Monday, 30 May 2011

Oak Apple Day

Each year on May 29th is celebrated Oak Apple Day. Not a major holiday nor a religious celebration, but a reminder of one of the most turbulent periods in British history and the source of the second most common pub name in England.

Not since 1859 has 29th May been an official holiday, one which started in May 1660 to celebrate the Restoration of the Monarchy and to coincide with the 29th May, the birthday of Charles II. Yet our story starts some years before this when the Royalist forces were routed by the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Fleeing the scene, Charles rode north and the next day was at Boscobel, near Shifnal in Shropshire when the opposition soldiers caught up with him. Together with his aide, Colonel Carless, he hid in the branches of a large oak tree while the soldiers walked beneath just feet below. They stayed there until nightfall, dropping back to the ground and, after a long chase and several close shaves, escaped to the Continent disguised as a woodsman.

As already stated, the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 was given the official start date of May 29th, the birthday of Charles II. Soon afterwards public houses started to commemorate this famous event by taking the name of the Royal Oak. Most depict a large oak tree with the coat of arms of the monarchy.

Being England this also resulted in a number of what today seem odd celebrations and rituals. Traditional celebrations included wearing oak apples, not a true fruit but a gall caused by a parasite or bacteria. In some parts of the country the oak apple was known as a shick-shack, hence this was also known as Shick Shack Day. Sprigs of oak trees were also permitted in some regions. Failure to wear a token of the oak tree would result in the individual being pelted with bird's eggs or thrashed with nettles. This is the reason for yet another alternative name of Oak and Nettle Day.

Almost certainly all these were remnants of pre-Christian rites, the oak tree held to be sacred in many pagan religions. Several places in England still mark the occasion: Aston-on-Clun, Great Wishford, Marsh Gibbon, Membury Northampton, Upton-on-Severn, and Castleton.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Walking Hither and Yon

Continuing to research a number of local walks, in the last month or so I have covered some 60 miles on foot. Over stiles and fields, along tow paths, over motorways, through woodland and staring into the depths of a quarry or two, the diversity of the landscape never fails to amaze me.

Around Kingsbury Water Park is an appropriate title for a walk which takes us through some of the thirty lakes, along the banks of the River Tame, and along the tow path of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. In the main the instructions are clear and much of the walk, especially the second half, is self-evident.
With all this water about wildlife abounds, particularly waterfowl. From time to time you will hear an odd wailing siren, something which baffled me until I noticed a scarecrow-type figure on an island in the middle of one of the lakes. This oddity leapt to a standing position to coincide with this alarm. Clearly the intention is to frighten something (presumably the birds) away from the island, yet I have no idea why.

Earlswood Lakes were constructed to provide water for the canal. As a child I spent many hours in the area, fishing, cycling, picking blackberries, and camping. There are more houses today, and the pub no longer have a delivious ploughman's lunch on offer, yet over forty years the area has really changed very little.
The walk takes in some delightful views of the lakes and woodland, largely steers clear of the roads, with large stretches confined to field after field. At one stage the route ascends the railway embankment and the path crosses two railway lines by means of a wooden crossing. It sounds more dangerous than it is, for the line is fairly straight here and there are good views for half a mile in each direction.

Brueton Park and the Grand Union Canal begins at a free car park alongside Brueton Park. Parking is free here for four hours and, while the estimate is a minimum of 2 hours and 30 minutes, try not to spend too long enjoying the scenery for there is a threatened clamping for those exceeding the four hours. Personally I would think the powers that be should pay more attention to those who park outside the marked bays, on the day I was there the combination of school holidays and excellent weather meant many cars were parked illegally and made entering and leaving the car park much more difficult than necessary.
My personal preference is for the peace and quiet offerend by green fields and this walk does keep bringing us back to civilization. Crossing the golf course, a busy road or three, traffic along country lanes, a footbridge over six lanes of motorway, not to mention the outskirts of Solihull town centre and the park itself, are reminders of just how near the town we are.

Around Baddesley Clinton Manor House starts off with an excellent wander through woodland which, in April, was literally carpeted by bluebells as far as the eye could see. Before crossing fields the next leg does take in a rather lengthy section of road, something we see again before the final leg across many fields.
Note the instructions state to park outside the church, yet this is now blocked off by a locked gate (open only when services are held). Hence cars are forced to park on the grass verge and there is only room for four or possibly five cars here, although there are more spaces further down the hill.

Fradley Junction is well worth a visit even if there is no plan for a lengthy walk. A choice of places to eat, plenty of canal traffic to watch from both canals, with a wildlife stroll around a pool, and posts with recorded information on the history of the site.
The walk looping around Alrewas is basically a triangle. The first stretch follows the Trent and Mersey as far as the River Trent. It is here the walk becomes a little complicated, the way is not particularly well marked although there are few alternatives around the cricket ground and skirting the housing estate. After crossing the road the route across the fields is obvious, as is returning to the junction along the tow path of the Coventry Canal.

Although I walk in most of what the British climate has to offer, the unseasonable weather certainly gave every mile an added beauty. From the vantage point of a hilltop or ridge the landscape below revealed how the sunlight enhances every natural feature, while those man-made are simply scars.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Mind Your Language

As a writer with an interest in etymology, particularly the origins of place names, I am well aware how easy it is to misinterpret or misuse a word or phrase. Recently listening to a podcast teaching Dutch to English speakers I was reminded just how important accurate translation is.

Someone had asked for clarification of any stop and search policy in the Netherlands as they had recently been searched while passing through Schiphol Airport. By way of a reply the tutor had contacted a senior police officer at his local police station giving the answer by way of an interview.

Interviewer asked if stop and search by the police is to be expected in the Netherlands. He answered it was legal but should only be expected in certain sensitive areas, such as the airport, government buildings, railway stations, or where large crowds gather, at sporting events for example. The follow-up question was, not surprisingly, under what circumstances can the police justify such a search. Once again the answer was not unexpected, they must show reasonable suspicion that the individual may be hiding weapons about their person or in their luggage.

The interviewer then asked for clarification that carrying any weapon without the necessary permits and documentation was illegal. Had I not realised the police officer's English was poorly constructed and a literal translation, his reponse would have been somewhat worrying, for he answered: "Yes. In the Netherlands the police have the monopoly on violence against ordinary citizens."

Accurate translations in future, please.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

First Rabbits, Now Hares.

Last time I spoke of the supposed 'lucky rabbit' and mentioned that other lagomorph, the hare, was often seen as anything but fortunate. Indeed so much superstition and folklore surrounds the poor creature I decided to dig a little and found the following:

As we have just seen Easter and its association with the rabbit (ie Easter Bunnies), it came as something of a surprise to find Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands preferring an Easter Hare.

The Anglo-Saxon personification of the sun was Ostara, whose ears were those of a hare and who carried eggs on her back. This is how eggs have become associated with Easter.

Pagan followers associate the hare with the goddess Eostre, from where we get the name for Easter.

Gods in other cultures associated with hares are Hittavainen, Cupid, Aphrodite, Venus, Holda, Freyja, Andraste, Cerridwen, Kaltes,

That the creature has been considered sacred and associated with spring, and almost certainly has been since prehistoric times, is down to the hare only really being seen when they are seen boxing in the mating season. Incidentally, the long held belief these are males fighting over a female was shown to be wrong when it was realised at least one of the combatants could just as easily be female.

Several ancient cultures saw the hare the symbol of fertility, of rebirth, and held to possess supernatural powers. The genitals of the jack were carried to ward off infertility. This fertility idea has some truth for the doe can produce up to forty-two young in a single year.

Some ancient African cultures believed the hare to have a lunar origin.

The tales of Brer Rabbit, as told by Uncle Remus, were brought to North America via the slave trade and are adapted from traditional African narratives. Thus these cannot be about a 'rabbit' but a hare for Africa has no rabbits around the tropical latitudes.

In Egyptian mythology Osiris is also known by other names and is then depicted with the head of a hare, as was the goddess Unut. He is also cited as being the messenger of the god Thoth.

Pliny wrote of how he believed the hare was androgynous, likened to the waxing and waning of the Moon when it was deemed to be masculine and feminine respectively.

The hare is also associated with the Moon in ancient China, held to possess knowledge of the elixir of immortality. Other writings show the hare with the phoenix and the unicorn, ubiquitous mythological creatures of wonder and magical powers.

Hindus in India tell the story of Buddha, whose earliest life on Earth was as a hare. Hence the animal is seen as a symbol of resurrection. It is also the subject of a number of traditional tales where it represents wisdom.

Native American cultures speak of Michabo or Manitou, the Great Hare, which is common to the ancestral mythologies of many tribes. Unlike the Old World, in the New World the hare is associated with the sun.

The madness of hares was likened to a coven of witches. Some held the hares were witches who had changed their appearance to allow them to suckle cows until they were dry.

Sailors, probably the most superstitious career which ever has been or ever will be, consider the hare unlucky and would not allow any mention of them while at sea.

Pregnant women would carrying a hare's foot, for should the animal cross her path it could result in a miscarriage or the child being born with a hare-lip.

The hare's foot charm was also held to be the answer to rheumatism, while the stage perfomance of many a thespian was solely down to such being hidden beneath their costume.

The fat from a hare would be used to fuel a lamp burned when it was important that all present should be in good spirits throughout.

The brain of the hare was added to wine to prevent any danger of oversleeping.

Cambridgeshire folk seeing a hare running through the streets saw this as a sign that a fire was about to break out.

Cornish girls who died of a broken heart after being spurned by their lover would turn into a white hare and pursue him from beyond the grave.

Personally I just wish I could taste this recipe for jugged hare.

Sunday, 1 May 2011


As the first of the month falls on a Sunday, I recall my childhood and being asked if my first words that morning had been "Rabbits" or, should the first of the month be a Sunday, "White rabbits". I was told doing so would invite good fortune, although in retrospect it was more likely to be a way of warding off the reverse.

I have since learned few differentiate between the 1st on a Sunday or when it falls on any other day of the week. Most use one or the other at all times. However this has not helped to uncover the origins. The phrase, at least as it is today, cannot have existed prior to the fourteenth century as until then the animal was known as a cony. Indeed even the introduction of 'rabbit' was initially only used for their young, as evidenced by the 1398 translation where John de Trevisa wrote: "Conynges bringeth forthe many rabettes and multiplieth ful swithe (breed like rabbits)". Later we find Edward Topsell writing in 1607 in The Historie of the Foure Footed Beastes: "If two males be out to one female, they fight fiercely; but they will not hurt the rabbets". It was shortly afterwards that the term applied to adults too.

The saying is first seen in print in 1922, where it is said if the first words out of your mouth on the morning of the first "Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit" a present will arrive before the month has ended. However there seems to be several references to the superstition from around 1800, and in several different English-speaking nations.

Perhaps this will remain as mysterious as the origins of the lucky rabbit's foot, although we cannot rule out the two having something in common. It should be pointed out that it is rather odd that the rabbit be considered so lucky when the other lagomorph, the hare, is seemingly associated with more superstition and folklore than any other other British mammal.