what really did grab my fancy was the 105-acre gardens, landscaped in the 1760s by no less a personage than Lancelot “Capability” Brown himself. There’s a maze, kitchen garden, water garden, rose garden, gravity-fed Emperor Fountain and even a display greenhouse, divided into three climactic zones – Temperate, Mediterranean and Tropical. And there are, of course, also the breathtakingly elegant landscaped vistas for which Brown is so renowned and which still seem so quintessentially English 300 years after his birth.

 

Chatsworth House
Chatsworth House

Anyway, all of this is rather more pertinent to Buxton than it might appear at first glance. This is because Chatsworth just happens to be the official seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, who are in fact the progeny of Bess of Hardwick’s second marriage to courtier, Sir William Cavendish.

 

And it is this family, which made pots of money mining copper at Ecton Hill in Staffordshire that is responsible for shaping (lower) Buxton in all of its Georgian splendour to make it into the UK’s premier spa town of the seventeenth century. In fact, you’ll still see the Cavendish name all over town on everything from street names to buildings and even the odd shopping arcade.

 

But intriguingly, there’s also a Higher Buxton too should you happen to stumble up the steeper-than-it-looks Hall Bank. While you could easily miss it, it’s actually an independent village that formed the original settlement and which still houses the town hall and marketplace to this day. And as such, it’s rather more down-to-earth than its somewhat showier neighbour.

 

Because, perhaps surprisingly for a town of its size, (lower) Buxton boasts more than a few iconic buildings, created mainly out of the local area’s warm-coloured limestone. For instance, there’s the Grade I-listed Crescent, which was designed by the York architect John Carr in 1784 to rival the much more famous Royal Crescent in Bath. Including two hotels, apartments, shops, coffee and card rooms and an Assembly Room, it was funded by the 5th Duke of Devonshire to provide accommodation for spa-goers and any friends of his keen on a health-giving sojourn there.

 

Important British site

 

Even more intriguingly, the Crescent was actually built on the site of a Roman Baths. The Romans called their spa “Aquae Arnemetiae”, which translates as ‘the waters of the goddess who lives in a sacred grove’. Arnemetia was a river goddess worshipped by the local Celtic Corieltauvi tribe and it was believed that drinking from her waters would cure you of sickness and wasting disease.

 

Moreover, as groves were where the Druids conducted their ceremonies, it gives you some idea of just how important a religious centre this place must have been. It was certainly significant enough for the Romans to apply the term “Aquae” to it anyway, an honour accorded to only one other British town – that of Bath, which was known as “Aquae Sulis”. Sulis was a local water goddess there too and the Romans equated her with Minerva, their own goddess of wisdom and knowledge.

 

Anyway, redeveloped in the mid-1800s, the Roman Baths morphed into the so-called Natural Baths and it is they that will form the centrepiece of a new 79-bedroom five-star spa hotel due to be opened next year. This heritage regeneration project is expected to cost £70 million or so, but is intended to help revive the town’s fortunes and stimulate a new wave of tourism in its role as Peak District capital.

 

The Devonshire Dome
The Devonshire Dome

But there’s also the Devonshire Dome. Originally built in 1882 for the Royal Devonshire Hospital, it is now part of the University of Derby and dominates the town’s skyline. With a diameter of 46 metres, it is also the largest unsupported dome in Europe.

 

Or there’s the 23-acre Pavilion Gardens on the banks of the River Wye. Laid out by Edward Milner, a successful Victorian landscape architect and designer who has since vanished into obscurity, this lovely site also includes the UK’s first Winter Gardens. They were created in the image and likeness of London’s Crystal Palace, a development in which Milner played a key role too.

 

His goal with the Winter Gardens though was to craft an environment where the upper crust could promenade in all weathers, enjoying displays of exotic foliage and flowers while listening to the light orchestral pleasures of palm court music. And the idea spread like wildfire across the country from Margate to Sunderland.

 

Today, the building houses sundry shops and cafes as well as the Pavilion Arts Centre, which plays a key role in Buxton’s Festival Fringe each July. Running parallel with the Buxton arts Festival, which focuses on opera, music and books, lots of artistes interestingly use it as a test bed for that much more famous counterpart, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest such event in the world.

 

So say what you like about Buxton, but to me, it’s really rather a special place that just keeps on charming and surprising.

 

 

 

 

 

Urban foraging: Food that’s wild and free

Being a bit of a hippy at heart, I’ve really quite fancied the idea of doing some proper foraging for a while now.

 

On the one hand, if Armageddon were to strike, I’m sure being able to identify which plants are edible and which are likely to kill us off would be a fairly useful skill to have.

 

But on the other, it’s just a lovely, satisfying thing to do – to roam around in nature and truly know what it is you’re communing with at every level. In other words, being familiar with the culinary use of your chosen shrub or flower, its medicinal purpose and even its spiritual meaning, as they all have one. So it’s about getting to know the beautiful, green world around you and truly being at home and feeling part of it.

 

The most amazing foragers I’ve come across, it must be said though, are the Iban, a tribal people who live in the rainforest in Sarawak in the Malaysian part of Borneo. My Beloved and I went on holiday there a dozen or so years ago before the destruction of the forests by loggers and palm oil producers really started taking hold.

Iban longhouse
Iban longhouse

Sarawak at that time was known to be one of the six most biodiverse regions in the world and, amazingly, a hectare of rainforest there traditionally had more tree species in it than all of the European countries put together – until they started being ripped up to plant palm oil monocultures, that is, in order to feed the developed world’s apparently insatiable lust for the stuff.

 

Palm oil, it turns out, is a key ingredient in nearly half of all our mass-produced goods, ranging from cosmetics and toothpaste to cakes and sweets and we seem just as dependent on it as we are on black gold – and at a similar cost to the environment too.

 

Anyway, while we were in Borneo, we were lucky enough to spend a couple of nights in a longhouse with the Iban people in order to find out a bit more about where and how they lived. One fascinating morning, we went out on a rainforest walk with a guide who showed us plants to cure every kind of ailment, including one thought to have potential in the fight against AIDS.

 

But even more amazing was a canoe trip upstream into the rainforest. On stopping the boat at some apparently random spot, an Iban man threw a jala (throw-net) into the river and ended up with an impressive enough catch of pretty silver fish to feed our little party for both lunch and dinner.

 

Then on disembarking, our hosts started poking around in the fecund undergrowth and began pulling up what I would have sworn was a bunch of weeds, but which turned out to be the most delicious savoury accompaniment to our meal. This was cooked together with the fish in long bamboo poles buried in a hastily dug out pit by the water’s edge. It was gorgeous – and all the better for being devoured outdoors.

 

So suitably inspired on returning to the UK, I bought myself a “Food For Free” guidebook and dragged my Beloved out for a couple of Sundays on the trot to see what we could find.

 

To forage or not to forage?

 

I even did a foraging course in deepest Essex in a bid to get up close and personal with the help of a guide rather than simply try to work things out from a book. Sadly though, I could barely hear a word of what was said, let alone get near enough to spot the various plants under scrutiny as there were just too many people in the group. The only thing I gained from the experience, in fact, was a rather nice nettle soup at the end.

 

And so it all kind of fizzled out – until the end of last year, that is, when my parents asked what I’d like for Christmas. And it struck me that what I’d really like to do was go foraging with an expert again as a way of sparking a somewhat more sustained interest.

 

So one short Google search later and I’d unearthed Robin Harford, who seemed to come highly recommended – and with good reason. His enthusiasm and obvious passion for his subject proved infectious – despite the bitingly cold wind gusting through the somewhat desolate and deprived environs of Westbourne Park where our adventure took place.

 

Although Robin offers foraging courses up and down the country in plenty of rural hotspots, I’d been intrigued by the thought of what he might be able to conjure up in the great metropolis of London and so had signed up for a morning’s session there instead.

Westbourne Park
Westbourne Park

And I wasn’t disappointed. Although somewhat less than prepossessing at first glance, the Park proved to offer a veritable cornucopia of wild food that most of us, bar a few dogs, would simply pass by and not even notice. Traversing from one end to the other, we uncovered everything from chickweed (salad greens) and ransoms (wild garlic) to the flowers of Japanese ornamental quince (for salads and decoration).

 

It was just a pity that some of the residents of the dreary and alienating high-rise tower blocks didn’t get a chance to join us too as such nutritious free-of-charge additions to their diet might have proved welcome. One for Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food healthy cooking gang to think about maybe.

 

Or maybe not, if the likes of Bristol City Council has its way. Because the Council is proposing a series of 34 new by-laws to cover the 212 parks and green spaces around the town that, it is feared, would effectively put paid to foraging in the area – and possibly elsewhere if other local authorities follow suit.

 

The by-laws, which were put out to a consultation that ended on 20 March this year, include a ban on removing “the whole or any part of any plant, shrub or tree”, a stricture that could mean traditional activities such as blackberry-picking, scrumping apples and even pulling mushrooms are effectively outlawed.

 

Although the Council insisted that it was not trying to do any such thing, it also pointed out that it had received more than 3,000 complaints about “nuisance in parks” between 2011 and 2013 and so was trying to protect plants from damage as a result.

 

The problem is that, while it undoubtedly means well, a failure to think through the implications of its proposals in a thorough and careful fashion could have serious ramifications for us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saving our sacred trees: Oak, ash and hawthorn

I was horrified to learn last week that the iconic ash tree could well be wiped out across Europe over the next few years – and that includes the UK, despite the at least partial protection bestowed on us by being an island.

 

The problem, it seems, is not just the fungal disease ash dieback, which we’ve all heard about for a number of years now as it creeps its malignant way across the continent. The disease, which was first identified in England in 2012 in a consignment of imported trees 20 years after initially being discovered in Eastern Europe, has since spread from Norfolk and Suffolk to as far as South Wales. And, worst case scenario, it has the potential to destroy 95% of our native ash trees.

 

But as if that wasn’t enough, according to the latest research published in the Journal of Ecology, the poor ashes now have a double whammy to contend with in the shape of a deadly flying beetle called the emerald ash borer, which could well do for the rest.

 

The beetle in question is bright green and, like ash dieback, is an invasive species brought in from Asia. Although not yet in the UK, it is spreading west from Moscow at a rate of 25 miles per year and is already thought to have reached Sweden.

 

While the adult beetles feed on ash trees, they aren’t actually the ones that cause the damage. Instead it is their larvae that wreak havoc as they bore under the bark and into the wood, thus killing the tree in the process.

 

Not only is this situation a tragedy in its own right, of course, but if the ash were wiped out, it would undoubtedly change the face of the British countryside for ever. Ash is one of the UK’s most abundant trees – it is our most common hedgerow components, with a vast 60,000 miles of it up and down the country. It is also our second most prevalent woodland tree after the oak and is a popular fixture in most towns and cities.

 

Ash tree
Ash tree

So losing it would also have a severe impact on biodiversity. Some 1,000 or so native species rely on the ash as their habitat, including 12 types of birds, 55 mammals and more than 100 species of lichens, fungi and insects. This means that the affect of its disappearance would take on epic proportions – an even worse scenario than losing our 15 million or so elms in the 1970s to Dutch elm disease.

 

The tree of life

 

But just as epic would be the ash’s loss to the country in symbolic terms. In British/Celtic folklore, it is particularly associated with healing, protection and enchantment and, somewhat scarily in this context, it is actually known as the World Tree.

 

According to the Celtic world order, it vertically spans between worlds from the waters of Annwn (where spirits dwell before birth/rebirth), Abred (physical world), Gwynvid (Heaven/Nirvana) and into Ceugant (God/Goddess/Spirit).

 

In this way, it symbolises the Cosmic Axis of the universe or the central column of the Tree of Life, with its branches spreading into Otherworldly realms and its roots into the lower worlds – hence the ancient Druidic saying “Know yourself and you will know the world.”

 

In Viking mythology, meanwhile, the ash is known as Yggdrasil or the World Tree too. Standing at the centre of the Norse cosmos, its upper branches cradled Asgard, the home and fortress of the gods and goddesses of whom Odin was the supreme deity and All-Father, while its lower boughs spread across the countries of the world and its roots reached down into the Underworld.

 

Yggdrasil grew out of the Well of Urd, a pool holding many of the most powerful beings in the universe. These included three wise maidens known as the Norns who exerted more influence over the course of destiny than anyone else in the cosmos by carving runes into Yggdrasil’s trunk. These symbols then carried their intentions throughout the tree, affecting everything in the Nine Worlds.

 

But Odin envied their powers and wisdom and so in order to prove himself worthy, hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights until the secrets of the runes were revealed to him.

 

So given its apparently central role in the destiny of the universe and all its creatures, you tremble to think what it would signify if the ash were to die. In fact, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about, not least because, again in the Celtic world view, the ash was the all-embracing World Mother, the feminine counterpart to the All-Father tree, the oak – which just as worryingly appears to be in trouble too.

 

Oak tree
Oak tree

Again the oak, our national tree, is under attack on two fronts. Chronic oak dieback, a complex condition involving the interaction of damaging abiotic and abiotic factors such as high winds, recurrent drought and opportunistic assaults from insects and fungi on already weakened trees, has had a damaging impact for nearly a century now, with the worst outbreak taking place between 1989 and 1994.

 

Aboreal trinity

 

But since the 1980s, acute oak decline has also been taking its toll mostly across East Anglia, the Midlands and Southern England as far west as Somerset. You can tell an infected tree by the emergence of a dark fluid oozing from cracks in the bark caused by the so-called oak jewel beetle – and death occurs within a mere four or five years of symptoms first appearing.

 

But again the importance of the oak to this land in symbolic rather than pure biodiversity terms cannot be underestimated. Synonymous with courage, strength, endurance and steadfastness, oak trees were perceived to be protectors and guardians of the virtuous.

 

Being the tree of the Dagda, the father god also known as the good god because he protected the crops, the oak was considered the most sacred by the Celts and their Druid religious leaders. Considered a means of accessing spiritual wisdom, it was also seen as a portal to the Otherworld – and so unsurprisingly, oak groves or “nematons” were special places where Druids chose to hold their religious ceremonies.

 

The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, dedicated their oak groves to Thunor, otherwise known as Thor, the god of thunder, in the south and east of England, with the village of Thundersley in Essex being a case in point. Like the ash, oaks were said to “court the lightening flash” and are still commonly believed to be hit more than any other tree.

 

The final one to complete the trio, however, which thankfully has remained disease-free to date, is the hawthorn. If found growing beside the oak and ash, it was said to be part of a “fairy triad”, which attracted the Fae or spirits of nature who would dance at twilight to celebrate Mother Earth’s abundant beauty.

 

If standing by a sacred spring or holy well, however, the hawthorn acted as a threshold to the Otherworld, and had links to the Welsh goddess, Olwen. Known as the White Goddess of the Hawthorn, it was her white track of hawthorn petals that became the Milky Way when she walked the empty universe, or so the myth goes anyway.

 

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

But at one time simply known as “May”, the tree was also closely associated with the eponymous month, which was the time for courtship and love-making after the cold of winter. All of which means that the hawthorn symbolised fertility, sacred union and the unity of male and female energies, thus forming the third branch of the arboreal Trinity. And so if we can manage to keep that one safe at least, there might just be hope for us yet.

 

 

Keeping Britain wild and free

It does strike you that human beings can be a contrary bunch sometimes.

 

On the one hand, you’ve got the whole re-wilding movement currently going on in the UK. Its aim is to try and restore and protect key wilderness areas and return various habitats and species to the British countryside after they disappeared years ago, mainly through our own fault.

 

On the other hand, we’re now also trying to eradicate loads of other things that we’ve introduced from elsewhere over the years either by accident or design, but which we no longer like. Surprise, surprise, just like the scenes we’ve witnessed so often in horror movies, we’ve found that, once out of their own natural habitats, such immigrants have a habit of becoming dysfunctional, getting all invasive and starting to kill off the locals.

 

Prime examples here include the infamous Japanese knotweed , which can grow up to 20cm per day and apparently costs the UK economy £166 million per year both in terms of getting rid it and in house price devaluations as a result of it.

Japanese knotweed
Japanese knotweed

Another nightmare is the North American signal crayfish, which is killing off its native white-clawed cousins in our streams, rivers and lakes by being bigger and more aggressive, and grabbing most of the food supply for itself. To make matters worse, it’s also spreading some awful disease that’s proving deadly to its smaller and more genteel relations.

 

Anyway, to get back to the notion of re-wilding for a moment: although creating and conserving green spaces full of indigenous flora and fauna for everyone to enjoy might not seem a particularly controversial idea, in practice, it’s caused a firestorm.

 

One of the problems is that the term itself seems to mean different things to different people, a situation that’s led to lots of heated debate among conservationists and wildlife lovers alike, some of it rather ill-natured.

 

The launch of a charity called Rewilding Britain, which claims George Monbiot, environmental activist and Guardian newspaper columnist as its unofficial figurehead, for instance, seems to have been particularly divisive. It launched itself onto the national stage in July by making a headline-grabbing call for the reintroduction into Scotland of Britain’s former apex predators – lynx, wild boar and wolves – which had previously been hunted to extinction.

 

In fact, its aim is to see three core areas of 100,000 hectares of infertile land across the UK rewilded by 2030. About one million or so more would then follow by the end of the century to be given over to these predators and the natural ecological processes that support them.

 

The apex predator debate

 

The charity’s argument is that, as important keystone species, they would help to make the country’s natural ecosystems stronger, not least as a result of hunting overpopulated species such as deer, which are causing massive damage to forests and woodland across the country.

 

The farmers, on the other hand, have been up in arms about it all, protesting that wolves, in particular, would kill too many sheep. They have also refused to be pacified by protestations that most European states acting as home to such predators have compensation schemes in place.

 

A passionate supporter of the rewilding viewpoint, meanwhile, is Paul Lister, a multimillionaire, heir to the MFI fortune and founder of The European Nature Trust. He bought the Alladale Estate in Sutherland, Scotland, about 10 years ago in order to turn it into a wilderness reserve, which he has been in the process of doing ever since.

 

To that end, he’s planted 800,000 trees, restored 224 hectares of degraded peat-land and, happily, reintroduced our native red squirrels. But for him, such progress is still not enough. The vision will not be complete until he introduces large predators in the shape of lynx, wolves and bears, not only to control the rampant, resident deer, but also to create an ecotourism attraction and generate local employment.

Wolf
Wolf

But the idea hasn’t gone down too well in some quarters, to say the least. Ramblers who have a legal right to wander on Lister’s land, are unhappy at the thought of it being fenced off to create a so-called “giant zoo”. A few locals are also fearful that the animals will break out and end up snaffling livestock – or even people.

 

Some conservationists are just as concerned about the potential impact on the animals themselves of being released into territory now unfamiliar to them.

 

Anyway, the upshot of the outcry has been that Lister now plans to conduct a six-month study into the socio-economic impact of his proposed move – a scenario that means it’s probably unlikely to happen any time soon.

 

But not everyone in the conservation movement is convinced that rewilding advocates should be placing quite so much focus on reintroducing big beasts. Instead some believe it should be much more about expanding natural habitats, increasing biodiversity and helping communities reconnect with nature.

 

Andrew Bachell, Scottish Natural Heritage’s director of policy and advice, for one, told farmers’ publication FG Insight: “Rewilding isn’t just about releasing large animals. It’s also about regenerating natural woodland or allowing areas of coast that flood naturally to flood again, and creating wildlife corridors.”

 

Different angles

 

Moreover, Rob Bushby, UK manager of conservation and rewilding charity the John Muir Trust’s environmental award scheme points out in a blog that to put so much focus on the predator message is potentially damaging to the entire movement by making it “overly focused, niche and confusing”.

 

It has, he believes, resulted in the term ‘rewilding’ being “associated with ‘conservation nut jobs’, slaughter of livestock, and even absconding of babies (Scotland on Sunday). It’s alienated and antagonised many that would be our natural allies”.

 

As a result, says Busby: “By focusing on one dimension and one or two species, ‘rewilding’ is in danger of becoming a tarnished brand associated with polarised and rancorous debate.” Which would be a shame really as its intentions are good and its aims actually relatively modest.

 

Another set of people with equally good intentions but coming at things from quite a different angle are the invasivores. A movement born in the US, it involves people going around eating invasive species in a bid to control burgeoning populations.

Signal crayfish
Signal crayfish

A pioneer of, and cheerleader for, this novel approach is Joe Roman, a conservation biologist who works at the University of Vermont and set up his own website called ‘Eat the Invaders (Fighting invasive species one bite at a time!) in 2003 to spread the word. It is packed not only full of information about individual species, but also about their nutritional value and possible recipes that can be used to cook them.

 

Although Roman acknowledges that dining out on invasive species alone won’t solve the problem, he believes that it’s a useful, and also enjoyable, entry point into the issues involved.

 

As he told US news broadcaster CNN: “I spent my career trying to control people’s appetites, to manage native species so we don’t deplete them. Here is a case where voracious appetites do the environment a favour. You want it not to be a chore, to be fun, and tasty!”

 

And you can see his point – according to the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat, non-native invasive species actually cost the UK economy about £1.7 billion each year in damage and clearing up the mess. A fact making it surprising perhaps that we haven’t seen more invasivore restaurants springing up here a la US.

 

In fact, the nearest thing we’ve got to it so far that I’ve been able to discover anyway, is environmental campaign Crayaway’s Crayfish Bob pop-up restaurants. They travel up and down the country dishing out signal crayfish for people to feast on at festivals such as Glastonbury.

 

Which certainly puts a whole new spin on the phrase, “Eat and drink for tomorrow you may die”.

 

 

 

 

 

Saffron Walden: A little town making it big

There are a number of reasons why my charming, little home-town of Saffron Walden in North Essex is special, it seems, not least of which are its sausages.

Burtons Butchers’ King Street banger, which comprises 80% Blythburg free range pork as well as a few secret spices, has just been awarded a rare five-star rating by the Sausage Review website, whose members go around the country evaluating the nation’s best and worst.

Burtons Butchers, Saffron Walden
Burtons Butchers, Saffron Walden

But it doesn’t stop there. A further three varieties on top of the recent King Street celebrity have also been entered into that culturally vital event, the British Sausage Week competition, which will be judged by Michel Roux Jr, Michelin-starred chef and owner of London’s upmarket Le Gavroche restaurant, at the start of November.

But its superlative sausages aren’t the only reason that Saffron Walden has been hitting headlines lately. Another is its world-class concert hall, which was built from the ground up with state-of-the-art acoustics in mind and is already gaining a reputation for itself. Growing numbers of people from as far away as London are now making the hour-long train journey from Liverpool Street in order to park themselves on one of its 730 really quite comfy seats to listen to classical music – although some might argue it’s shame that its remit is so narrow given the quality of the space.

Anyway, the Saffron Hall, as it’s known, was opened in 2013 at the 2,000-learner-thronged County High School while my Beloved and I were away in South Africa. This momentous event occurred following a £10 million donation from the Yellow Car Charitable Trust on behalf of a rich, local benefactor, who apparently loves classical music and wanted the children and local community to do likewise by providing them with access to outstanding facilities.

A particular feather in the Hall’s cap though has been the fact it managed to snare the well-regarded Angela Dixon, former head of music at the Barbican Centre in London, as its chief executive. An Essex girl, having been brought up in Benfleet and having lived in the village of Whittlesford for years, she apparently had had enough of chasing around the world. And so when a local job came up, she jumped at it.

And her international connections have certainly helped in attracting world-class performers to what, in the early days at least, amounted to an untried and untested venue. Now though everyone from internationally-acclaimed Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in tow to top-flight violinists Maxim Vengerov and Nicola Benedetti have strutted their stuff there.

A lot to offer

Somewhat embarrassingly, however, it seems that the rest of the town hasn’t quite caught up with its new-found reputation as a destination for the glitterati. In a place that has never knowingly kept late hours, the rumour goes that when staying at a local boutique hotel complete with rather overpriced gastro-pub in the centre of town, Benedetti had to go to bed hungry after a concert when she was told the chef had upped sticks and gone home. So let’s hope they sort that particular little issue out before she comes back for a revisit in November.

Anyway, moving swiftly on, it seems that the Hall was lucky enough to receive three years of funding from Yellow Lorry to see it through until the end of the 2017 season – by which time it really needs to have become as self-sufficient as possible. Things appear to have got off to a good start though as the venue apparently generated £280,000 last season and so good luck to it – it certainly can’t do Saffron Walden any harm in tourism terms at the very least.

Because this lovely old town, which incidentally is constantly being named as one of the best places in the UK to live and swiftly becoming a commuter-belt haven for ex-Londoners, really does have quite a lot to offer in that department. If you’re into architecture, for instance, it’s a complete dream as much of the centre has been preserved in aspic.

The story goes that local grandee Lord Braybrook, whose family seat was the now English Heritage-run mansion Audley End House, wasn’t too keen on having the London-to-Cambridge train line coming into Saffron Walden and spoiling his nice agricultural idyll – and so the Industrial Revolution, and its concomitant modernisation, completely passed it by.

As a result, you’ll find genuine buildings that are everything from late Georgian to Victorian in origin, with a good few medieval ones thrown in for good measure. A further plus is the widespread presence of a particular kind of decorated plasterwork traditional to East Anglia known as pargeting.

The Sun Inn, Saffron Walden
The Sun Inn, Saffron Walden

Designs range from simple geometric surface patterns to elaborate sculptured flowers and figures of people and animals – fine examples of which can be seen at the Sun Inn where Oliver Cromwell is said to have resided during his 19-day stay in the town in May 1647. At the time of his sojourn at the heart of the English Civil War, he was in the middle of talks to try and reach a settlement between Parliament and his New Model Army apparently.

Ancient history

One of the town’s oldest buildings, however, is the imposing Church of St Mary the Virgin, which takes the crown for being the largest parish church in Essex. Dating mainly from the end of the 15th century and dominating the skyline, it was built using wool money – the area’s major trade for centuries – very patently to show off the wealth of this still well-heeled town.

In fact, even its name is linked to wool production. Originally know as Chepyng (an Anglo-Saxon word for Market) Walden when it was granted a charter around 1300, the town started growing saffron crocuses in the 16th and 17th centuries to dye its own wool and keep prices elevated. But it also made lots of money on the side selling this precious commodity as a condiment, an additive to medicines and perfumes – and even as an aphrodisiac.

Anyway, as the saffron industry started petering out by the end of the 18th century, it was replaced by malt and barley and Saffron Walden morphed into a Quaker town. The most influential family then were the Gibsons, who helped found Barclays Bank and contributed to building a number of iconic buildings in the shape of a distinctive town hall and museum.

 

Saffron Walden market and town hall
Saffron Walden market and town hall

And there are still remnants of that legacy to this day in the shape of a Friends Meeting House in the High Street and a private Friends’ School, which has seen such luminaries as Russian dictator Josef Stalin‘s granddaughter Olga Peters and Tom Robinson of Tom Robinson Band fame pass through its doors.

Other novel things that the place is known for, and for which it is actually unique in the UK, meanwhile, are its two historic mazes – a restored Victorian yew hedge one in the Grade II listed Bridge End Gardens and an ancient turf maze on the still quite extensive Common.

Remarkably the turf maze is the largest example of its kind in the world and is one of only 11 to survive in Northern Europe – eight in England and three in Germany. And they’re important in social history terms because, since medieval times, they’ve been used for religious purposes and as part of community festivities such as village fairs.

According to the medieval Christian worldview, for instance, mazes represented the journey of the human soul, in which the goal was clear but the path to achieving it confusing. So it was considered an act of devotion to walk them in meditation and prayer – something that, in an unspoiled, rural idyll like Saffron Walden, it’s still perfectly feasible to do to this day.