Custom contrived: The Bluebell Service, Swithland Woods, Leicestershire

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“Strangers enjoying an afternoon stroll in Swithland Woods on Sunday might have been surprised to hear the strains of All Things Bright and Beautiful coming through the trees near the old slate quarry.”

Loughborough Echo 14th May 1993

Indeed, almost hidden in a natural amphitheatre beside a great water filled hollow can be found around two hundred worshipers – why are they there? What are they waiting for? A service which is possibly unique in England yet surprisingly still little known – the annual Bluebell service.

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If you go down to the woods today

Arriving at the north car park to the wood, the existence of the event, one follows the small blue signs. I must admit during my half hour or so walk, I did not see a single blue flower. This was despite seeing great swaths of them on the way, particularly in Stoneywell Wood. This might not have been a one off. S. R. Meadows in the 1965 Swithland noted that in an early ceremony an early spring had meant there were no flowers in the woods and the Vicar had to:

admit the bluebells had already come and departed. Whereupon a Salvation army lady, who had attended the corps band stepped boldly forward and presented him with a single bloom, which appropriately she had saved for him.”

All things bright and beautiful

The custom begun soon after the estate was given to the public in the 1920s. The area had long been known as a beauty spot, where bluebells proliferated in great number and so the Rotary Club decided to instigate an annual event. It was a Walter Kilby and a Mr Harry Gimson who conceived the idea of the service with Reverend Frederick Oliver, then vicar of Swithland in 1928 and it has been going ever since then. Indeed until recently, the daughter and the daughter in law of the founders still attended. A search of copies of the Leicestershire mercury or Loughborough Echo recording such regular annual devotion. In 1997 14th May the Leicester Mercury, noted that a Mrs Gweneth Gimson:

“has been present at every single Bluebell service.”

The Leicester Mercury reported on the 6th May 1998 adding next year:

“Swithland churchwarden, Mrs Gweneth Gimson 85 first attended as a 13 year old girl when the service begun in 1927.”

Although the Loughborough Echo of 13th May 1994, suggests that:

“played the harmonium for the service at the age of 10!”

The paper claims that she had been present at every one forget that in 1993 it was noted that:

“Mrs Gweneth Gimson, who has supervised the event for many years, was missing as she suffered an accident at home.”

Fortunately, as it was later testament she did regularly attend thereafter. I did not enquire whether she still attended, she’d be 101, but I am sure she would be there in spirit. Regular attendance is clearly an important aspect of any custom and especially this one. Even when there is a clear threat of rain or in the 1990s murder as the paper stated:

“The worship is expected to go ahead as planned despite the inquiry into the fatal stabbing of Leicester man Esmail Hassan whose body was discovered in the woods just over a week ago.”

Coming up smelling of…bluebells!

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In the small amphitheatre I found the congregation, some were in rows of seats, many with their dogs sat on the hill behind them. In front of them was an outside altar, a table covered with a cloth with a sizeable silver crucifix upon it. There was the vicar of Swithland church, the Mayor and Lady Mayoress and a brass band from Welbeck College. The service which was pleasantly succinct and under an hour long – perhaps they feared the rain – was very focused on giving homage to nature. Guest preachers have varied over the time and in I1997, The Bishop of Leicester, the right Rev. Dr. Thomas Butler was the preacher. The year I attended, the guest was xxxx. The sermon, short and focusing on amongst other things Leicester City’s triumphant Premier League win…a link to the blue of the bluebells! The knowledgeable sermon drew reference to some of the wonderful plants and animals around the woods. The sermon underlined the reason for the service perhaps as a correspondent recorded:

“It’s a country service for those who enjoy the countryside. In a way it’s a celebration of the Creation.”

An earlier Leicester Mercury reference also agreeing to consider that:

“As the sun shone through the delicate green leaves of late spring on the bluebells of Swithland wood on Sunday afternoon, it was not difficult to respond to the invitation from the preacher to ‘consider the flowers of the field’ which more wondrous than Soloman in his glory.”

Swithland (8)Swithland (9)I was particularly impressed by the volume of the singing from the congregation, albeit supported by an excellent choir and especially impressive considering the congregation was seated. Understandably All Things Bright and Beautiful was sung with great gusto. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National anthem and it was easy to agree with the sentiment again of the Leicester Mercury which recorded:

“as singing the National Anthem to enjoy the bluebells in the afternoon sun, it was obvious that this event in Swithland had lost none of its appeal for visitors to the area.”

All in all an uplifting pause to consider the wonderful world around us and give thanks for it.

 

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