Tag Archives: Gilbert White

Custom contrived: Blessing the Midsummer Bower, Woolmer Forest

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“How sweetly I, at close of Summer’s Day,

While thy dear presence blessed these happy Bowers,

Could lost in rapture with my Daphne stray,

Or in soft converse pass the fleeting Hours.”

Midsummer madness?

In the Deadwatervalley Trust maintained Woolmer Forest a curious custom has developed. Curious firstly because it is based on the observations of a local famed Naturalist – Gilbert White and secondly because it is organised by a woodland conservation ground. Thanks to Bill Wain who provided the materials on the custom; one which appeaThe custom is based on an observation made by the author that at Walldown on St. Barnabus’ Day a bower would be constructed. He recorded in his A Natural History of Selborne within the letters to Thomas Pennant, a fellow naturalist:

“On two of the most conspicuous eminences of this forest stand two arbours or bowers, made of the boughs of oaks; the one called Waldon-lodge , the other Brimstone-lodge; these the keepers renew annually on the feast of St Barnabas, talking the old materials for a perquisite. The farm called Blackmoor, in this parish, is obliged to find the posts and brushwood for the former; while the farms at Greatham, in rotation, furnish for the latter; and are all enjoined to cut and deliver the materials at the spot. This custom I mention, because I look upon it to be of very remote antiquity.”

And that is it really! Gilbert White wrote no more about the custom and neither did any other author. However, some have attempted to link it to May bowers. D. H. Moutray Read in their 1911 article for Folklore on Hampshire folklore records:

“Miss Burne, in her Presidential Address last year, spoke of the “bowery” erected for sports at Woodstock, and readers of Miss Mitford’s Our Village will recall how in “Bramley Maying” she describes the ” May-houses to dance,” built of green boughs by the lads and lasses of the neighbouring parishes.”

However this could be a tenuous link – these are not midsummer bowers. Yet the lack of any reference to midsummer bowers is not a reason not to establish a custom on them. This is clearly a new custom based upon an account of something older.

Midsummer nights dream

It is of course worth noting that this is a different midsummer to the one we currently recognise. Before the calendar change, St Barnabas Day fell on Midsummer’s Day as remembered:

Barnaby Bright, Barnaby Bright

The longest day and the shortest night

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Therefore when in 2010, the Deadwater Valley Trust and the Woolmer Forest Heritage Society decided to start the custom the closest day to old St Barnabus, i.e 13th June was chosen, although local events such as the Queen’s Birthday in 2016 did get in the way of organising it.
The earthworks noted by White were also selected to make the custom a copy of that recorded by White. However, because the site is a scheduled ancient monument the bower can only be there for a day. As such early in the day local children arrange branches to create an arch and then use green boughs and branches to drape over the structure creating a small green hut.
Bowery boys and girls
Then around midday a collection of curious onlookers and those involved with the trusts and group stand around the Bower as first a man dressed in typical Georgian squire attire with a white wig as Gilbert White reads out his note to Pennant about the custom and then the vicar gives his thanks giving and the bower is blessed; a slightly contrived aspect as the White gave no reference to the structure being blessed. Nor did he mention processing around it! However, this all goes to make a most unusual of customs. Of course making a bower on a hot day also affords a good shelter and the children were quick to realise this ducking under the branches and finding a cool respite under the leaves to excited glee ‘let’s make one of these at home’ one said to another.
Of course why midsummer and why at these earthworks is a question that remains unanswered. But is clear that even given the slimest of provenances a great little custom can arise and give colour and interest. Long may the bower be built.
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