Tag Archives: Midsummer

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

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, tree, plant, sky, wedding, outdoor and nature

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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Custom demised: Love Divination on Midsummer

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imageMidsummer was one of the days in the year where the lovelorn could discover details of their future lovers. There were many widespread customs. One under the cover of midsummer moonlit was to throw hemp or fern seeds over the shoulder and hopefully see your future husband saying:

“Hemp seeds I sow, Hempseed I mow, And the man who is my husband to be, let him follow me and mow.”

and the other to form the dumb cake. A midsummer method being in Charles Dicks (1911). ‘Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District.

Dumb Cake. On Midsummer Eve three girls are required to make a dumb cake. Two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put a piece under each of their pillows. Strict silence must be preserved. The following are the directions given how to proceed: The two must go to the larder and jointly get the various ingredients. First they get a bowl, each holding it and wash and dry it together. Then each gets a spoonful of flour, a spoonful of water and a little salt. When making the cake they must stand on something they have never stood on before. They must mix it together and roll it. Then they draw a line across the middle of the cake and each girl cuts her initials each on opposite sides of the line. Then both put it into the oven and bake it. The two take it out of the oven, and break it across the line and the two pieces are given to the third girl who places a piece under each pillow and they will dream of their future. Not a word must be spoken and the two girls after giving the pieces to the third girl have to walk backwards to bed and get into bed backwards. One word or exclamation by either of the three girls will break the charm. Should a gale arise and the wind appear to be rustling in the room, during the baking or latter part of the preparation, if they look over their left shoulder they will see their future husbands. In some districts the pieces of cake are eaten in bed and not put under their pillows but nothing must be drank before breakfast next morning. Another variation is that two only make the cake and go through the same form as the preceding, only they divide it themselves, then each eats her portion and goes to bed backwards as in the first case and nothing must be drank or a word spoken. An uncooked dried salt fish eaten before going to bed in silence and walking backwards and getting into bed the same way, causes ones future husband to appear in a dream with a glass of water in his hand if a teetotaller, or a glass of beer if he is not one. Nothing must be drank before breakfast. An old woman said she had tried it over 40 years ago and her husband brought her a glass of beer and he was not an abstainer but rather the reverse.”

Often plants were used as noted in Devon:

“if a young woman, blind-folded, plucks a full-blown rose on Midsummer day, while the chimes are playing twelve, folds the rose up in a sheet of white paper and does not take out the rose until Christmas, it will be found fresh as when gathered. Then if she places the rose on her bosom, the young man to whom she is to be married will come and snatch it away.”

The custom was widespread being recorded in Wiltshire, to Herefordshire using Orpines Sedum telephium. John Aubrey records a custom in Wiltshire in his Gentilisme and Judaiseme. He notes that:

“the maids, especially the cook maids and dairy maids would stick up in some chinks of the joists etc,. Midsummer men, which are slips of orpines. They placed them by pairs, one for such a man, the other for such a maid his sweetheart, and accordingly as the orpine did incline to, or recline from ye other, that there would be love, or aversion, if either did wither, death.”

Nowadays the love lorn peer into the horoscopes…little has changed

Custom contrived: John Clare memorial midsummer cushions

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Cushion star!

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (99)

Often commemorations record pious politicians and mighty military men, every now and again it is nice to see a much more humble and harmless professions being celebrated: writers, poets and clowns being amongst them! At Helpston, since the 1980s a local festival has been established to toast a local and little known servant of the muses, the so-called ‘peasant poet’ John Clare. The event focuses around the weekend closest to his birth date, the 13th July and includes concerts and readings. However, it is the picturesque midsummer cushion ceremony which concerns us here. John Clare himself reported in his manuscript called Midsummer cushion in 1832:

“It is a very old custom among villagers in summer time to stick a piece of greensward full of field flowers and place it as an ornament in their cottages which ornaments are called Midsummer cushions.”

Glorious sunshine beamed down into the small churchyard of St. Botolphs and a crowd had begun to assemble around the tomb of this lauded local, some devotees of the verse, some curious bystanders and the rest dutiful parents. The later naturally swelled the churchyard as the custom is enacted by the pupils of John Clare Primary school naturally enough.

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (36)

At the allotted time 1.30, a stream of students holding proudly their creations entered beneath the churchyard arch, up the lavender lined path and towards the grave where under the direction of their head teacher, they laid their cushions around his grave. Slowly and surely they formed a picturesque patchwork, their vibrant colours glimmering in the mid day sunlight.

These cushions was composed in a fashion similar as possible to Clare’s description, using an ice cream tub crammed as much as possibly with colourful blooms and in one case a whole plants. The tradition perhaps should be a revived custom; although it is more a transferred custom as clearly it would not have been associated with the poet. Speaking to a local man he informed me it was a Northamptonshire custom, to which I added Cambridgeshire as well, to which he replied ‘sadly the village is now’ showing how still some are not happy to see the Soke of Peterborough be absorbed into the modern Cambridgeshire. However, the custom is not unique to this region as an MA Denham wrote in 1850s of a version in northern England that:

“The young lads and lasses of the town or village having procured a cushion…and covered it with calico, or silk of showy and attractive colour, proceeded to bedeck it with every variety of flower which they could procure out of their parents’ and more wealthy neighbour’s gardens, displaying them in such a manner so as to give it a most beautiful appearance. All this is done, they placed themselves with their cushion of Flora’s choicest gems, in the most public place they conveniently could soliciting of every passer-by a trifling present of pence, which in numerous cases was liberally and cheerfully bestowed…the custom prevailed from Midsummer Day to Magdalene Day (22 July), which latter has long corrupted to ‘Maudlin Day’.”

As early as 1778 John Hutchinson reported a similar custom in Northumberland but the cushions were made out of stools, with a layer of clay smeared on top and flowers stick into it much like a well dressing.

How long the ceremony has been enacted I am unclear, speaking to a regular attendee he said he had seen 30 years of them and suggested it had been done at least another 30 years previous by the school.

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (131) John Clare Midsummer 2013 (133)

Once all the children had assembled, a small group remained in the blazing sunlight to serenade the grave perhaps with songs based on Clare’s work set to music. After which the children then sat down in the shade to hear an introduction and explanation by the society’s representative and one could see a degree of anticipation on their faces. Was it the usual boredom? No it was awaiting the results of the poetry competition. Winners and commended were read out from each class with a nervous but surprisingly confident approach, there were no shy moments and the pieces had a surprising maturity, clearly the influence of Clare has had a positive effect. All in all it is very pleasant to see such a charming custom given such enthusiastic support…even during the heavy storms of 2012! Long may it continue.

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