Lincoln Cathedral: tall tales and mischievous imps

Visiting Lincoln a few weeks ago, it was impossible to miss the Cathedral that dominates the city’s skyline. By any standard it’s a massively impressive building, but even so I was surprised to learn that in the 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries it was the tallest manmade structure in the world (around 160m), having claimed the title previously held by the Great Pyramid of Giza!

The Cathedral dominates Lincoln’s skyline

A brief history of Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral was originally commissioned by William the Conqueror, who was anxious to stamp his mark on the territory he had captured from the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Work began in 1071 and after just 20 years the Cathedral was consecrated, but a couple of decades later it was ravaged by fire. More shockingly, in 1184 the building was partially destroyed by an earthquake.

One of England’s finest Gothic cathedrals

Earthquakes are very rare in England, and when they do happen damage is usually minimal. Not so in Lincoln in 1184, when the unprecedented event caused massive damage to a building that was not even 100 years old. Paradoxically, however, the earthquake was the making of Lincoln Cathedral.

The Sanctuary of St Hugh’s Choir, the most sacred part of the Cathedral

Undaunted by the scale of the challenge facing him, the incumbent bishop – Hugh – oversaw the building of a magnificent new Gothic-style cathedral. Although it included some surviving sections of the original building, it was altogether much larger and grander than its predecessor, and incorporated state-of-the-art architectural features such as flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointed arches.  Thanks to the earthquake and Bishop Hugh’s response to it, today’s Lincoln Cathedral is reckoned to be one of England’s finest Gothic cathedrals.

Stained glass window in the Chapter House

The Cathedral became the world’s tallest building in the early 14th century, when a wooden spire was added to the stone central tower originally commissioned by Bishop Hugh. The record held until 1549, when a hurricane – almost as rare in the UK as earthquakes! – caused the spire to collapse.

View across part of the Cloister garth towards the central tower, which supported a wooden spire between C14 and 1549.

Had the spire survived, Lincoln Cathedral would have remained the world’s tallest building until the construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889. The full-height tower and spire must have been a remarkable sight in medieval Lincoln, an otherwise unremarkable English provincial city.

The Cloister

The legend of the Lincoln Imp

Even without its record-breaking central spire, Lincoln Cathedral remains a magnificently imposing structure, a monumental masterpiece. And yet perhaps its most famous feature is – relatively speaking – tiny. The Lincoln Imp is a grotesque, a small carving situated at the top of a soaring stone pillar supporting two arches. Just 12 inches (30cm) in height, it would be easy to overlook if you didn’t know it was there.

Legend has it that one day Satan was feeling particularly mischievous, and decided some devilment was in order. To do his work he sent some badly behaved young imps out into the English East Midlands. One made its way to the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield where it made a mess of the local church spire (I wrote about the twisted spire of St Mary and All Saints Church in Chesterfield here), while two others were despatched to cause mayhem at Lincoln Cathedral.

Spot the imp!

The naughty imps lived up to the Devil’s expectations. They forced their way into the Cathedral and started to cause havoc by smashing windows, breaking furniture, dancing on the altar, throwing rocks and tripping up a priest.

An angel intervened and told the imps to behave themselves. But the imps were having a good time and decided the angel could safely be ignored. Wrong! The angel promptly turned one of the little devils into the stone image that visitors to the Cathedral still seek out today, thereby reminding all who see it that good will ultimately triumph over evil. The second imp did a swift risk assessment, didn’t like the answer it gave him, and made a run for it.

Who’s been a naughty boy?

Despite – or perhaps because of – its rebellious nature, the imp has become the unofficial emblem of the city of Lincoln. Locals have taken it to their hearts, nicknaming the city’s professional soccer team The Imps. Some pubs and bars in and around the city are named in honour of the imp, while the Cathedral shop sells various items, from fridge magnets and greetings cards to socks and earrings, all depicting the Devil’s tiny sidekick.

The legend of the Lincoln imp is just a piece of harmless fun. But its impact should not be underestimated, as it encourages people who might otherwise have little interest in architecture to explore the city’s magnificent Cathedral. Lincoln Cathedral may no longer be the world’s tallest building, but it is still an awe-inspiring structure that’s well worth a visit.

The Burning Man comes to Derbyshire

The local arts and culture brigade got very excited recently, after news broke that we were to be treated to a Burning Man Sculpture Trail on parkland surrounding Chatsworth House in our home county of Derbyshire. The sense of anticipation was understandable: Burning Man is a huge annual event in the Nevada desert, and has never previously been seen in the UK.

Burning Man started on a California beach in 1986, when artists set light to an 8 feet (2.4 m) tall wooden man. This act of “radical self-expression” caught the imagination of the local artistic community to such an extent that the burning was repeated the following year, when the effigy had almost doubled in size. By 1988 it was twice as tall again, reaching a height of 30 feet (9.1 m).

In 1990 the event moved to a location in the Nevada desert, and began to grow rapidly. In 2019, the last year before the Covid pandemic, participants in the Burning Man event numbered nearly 79,000 and the effigy had grown to 61 feet (19m) in height.

The stated mission of the Burning Man Project is:

“to produce the annual event known as Burning Man and to guide, nurture and protect the more permanent community created by its culture. Our intention is to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society.”

Source: Burning Man website, retrieved 22/07/22

The Chatsworth estate

Chatsworth House, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1981 the house, many of its contents and 737 hectares (1,822 acres) of the surrounding landscape were leased to the Chatsworth House Trust, and the family now pays rent to the Trust for the apartment they occupy. The current (12th) Duke and Duchess work with the charity and others to welcome visitors to Chatsworth.

Be in no doubt, Chatsworth House is a big business. According to its 2018 annual review, in 2017/18 the house and gardens welcomed a little over 600,000 visitors, generated income of almost £15m and employed 366 people, including 114 full-time posts.

Covid hit Chatsworth hard, so there’s ground to make up. In that context, securing an exhibition linked to Burning Man, a brand with a global reputation, was a real coup. Although access to the sculpture trail itself is free, parking at Chatsworth certainly isn’t, so the Trust is doubtless laughing all the way to the bank. But that’s OK, they deserve credit and a bit of profit too, for having the vision to host Radical Horizons: The Art of Burning Man.

Wings of Glory, by Adrian Landon

The first sculpture we spotted after parking our car was Wings of Glory, inspired by the Pegasus myth and sculptor Adrian Landon’s fascination with horses. Fashioned from metal and standing around 20 feet high, the sculpture is appropriately located close to Chatsworth’s former stable block. Every hour, with a painful clanking and grinding sound of metal-on-metal, it languorously flaps its wings and puts on a show. The giant Pegasus appeared at Burning Man in Nevada in 2019.

Mum, by Mr & Mrs Ferguson

Perhaps because we have enjoyed seeing bears in the wild on several occasions in North America, Mum resonates deeply with us and is one of our favourite sculptures on the Radical Horizons trail. A bear cub climbing on its mother’s back can’t help being cute, but look closer and you can see that the bears’ coats are fashioned from around 55,000 US and Canadian pennies embedded into a polystyrene and concrete body. Mother and cub were born in California, where they were created exclusively for the Burning Man at Chatsworth exhibition.

Coralee, by Dana Albany et al

The ethos of the Burning Man is underpinned by 10 Principles. Two of these, “Communal Effort” and “Participation”, seek to encourage everyone to get involved in the production and appreciation of works of art. These Principles are reflected in Coralee, which was created by artist Dana Albany working with children from Spire School in the nearby town of Chesterfield.

Coralee, which for artist Dana Albany symbolises female strength and good luck, depicts a mermaid and is based on a local Derbyshire legend. On the face of it this is a bit crazy, given that this landlocked county is many miles from the sea, and therefore not an obvious haunt for mermaids! However there is a small lake in Derbyshire’s Peak District that was popular in ancient Celtic water-worship rituals. It’s known as the Mermaid’s Pool.

The waters of the Mermaid’s Pool are believed to offer healing qualities to those mad enough to bathe in them. At Easter, in the dead of night, a mermaid is said to appear in the pool. If she likes the look of you she will grant you immortality. But if you don’t take her fancy she will pull you beneath the icy water, where you will inevitably drown. It is, I have to say, one of the most unexpected and bizarre Derbyshire legends I have ever encountered, and it’s good to see it given a new lease of life in this piece of contemporary sculpture.

And what a wonderful, uplifting piece of artwork it is. The body is fashioned in part out of recycled metal artefacts including spoons, springs, sprockets, hinges, bicycle chains and assorted pieces of wire, while the mermaid’s tail features fish scales made from recycled glass. The focus on recycling reflects a concern for the environment that is implicit in Burning Man’s Principles of “Civic Responsibility” and “Leave No Trace”.

Coralee is without doubt my favourite of all the pieces that make up the Radical Horizons sculpture trail. I do hope that it lives on somewhere, whether that be at Chatsworth or elsewhere, once Radical Horizons comes to an end in September.

Elysian Spires, by “Shrine”

Artist “Shrine” worked with children from the Derbyshire Virtual School to produce Elysian Spires. The School seeks to “enhance the life opportunities for Derbyshire children [living in the care of the County Council] by supporting and promoting the importance of their education, and enabling them to achieve the best they can be.” Created with the participation of this community of young people, and celebrating the turning of non-precious objects – in this case hundreds of donated glass bottles – into treasure, Elysian Spires is clearly in line with the guiding Principles that also underpin Coralee.

Flybrary, by Christina Sporrong

Flybrary dominates the view as you drive to the Chatsworth car park. Books fly from the 20 foot high rusty metal head, books which for artist Christina Sporrong represent a flurry of ideas. She invites viewers of her sculpture to let their imaginations run wild, and asks “what’s on your mind?” And isn’t that the point of the whole Radical Horizons exhibition, that it stimulates the imagination and encourages unfettered thinking. Great stuff!

Lodestar, by Randy Polumbo

Lodestar features the shiny fuselage of a World War II jet plane that went by the same name. Its nose touches the ground, while a flower blooms from its tail. Away from the world of aeronautics, the word “lodestar” is a star (especially the Pole Star) that is used to guide the course of a ship, and this prominent, eye-catching sculpture certainly acts as a marker for anyone seeking to navigate their way around the Radical Horizons exhibition.

Transmutation, by Arturo Gonzales and Maru Izaguirrre

Transmutation is inspired by the brightly coloured Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures known as alebrije. In this case, a colourful sabre-toothed cat sporting both antlers and wings takes to the air above Chatsworth, and encourages the viewer to wonder “what if…?”.

Wings of Wind by Bryan Tedrick

Wings of Wind is another sculpture that is made in part from reclaimed materials. It is moveable and rotates slowly in the wind, or when pushed by eager visitors who are also allowed (encouraged, even) to clamber over it. As it spins, different parts of the landscape are framed by the steel hoop upon which the two wings are hung. In this photograph, it frames a distant view of Chatsworth House.

Murder Inc., by Charles Gadeken

Murder Inc. is unlike any of the other sculptures in Radical Horizons. The rest are monumental in scale, but with Murder Inc. it is not size but quantity that counts. This work comprises exactly one hundred separate pieces, and as artist Charles Gadeken is keen for us to know, each one is different.

The crows of Murder Inc. are life-sized and life-coloured (black!), and show the birds going about their normal daily business. At a glance, and before you clock that they aren’t moving or making any noise, it’s easy to believe that this is a flock or living, breathing birds.

Crows feature heavily in folklore, both in the UK and in many other parts of the world. Often regarded as symbols of death, the collective name for crows is “a murder” which is clearly the inspiration for the title of Charles Gadeken’s work.

Q: When is art not art? A: When it’s a horse jump!

Our morning spent viewing the Radical Horizons exhibition at Chatsworth was inspiring, demonstrating clearly that in the 21st century art comes in all shapes and sizes. In fact it’s sometimes difficult to know just where art ends and real life begins.

As we were wandering through Chatsworth’s parkland, seeking out the various sculptures that make up Radical Horizons, we came across the impressive piece of work shown in the photograph above. It was pleasing to the eye and sat comfortably in the surrounding landscape. Anxious to know more we checked out the trail guide, but were puzzled to find it wasn’t listed.

Not to be defeated, we searched high and low around the work to find an information board that might tell us about the artist and the title of his sculpture. Still no joy. And then, suddenly, we twigged, finally understanding what was going on. This isn’t part of the Radical Horizons Sculpture Trail at all. Rather, it is simply an elegant horse jump, one of many scattered about the Chatsworth parkland.

But who is to say that the horse jump doesn’t also constitute a work of art? Art really does come in all shapes and sizes!

Andy Warhol, the Devil and unexpected virgins: the story of Chesterfield’s crooked spire

Andy Warhol is said to have observed that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.  By extension it might be argued that everywhere will be famous too, that each and every place under the sun will become well-known for something, albeit in most cases something rather insignificant. Chesterfield, for example, is famous for the crooked spire that graces its medieval church, but for little else.

Chesterfield, for the uninitiated, is a town in the north of my home county of Derbyshire. Home to around 100,000 people, for the most part it’s a pleasant though unremarkable place. The coal industry that once dominated the landscape and economy of this part of Derbyshire is all gone now, and today Chesterfield’s role is primarily as a service centre for the surrounding area.

Bizarrely, just as I was about to start writing this post, a news report popped up in my inbox declaring that, according to a recent survey, Chesterfield is the happiest place to live in the whole of the English East Midlands. Really? I worked there for a couple of years in the late 1980s and don’t recall it being unusually joyful. But maybe the outbreak of local happiness coincided with my departure? Sounds plausible!

Reading the newspaper report more closely, I see that even some of the local residents query the accuracy of this accolade. Objectively, I suspect most unbiased observers would regard Chesterfield as memorably unmemorable, were it not for the iconic architectural imperfection otherwise known as the parish church of St Mary and All Saints.

Completed around the year 1360, St Mary’s and All Saints is Derbyshire’s largest church. It’s famed for its unusual crooked spire, which leans 9 feet 5 inches (nearly 3 metres) from true.  To be clear, this is not an eccentrically flamboyant design statement…the spire is meant to point straight up, like every other church spire in the known universe.

So what went wrong? The traditional explanation is that it was built with green, unseasoned timbers, which warped over time. But that can’t be it. Builders in the Middle Ages were accustomed to using used green timber, and would have made allowances to cope with it.

A more convincing explanation is that the spire’s 32 tonnes of lead tiles were simply too heavy. According to this theory the sheer weight of the tiles, combined with the failure to use cross-bracing, caused the spire to twist and lean alarmingly.

The omission of cross-bracing has been blamed on the Black Death, a plague that swept through the country between 1348 and 1350. If the experienced craftsmen working on the new Chesterfield church were killed by the disease, the spire may have been finished by unskilled builders to whom the concept of cross-bracing was totally unknown.

Accurate though this explanation may be, it’s disappointingly boring. Unsurprisingly, local folklore offers some more entertaining possibilities. One of these tells that the Devil was resting on the spire, where he was able to keep his balance only by wrapping his tail around it. However the smell of holy incense from inside the church offended him so much that he sneezed violently, jerking his tail in the process and causing the spire to twist.

A second explanation also blames the Devil. Old Nick was resting up on the church spire, his tail tightly wrapped around it while planning mischief and mayhem. In fear for the souls of his fellow townsfolk, one brave man rushed to the church, determined to warn everyone by ringing the church bells. The din was cacophonous. Taken totally by surprise, a shocked Devil lost his balance and toppled from the spire, twisting it as he plunged to the ground.

A third local legend once again points the finger of suspicion at the Devil According to this story, Satan was resting on the spire, tail wrapped round it in the now familiar manner. Looking below, he noticed a wedding about to take place in the church. On closer inspection he realised that the bride was a virgin, an occurrence so surprising in Chesterfield that he fainted from shock. As the unconscious Devil hurtled towards the ground his tail, still wrapped around the spire, twisted it into its current shape.

The fourth theory lets the Devil off the hook, and instead puts the blame squarely on the healthy sexual appetite of Chesterfield residents. According to this version, a virgin got married in St Mary’s, and the church itself was so surprised that its spire turned around to get a better look at such a rare specimen. The legend continues that if another virgin ever marries in the church, the spire will return to its original form again. Don’t hold your breath, folks!

Further explanations for the origin of Chesterfield’s crooked spire are available if you care to look, most of them involving the Devil or unexpected virgins. A definitive, agreed version, doesn’t seem likely to emerge any time soon. However, one thing is beyond dispute: the locals have taken this quirky architectural blunder to their hearts.

For example the local professional soccer team, Chesterfield Town FC, are known to fans as the Spireites, while over the years various local businesses have referred to the crooked spire in their branding and promotions. And who can blame them? Chesterfield’s crooked spire is a spectacular sight, and ensures that an otherwise rather unexceptional town enjoys its 15 minutes of fame. Andy Warhol would be impressed.

RAM-bling through Derby

Derby is obsessed with rams. The city centre boasts at least three statues featuring rams. The local professional soccer team (Derby County) are nicknamed “The Rams” and have a mascot called Rammie. Derby’s annual half-marathon event was for many years known as the Ramathon. Even the city’s library service, when first introducing public internet computers in the late 1990s, called its new service Cyber-RAM.

Michael Pegler’s millstone sculpture has been a Derby landmark since 1995

This infatuation with rams (male sheep, also known as tups) is captured in a folk song known as The Derby Ram, or alternatively As I was Going to Derby. The story it tells can be traced back at least to the early 18th century. It’s a far-fetched and humorous, if somewhat gory, account of a huge ram taken to Derby market and the challenges townsfolk encountered when processing it for meat.

The song is well known in folk-singing circles in many parts of the English-speaking world. Even George Washington is reputed to have taken time off from thrashing the Brits to belt out his own rendition, although I’m not sure how we know this story is true. Links to a couple of recordings of the song are given at the end of this post.

How this tall tale came to be associated with Derby is unclear. More widely, however, during the Middle Ages rams were regarded as symbols of physical strength and sexual potency. It therefore takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why Derby folk might have been pleased to encourage a legend that linked them with such a feisty and formidable beast.

This statue by Tim Roper dates from 2019, and stands at one of the entrances to the main Derby shopping centre (mall)

The link continues to this day, and is being celebrated during summer 2021 by an arts project called The Derby Ram Trail. Organised by the local Museums Trust, this is a free public art trail comprising 30 ram sculptures vibrantly decorated by a range of artists.

The sculptures are made of lightweight, fire-resistant fibreglass and are based on Michael Pegler’s millstone ram, which has been a Derby landmark for around a quarter of a century. The trail weaves its way through the city centre, and its organisers hope it will “[encourage] local people to explore and enjoy their city from an exciting new perspective.”

Rameses by Judith Berrill

The Derby Ram Trail website explains how the project has been organised:

Businesses across the area were invited to sponsor a blank ram sculpture – the 3D canvas! New and established artists were then invited to submit designs to transform the blank rams with individual artworks. Design ideas were presented to sponsors in January 2020 who each selected their favourite. Successful artists were then commissioned to apply their designs to the sculptures in a wide range of media, both traditional and new, including fine art, illustration, graffiti and mosaic amongst others.

Forming a trail of discovery, the sculptures provide an exceptional, creative opportunity to engage people in important topics – from health and well-being to history and culture, to name a few.

Source: Derby Ram Trail website, retrieved 13 July 2021

For those with good local knowledge, the subject matter of some of the designs has an obvious connection with Derby or the surrounding county of Derbyshire. For example, decorating a ram to reflect artistic fashions current at the time the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses the Great, over 3,000 years ago, isn’t an obvious choice. However, once you understand that generations of local children have been inspired by two ancient Egyptian mummies displayed at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, all becomes clear. Rameses is one of my favourite rams, and the pun’s pretty good, too!

Another striking design with local connections is Royal Ram, inspired by one of Royal Crown Derby’s decorative animal paperweights. Royal Crown Derby pottery is made about a mile south of the city centre, and is sold to appreciative collectors across the world. Local heritage is also recognised in Nurse Nightingale, which honours the life and achievements of pioneering 19th century nurse Florence Nightingale, who was born just a few miles north of Derby. And standing outside the new Museum of Making, housed in the historic Silk Mill building, Derby Industries celebrates the city’s remarkable achievements in science and manufacturing.

Royal Ram by Donna Newman

The significance of For Those About to Rock initially escaped me, until I read on the trail’s website that the piece was inspired by music festivals held annually in Derbyshire, particularly Download and Bloodstock. The website explains that “in the Heavy Metal tradition of battle jackets, the ram is wearing a denim jacket covered in patches which, along with his tattoos, represent significant events and Derbyshire-related subjects.” By way of contrast, Woolly Rammy (a ram in sheep’s clothing) has a more obvious local connection, depicting a ram wearing a Derby-inspired woolly jumper which proudly displays a recognisably local street scene.

For Those about to Rock by Sue Hetfield

Doodle Derby is a bit more whimsical, being “based on all of the awesome things about our city from architecture, culture and outdoor spaces to real ale and how Derby first invented the hotdog! ‘Doodle Derby’ takes you on a tour of all the brilliant things you can do in the city and celebrates a diverse, colourful place of happiness and positivity – an inspiring Derby!” Hmm, hyperbole is alive and well, and living on the Derby Ram Trail website…but what the heck, it raises a smile, and don’t we all need that with Covid infections soaring yet again.

In some cases the connection between Derby and the ram’s design is distinctly tenuous. For example, Derby has no obvious links with pirates (some people claim it to be further from the sea than just about any other English city), but nevertheless Pirate Sheepmate seems to have made himself at home there. I love the parrot on his shoulder. Meanwhile the fierce-looking Rambo seems to be little more than an excuse for fond memories of “Sly” Stallone….and, of course, another groan-inducing pun!

Rambo by Joy Pirkle

Some of the rams are intended to convey a message that has universal relevance, rather than being specific to Derby. Memories Fade but Warmth Remains is perhaps the most obvious and poignant of these. The website explains that the artist “has combined the symbolism of the forget-me-not flower – a flower often associated with dementia – with that of the sunflower, symbolising warmth, deep loyalty and hope. Lynne wanted to create a message about the power of enduring love: that memories can fade but the warmth of the human spirit continues to shine.”

Walking the trail, which at a leisurely pace took us about half a day and included plenty of photo stops (Mrs P took over 400 pictures!), encouraged us to explore parts of the city centre that we’ve never seen before. It also took us past recent developments that are seeking to breathe new life into the place. Plenty of other people were also seeking out the rams, and I suspect were also discovering parts of Derby that were new to them.

Derby Industries by Sanita Gnaniah, with the historic Silk Mill behind

The organisers set out to create a feel-good project, and from my point of view they definitely succeeded. Derby is not an especially attractive city, and has little to recommend it in either architectural or artistic terms. The decorated rams are therefore a welcome – albeit temporary – addition to the urban landscape, and certainly brighten up those parts of the city centre in which they are located.

Doodle Derby by Carla Dee

With one exception – an old guy complaining (wrongly) that the cost of the project would result in his taxes going up – everyone we spoke with seemed to be enjoying the Derby Ram Trail, and found at least some of the artworks to be inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the whole experience was the way the trail encouraged total strangers to talk to each other, and, even more remarkably, got them talking about art! That’s an achievement in which the organisers should take pride.

Memories Fade but Warmth Remains by Lynne Hollingsworth

The sculpture trail will grace the city until 22 August 2021, after which the rams will all be herded together and sold by auction. The proceeds will go to Derby Museums Trust to support the delivery and development of their services, which seems like an appropriate reward for the organisation that was the brains behind the Derby Ram Trail. Moreover, Derby is planning an application to be the UK’s next city of culture, so its heritage and arts organisations need all the funds they can raise. Watch this space!

Mrs P’s collage of rams!

* * * * * * *

Links to recordings of The Derby Ram. The following link is to a version credited to Keith Kendrick, Pete Castle, Roy Harris and Derrick Hale. I’m not familiar with them, but must be from hereabouts as they’re singing it in a Derby/Derbyshire accent, which although quite distinctive is barely recognised outside the area. You don’t hear the accent so much these days, so it’s good to have fragments of it preserved here.

The YouTube video includes the lyrics. As with all folksongs the words to The Derby Ram have mutated over the generations, and this version is a case in point. The mention of the Baseball Ground (at around two-and-a-half minutes into the song) references Derby County’s home soccer ground between 1895 and 1997. It could never have appeared in the original, traditional (18th century) version of this song, and doesn’t belong in 21st century versions either.

While Keith Kendrick et al sing The Derby Ram unaccompanied, most recorded versions feature instruments as well as voices. If a capella and the Derby/Derbyshire accent are not your thing, the following version by Barry Dransfield may suit you better. Dransfield, who hails from Yorkshire, sings somewhat different lyrics, and plays a mean, mean fiddle! Enjoy!

In Sherwood Forest (Robin Hood and nudists nowhere to be seen!)

Sherwood Forest once covered about a quarter of the historic county of Nottinghamshire, an area of around 7,800 hectares (19,000 acres). Today it’s a shadow of its former self, the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve weighing in at a measly 423 hectares (1,046 acres). And yet the magic lives on, courtesy of the legend of Robin Hood, hundreds of ancient oak trees and a few wandering nudists. Sounded like a fascinating place to visit, so we decided to give it a go.

Welcome to Sherwood, today just a fragment of a once vast forest in the English Midlands

In medieval times kings and their retinues of noble cronies hunted in Sherwood Forest, chasing down the buck and the boar and whatever else took their fancy. They lived the good life, with no regard for the pains and hardships of the poor. Ordinary people needed someone to fight their cause, and in Robin Hood they found just the man.

The Robin Hood story first emerged in the thirteenth century CE. Legend has it that Hood and his gang of outlaws hid out in Sherwood Forest, emerging from time to time to defend the rights of common folk, robbing from the rich and giving the proceeds to the poor, and all the while teaching the nobles a few much-needed lessons.

The Major Oak, the king of all Sherwood’s trees, is believed to be between 800 and 1,100 years old

As is inevitable with any oral tradition the legend of Robin Hood was embellished over the centuries, courtesy of the vivid imaginations of countless storytellers, poets and balladeers. Hard evidence of the famous folk hero’s actual existence is impossible to find, but that doesn’t really matter.

As a species, we humans call superheroes into existence because we need them to exist. The Robin Hood story emerged and flourished because our downtrodden ancestors desperately needed to believe that someone was looking out for them, and that their oppressors would be held to account.

Mrs P once hid in the Major Oak’s gnarled and fissured trunk. Sacrilege like that isn’t allowed these days!

Robin Hood is part of English national consciousness, a cultural icon. He’s been portrayed countless times on both the big and small screens, played by stars as diverse as Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner and Kermit the Frog. The remakes and reinterpretations keep on coming, each generation retelling the story in its own way, and although there was no sign of him when we visited Sherwood Forest last month, Hood’s spirit lives on.

Also surviving in Sherwood Forest is a magnificent collection of ancient oak trees, many of them dating from the time when the Robin Hood legend first emerged. King of them all is the Major Oak, which is estimated at between 800 and 1,100 years old. Surprisingly the name doesn’t relate to its size and great age but instead references Major Heyman Rooke, who in 1790 wrote a book detailing his local oak trees.

When Mrs P was growing up (I’ll not say exactly when, but we’re talking several decades ago!) it was possible to walk right up to the Major Oak, to touch it and even to play hide-and-seek in and around it. Sadly those days are gone. Today admirers are kept at a respectful distance by picket fencing, thus preventing soil compaction which would damage the tree’s roots.

This magnificent Red Admiral brought a vibrant splash of colour to the greenwood

Since the 1970s the massive boughs of the Major Oak have been propped, another precautionary measure to help protect Sherwood Forest’s most venerable resident. Plainly the tree is in the twilight of its life, but looks in surprisingly good shape for its age. A bit like me, I suppose!

Some of the other trees are not faring so well. Rotten Roger has clearly seen better days, but a nearby notice (text reproduced below) wittily explains that decaying trees like this play a vital part in Sherwood’s ecosystem.

Rotten Roger has clearly seen better days

Oooh, I’m rotten to the core, just like my namesake. [Rotten Roger] was a nasty outlaw, a spy for the Sheriff, who was caught and locked inside my trunk by Robin Hood. Now I’m rotting from the inside out, but don’t be alarmed, it’s all part of my natural cycle. When a crack appears in an old tree like me, fungi creeps in and begins to rot away my heartwood. This rotting wood is great for beetles, flies and lots of other insects…not good for outlaws though. So although I may be a little heartless, I’m much loved by all these little creatures.

The leafy trails through the Sherwood Forest Nature Reserve are wonderfully atmospheric, not least for the symphony of birdsong that echoes all around, and the butterflies that bring extra colour to the greenwood. Birdsong and butterflies are not unexpected in a place like this, but nudists are. The official Sherwood Forest website warns that there is a long history of nudists – or naturists, as I believe they prefer to be called – wandering the forest trails.

Now I’m a broadminded soul and have no problem with my fellow citizens letting it all hang out wherever the fancy takes them, but common sense tells me this behaviour may be unwise. Thickets of briars and patches of stinging nettles hidden round every corner are an obvious hazard, to say nothing of columns of marching ants and the occasional random hedgehog lurking in the undergrowth. Nudism has its place, but I humbly submit that Sherwood Forest may not be it.

Its roots protected by fencing and its boughs supported by props, the Major Oak should still be here many years from now

When we visited the nudists were nowhere to be seen, or perhaps they were simply off somewhere nursing their injuries? Never mind, their presence or absence is of no consequence. Sherwood Forest is a majestic, tranquil haven where nature is protected and allowed to flourish, a place etched into our country’s folklore through the tales of Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws. It’s well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.

And finally, because it’s my ambition to share my taste in folk music with a wider audience, I invite you to listen to Barry Dransfield singing about Robin Hood and the Pedlar. The song, which can be traced back over 100 years, tells how our hero and his merry sidekick Little John encounter a pedlar, one Gamble Gold by name, and plot to rob him. A fight breaks out, but then it’s revealed that Mr Gold is in fact Robin Hood’s cousin. At this point they all adjourn to the nearest pub to sup some ale and get even merrier. Fanciful stuff, a bit cheesy I suppose. But nevertheless Robin Hood and the Pedlar is a lot of fun, and Dransfield puts in some lively guitar work for us to admire. Enjoy!

Postscript: If ancient trees are your thing you may be interested in this post about the Old Man of Calke, another majestic oak believed to be around 1,200 years old.

The magic of bluebells

I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at.  I know the beauty of our Lord by itGerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899)

The celebrated English Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins clearly loved his bluebells. We do too, and one of our treats every spring is to seek out some local bluebell woods where we can enjoy them in all their majesty. That wasn’t possible in 2020 due to the Covid restrictions, so this year, as soon as government rules and the weather conditions permitted, we made a beeline for the gardens at Renishaw Hall. We weren’t disappointed! 

Renishaw Hall and Gardens can be found in the north-east corner of our home county of Derbyshire. I wrote briefly about their history in this post last year. Renishaw is famed for its stunning formal gardens, laid out in 1895 by Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) in the classical Italianate style. However, wonderful though these are, it is the bluebell-rich woodland that is our favourite springtime feature at Renishaw. It’s an area known as Broxhill Wood, although on a map of the estate dating from the 18th century it’s referred to as the Little Old Orchard.

With their drooping habit and deep violet-blue colouring, bluebells are distinctive residents of woodlands throughout the length and breadth of the country. They go under various evocative names including Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap, Witches’ Thimbles, Wood Bell and Bell Bottle.

They’re also referred to as the English Bluebell to distinguish them from the Spanish variety, which is available to buy from garden centres. The two species are subtly different: Spanish bluebells grow upright, with the flowers all around the stem, not drooping to one side like the English version. The Spanish species is a more vigorous plant, and may constitute a long-term threat to our more delicate native flower by out-competing or hybridising with it.

Bluebells are found all across Britain except Shetland, and although they’re also present in Western Europe the UK accounts for around half the world’s population of this beautiful bulb. Woodlands carpeted by masses of bluebells are magical features of the British countryside in late April and May, and have inspired generations of poets and writers. Here’s what the author Graham Joyce (1954-2014) had to say about them: 

The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down on to the earth floor; and I didn’t know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky. But I couldn’t hold on.

As Graham Joyce implies, bluebells are a bold, unmistakable presence in the British landscape, so it’s no surprise that a rich folklore has grown up around them. Bluebell woods are believed to be enchanted, fairies using them to lure unwary travellers into their nether world and trap them there. The bells are said to ring out when fairies summon their kin to a gathering, but if humans hear them death will surely follow. And, of course, fairies are by their nature capricious beings, so when you visit a bluebell wood it’s best not to trample on any of their precious blooms. You have been warned!

On a slightly different note, folk tradition has it that wearing a garland of bluebells will induce you to speak only the truth. This, of course, is why you will never see a politician bedecked with bluebells.

Our ancestors found various practical applications for bluebells. Their sticky sap was once used in bookbinding because it would repel attacks by insects, and in early times it was also used to glue the feathers onto the shaft of an arrow. Herbalists prescribed bluebells to help prevent nightmares, and as a treatment for snakebites and leprosy – perhaps a somewhat misguided course of action, given that the plant is poisonous.

The bluebell is traditionally associated with St George, England’s patron saint, probably because it starts to bloom around his feast day on 23rd April. In reality, the flower’s connection with England is much stronger than that of George himself. Bluebells have been found throughout the country at least since the last ice age, whereas the celebrated saint never actually visited these shores (the historical St George was born in Turkey in the late 3rd century CE, and died in Palestine in 303 CE.) 

The connection between St George and bluebells may be somewhat tenuous, but the popularity of the flower here is beyond dispute. In a 2002 national survey organised by the charity Plantlife, the bluebell was voted Britain’s favourite flower. So overwhelming was its victory that voting for bluebells was banned in a repeat of the research in 2004.

The popularity of bluebells is such that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This prohibits anyone digging up the plant or bulb from the countryside, and landowners are similarly prevented from removing bluebells from their private land with a view to selling them. Trading in wild bluebell bulbs and seeds is an offence.

Bluebells are an enchanting, iconic part of the British countryside at springtime, and have clearly captured our collective imagination.  To put it crudely, we Brits just can’t get enough bluebells. Let’s give Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the notable Victorian novelist and poet, the final word on their very special charms:

The Bluebell

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power. 

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

Where have all the sparrows gone?

Last Saturday, 20th March, was World Sparrow Day. Needless to say, no sparrows turned up in our garden to celebrate the occasion. When we moved in 35 years ago house sparrows were common here, squabbling noisily and boisterously on the bird table. Now, if we get half a dozen sightings over a 12 months period we class it as a good year for sparrows. Here, and throughout the UK, house sparrow numbers have been in serious decline for decades.

House sparrow

Growing up in West London half a century ago sparrows were the most familiar birds in our garden. Our name for them was spugs, or alternatively spadgers. They were very common, part of the wallpaper of our suburban lives, and we took them for granted. No one would have believed then that one day they would be “in trouble.”

The State of the UK’s Birds 2020 report published by the RSPB suggests that there were 5.3 million breeding pairs in the UK in 2018, making the house sparrow our third most common breeding bird behind the wren (11m) and the robin (7.3m), and marginally ahead of the woodpigeon (5.2m). It adds that “In the late 1960s there were 10 times more house sparrows than woodpigeons. We have lost around 10.7 million pairs of house sparrows in that time, a loss greater than for any other species, and gained 3.5 million pairs of woodpigeons.” No surprise, therefore, that the house sparrow is on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.

The latest figures offer a glimmer of hope: numbers are now thought to be stable or increasing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However this is little consolation to those of us in England, where numbers continue to fall.

House sparrow

The cause of the rapid decline, particularly in urban and suburban environments, is unclear, although a lack of invertebrate prey for chicks – perhaps resulting from pollution or increased used of pesticides by gardeners – is believed to be a factor. Other proposed but as yet unproven reasons include reduced opportunities for nesting in the modern urban environment, and predation by domestic cats. Declines in rural house sparrow populations are thought to be linked to seasonal food shortages resulting from changes in agricultural practices, particularly the move to sowing cereal crops in the autumn.

* * *

Although the decline of house sparrows in the UK has been dramatic, the declaration of the first World Sparrow Day wasn’t a British initiative. Instead it was the brainchild of Nature Forever (NFS), an Indian non-governmental, non-profit organization which aims to “involve citizens from all walks of life, diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country and the world” in conservation projects. Nature Forever’s championing of the house sparrow is a good indication of the bird’s global reach.

Ted Anderson, Emeritus Professor of Biology at McKendree College in Illinois has argued that the house sparrow is the most widely distributed wild bird on Earth. It is believed to have originated in the Middle East, but having developed a close association with humans, it extended its range across Eurasia in tandem with the spread of agriculture. More recently Europeans have deliberately introduced the house sparrow to other parts of the globe, either as a pest control initiative or to remind them of home, and accidentally taken them to other locations as stowaways on their ships.

In happier times. House sparrow at Platypus Towers

It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that, in recent years, Mrs P and I have seen many more house sparrows on our visits to North America, Australia and New Zealand than we ever manage to spot in our own backyard. If numbers here continue to fall the time may well come when we have to go cap in hand to our former colonies and beg to have some of our sparrows back. Oh, the humiliation!

* * *

In folklore and literature sparrows have an enduring reputation for sexual promiscuity. Geoffrey Chaucer reflects this in the Canterbury Tales when he writes “As hot, he was, and lecherous as a sparrow . . .”  Two hundred years later, in 1604, William Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure that Sparrows must not build in his house eaves, because they are lecherous . . .”

Tree sparrow. Note the diagnostic brown crown and black cheek spot

Amazingly, modern science shows that these seemingly outrageous accusations are not entirely inaccurate. DNA analysis has shown that 15% of the chicks produced by a settled pair of house sparrows are in fact the offspring of a third party, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

* * *

The house sparrow is not the only species of sparrow found on these shores. Although the so-called hedge sparrow, also known as a dunnock, isn’t really a sparrow at all (it belongs to the family birds called accentors), the tree sparrow really is a sparrow.

While house sparrows are regularly seen in both urban and rural settings, the tree sparrow is very much a bird of the countryside, particularly hedgerows and woodland edges. Their distribution tends to be localised, and they are much less plentiful than house sparrows: the latest population estimate is 245,000 breeding pairs. We have not and would not expect to see tree sparrows in our suburban garden, but there is a nature reserve within a few miles of Platypus Towers where we can often spot them.

Tree sparrow

It’s always a pleasure to see tree sparrows since they, like house sparrows, have suffered a calamitous decline in numbers (around 90%) since 1970, although in the last few years that fall has slowed and may have started to reverse. Again, changes in agricultural practice are the likely cause, and with no prospect of these being reversed the tree sparrow remains on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.

* * *

And finally, to conclude my little celebration of World Sparrow Day, I commend to you Dolly Parton singing “Little Sparrow.” The songs begins with these words

Little sparrow, little sparrow
Precious, fragile little thing
Little sparrow, little sparrow
Flies so high and feels no pain

Of course, the song isn’t really about sparrows at all. For Dolly, the sparrow is a simply a metaphor for gentle innocence, and anyway the North American sparrows about which she sings (Emberizidae) aren’t in the same family as Old Word sparrows (Passeridae). But whatever, that second line has always haunted me. In four words it captures perfectly the magic of birds both great and small, and encapsulates my feelings for them. Birds are precious and fragile, and even relatively common birds like the sparrow need our help if they are to continue to fly high and feel no pain.

The snowdrop – a flower not to be trifled with

Flowering at a time when pretty much nothing else is in bloom, snowdrops inevitably capture the imagination of all who encounter them in the British countryside. The ‘Fair Maids of February’ reassure us that the bleak midwinter is passing, and more congenial times lie ahead. Poets heap praise upon these humble harbingers of spring’s awakening, while storytellers speculate about their origins. Who doesn’t love a snowdrop?

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Interestingly, although snowdrops are widely distributed and recognised throughout the UK, they aren’t native to these islands. They originated in the damp woodlands and meadows of continental Europe, and were brought here – probably in the sixteenth century – to grace the estates of the idle rich. However these private collections inevitably ‘leaked’ into the surrounding countryside, and by the late 18th century the flower was reported as growing wild. Now completely naturalised, snowdrops can be found in shady woodland, on country estates and along river banks all over the country.

Hodsock Priory, 2016

Snowdrops are also a common sight in graveyards, and this could be the reason why they’re sometimes associated with ill-fortune and even death. In Victorian times it was widely believed that you should avoid bringing snowdrops into your house. If you disobeyed this rule the consequences could range from your milk turning sour to a member of your family dropping dead within a year. Plainly the snowdrop isn’t a flower to be trifled with!

Although these days we happily dismiss such dire warnings as fanciful nonsense, it’s worth noting that snowdrops are poisonous due to high concentrations of phenanthridine alkaloids, particularly in the bulbs. Now, I haven’t a clue what a phenanthridine alkaloid is, but (just like the average beer-swilling Saturday night out during my student days) it’s known to cause confusion, poor coordination, drooling, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures. I humbly conclude that excessive student partying and eating snowdrops are both best avoided!

Hopton Hall, 2017

Paradoxically although some people make a connection between snowdrops and death, others view them as symbols of hope. The reason, I suppose, is that they show themselves just as winter’s drawing to a close, and their appearance is a sure sign that the days are getting both longer and warmer, and that spring will soon arrive.

It’s for just this reason that, around about now every year, Mrs P and I traditionally mark the changing of the seasons by taking a trip to one of our local snowdrop hotspots. These include the gardens of Hopton Hall, an 18th-century country house in Derbyshire, the Dimminsdale Nature Reserve on Derbyshire’s border with Leicestershire, and two estate gardens in Nottinghamshire, at Hodsock Priory and Felley Priory. Each boasts a fine display of snowdrops, and looks splendid on a crisp and sunny February day

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Sadly, to visit one of these snowdrop havens in 2021 would contravene the government’s strict Covid lockdown rules and invite a fine of £200 (each!) from the local constabulary. Instead, we’ve had to get our annual snowdrop fix from Mrs P’s excellent photos and a small clump that survives against all odds in our unkempt front garden. Ah well, there’s always next year I suppose, once Covid’s back in its box.

Felley Priory, 2017

A touch of the exotic: the Mandarin Duck

As the UK’s first Covid lockdown began to ease last June, one of our earliest trips out was to Straws Bridge nature reserve close to the small Derbyshire town of Ilkeston. It’s known to locals as Swan Lake because … well, because it’s a lake that boasts several handsome swans amongst its residents. The swans were out in force when we visited, but were overshadowed in our eyes by the unexpected sight of a family of mandarin ducks.

Mandarins favour small wooded ponds and avoid large expanses of open water, so the Straws Bridge reserve is ideal for them. Comprising three modest bodies of water set in a landscape of mixed woodland and meadows, it’s one of those habitats that shows how nature can bounce back when man lends a helping hand. In the 1970s and 1980s the area was scarred by open cast coal mining, but when the company concerned got into financial difficulties the local council took it on and restored the site as a wildlife habitat and local amenity. 

We’ve visited this reserve many times over the years and have always found it busy with families out for a stroll, often with a loaf of bread in hand to feed the swans and ducks and – inadvertently – sustain the burgeoning rat population at the same time.

In June last year the place was heaving with visitors, all grateful to get into the open air after the relaxation of the government’s stay-at-home Covid restrictions. None of them, other than Mrs P and I, appeared to have a clue that they were in the presence of a bird that’s regarded by many as the world’s most beautiful duck.

Mandarin ducks look far too exotic to be native British birds, and that’s absolutely right. They hail from East Asia – China, Japan and eastern Russia. The male sports a bright red bill, a reddish face with a large white crescent above the eye, a purple breast with two vertical white bars, and ruddy flanks. It also has two orange “sails” at the back. These comprise large feathers that stick up like the sails of a boat, and are perhaps the most eye-catching feature of what is a very elaborate bird.

The female, however, is drab, with a grey head, brown back and mottled flanks. Her white eye-ring and stripe can’t disguise the fact that, in common with the females of most duck species, she’s unremarkable.

Although the disparity in their looks might suggest otherwise, eastern folklore tells us that a pair of mandarins make the perfect couple. The birds are said to mate for life. In traditional Chinese and Japanese culture, mandarin ducks are therefore regarded as symbols of marital faithfulness. They are a favourite of artists, and also feature in Buddhist legends where they are said to represent compassion.

Male and female. No prizes for guessing which is which!

The supposed everlasting bond between mandarins is captured in a Japanese folktale, which begins with a great lord capturing a male bird so he can forever enjoy its beautiful plumage. Separated from its mate, the male is desperately lonely and begins to pine away. Seeing that the bird will soon die of a broken heart, the lord’s maidservant and her samurai lover decide to do the decent thing and reunite the lovelorn pair. However they get caught in the act and the furious lord condemns them to death for their treachery, proving beyond all doubt that for mankind and birdlife alike the course of true love does not always run smoothly!

* * *

It was in the mid-18th century when mandarins were first brought to Britain, with the intention of adding a bit of oriental glamour to the ornamental waterfowl collections of the idle rich. They escaped with monotonous regularity, and sometimes were deliberately released, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that a significant self-sustaining population of feral birds became established.

Juvenile mandarin

Since then numbers have grown rapidly, and there are now reckoned to be close to 8,000 mandarin ducks scattered widely throughout England. There are also feral populations in parts of continental Europe, as well as California and North Carolina in the US.

Spotting a lucrative gap in the market, China exported tens – or perhaps hundreds – of thousands of mandarins over several decades. Although the trade was banned in 1975 its impact, combined with widespread habitat loss, has resulted in a big fall in the wild Chinese population. Luckily mandarin ducks are reputed not to taste very good, otherwise pressures on the wild population would have been even greater in a country with over a billion mouths to feed.

Mandarins are notable for perching in trees, and the female invariably chooses a hole or cavity in a tree trunk in which to lay her eggs. After hatching, the ducklings jump to the ground and avoid injury thanks to the cushioning of their fluffy down. The mother swiftly gathers her brood together, and leads them to water. At Straws Bridge the female had plainly done a good job, and we got clear – although distant – views of some juveniles.

However, without doubt the male is the star of the mandarin show. What a looker!

Wassailing: extortion, boozing and blessings

Yesterday – 5th January – was 12th Night, the last of the 12 Days of Christmas. It is traditionally marked by a range of festivities, many involving the consumption of food or drink in various forms and copious quantities. Wassailing is a practice belonging to this tradition, and dates back many hundreds of years.

According to Anglo-Saxon lore, at the beginning of each year the lord of the manor would greet his assembled subjects with the toast waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health.” In response his followers would proclaim drinc hael, or “drink well.” Toasts duly completed, all parties would then get down to some serious boozing.

Orchard Wassailing ceremony. PHOTO CREDIT: “Barker’s Wassail 2013” by muffinn is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Clearly it’s just a small step, linguistically speaking, from the first of these Anglo-Saxon proclamations of good cheer to the word wassail that we use today. But just to confuse things a little there are two types of wassailing. House Wassailing involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and offering the occupants a swig of their brew in return for a material reward, often financial. In contrast, Orchard Wassailing is a distinctly pagan ceremony concerning itself with the blessing of fruit trees.

* * *

The great and the good usually played along with house wassailing, recognising that a bit of seasonal generosity dispensed with a tolerant smile would enhance their image. However things sometimes got out of hand, with rowdy gangs of youths gaining entry to the homes of wealthy neighbours and demanding free food and drink as the price of moving on to torment someone else instead. We have a word for that sort of thing today: it’s called extortion, and the law takes a dim view of it.

Mostly, however, wassailing was conducted in good humour on both sides. Many fine wassailing songs have survived in the folk tradition, including the Gower Wassail from the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. The lyrics – shown below – illustrate how the relationship between the parties was meant to play out:

A-wassail, a-wassail throughout all the town
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown
Our wassail is made of the good ale and cake 
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best you can bake

Our wassail is made of the elderberry bough
And so my good neighbours we'll drink unto thou
Besides all on earth, you have apples in store
Pray let us come in for it's cold by the door

There's a master and a mistress sitting down by the fire
While we poor wassail boys stand out in the mire
Come you pretty maid with your silver headed pin
Pray open the door and let us come in

It's we poor wassail boys so weary and cold
Please drop some small silver into our bowl
And if we survive for another new year
Perhaps we may call and see who does live here

We know by the moon that we are not too soon
And we know by the sky that we are not too high
And we know by the stars that we are not too far
And we know by the ground that we are within sound

We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear
So that we may have cider when we call next year
And where you have one barrel we hope you'll have ten
So that we may have cider when we call again

There are countless recorded versions of the Gower Wassail. I’m particularly fond of this one, by the ephemeral Derbyshire folk band Cupola Ward. Listen to them perform Gower Wassail by clicking on the YouTube link below:

House Wassailing is a thing of the past, and rarely if ever happens these days. However, it has morphed into another form in which groups of people go from door-to-door singing Christmas carols. And in the words of one of those carols – We Wish You a Merry Christmas – there is a hint of the extortion into which wassailing sometimes descended, when the singers demand “now give us some figgy pudding,” and then threaten “we won’t go until we’ve got some!”

* * *

Although House Wassailing survives only in Christmas carolling, Orchard Wassailing is alive and well in those parts of England that have a tradition of making cider, and in some parts of the USA and Canada too. If you search YouTube you can find various short films capturing modern celebrations of Orchard Wassailing. This one is informative as well as entertaining.

In the Orchard Wassailing tradition, participants drink and sing to the health of an orchard’s apple trees with the intention of encouraging a bumper autumn harvest. Although this can take many forms, some of the standard elements are as follows.

The wassailers select one tree in the orchard, usually the biggest or the oldest, to be the focus of the ceremony. They also choose, from amongst their number, a queen to carry out certain ceremonial duties. The participants process through the orchard and around the chosen tree. Songs are sung, blessings are proclaimed, and the wassail queen hangs from one of the tree’s branches a slice of toast soaked in cider. The intention is to attract good spirits, or possibly robins as these are regarded as lucky birds.

Having duly invited benevolent spirits to appear, malevolent forces are driven away by shouting and the banging together of pots and pans. Then the tree is given a drink of mulled cider.

Inevitably, after the tree has had its fill there is still some alcohol left, at which point the wassailers selflessly help out by knocking it back themselves. They also sing a few jolly songs, encouraging the tree to be a prolific producer of apples in the year ahead. The orchard owner may also get involved, rewarding the revellers with some form of warm, spiced alcoholic beverage from a communal wassail bowl or cup.

By the end of the proceedings everyone’s feeling suitably merry, and it’s only the tree that won’t wake up with a headache in the morning!

Although house and orchard wassailing differ in their origins and underlying purpose, it’s interesting to see how they overlap. Look again at the the Gower Wassail lyrics above, and note that although this song is clearly designed to be sung at a wealthy man’s door with the intention of financial gain (“Please drop some small silver into our bowl“), the singers also express enthusiasm for a bountiful apple harvest in the the autumn (“We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear / So that we may have some cider when we call next year.”)

In the modern parlance I suppose you would say that – in pursuit of merriment and material advancement – singers of the Gower Wassail were covering all the bases. And who can blame them, life’s way too short to be shy in coming forward.

* * *

Folk traditions and folk music aren’t static, so it should come as no surprise that in the hands of gifted exponents the wassail tradition continues to evolve. Mrs P and I have recently started listening to the music of Vicki Swann and Jonny Dyer, and a couple of weeks ago treated ourselves to a live gig on Zoom. One of the songs they performed that evening was the Essex Wassail, which they wrote as recently as 2012 “based on all the Wassails that we could find.” You can find the lyrics here, and to hear Vicki and Jonny performing their wassail song simply follow the YouTube link below. Enjoy!