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John Clare and Midsummer Cushions

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On the weekend nearest the 13 July the John Clare Society holds a festival at Helpston, formerly in Northamptonshire but now in Cambridgeshire, where the poet was born on 13 July 1793.  On the Friday afternoon, children from the local primary school process to St Botolph’s churchyard, where they place ‘midsummer cushions’ around Clare’s grave.

According to a display board in John Clare Cottage, the house in which he was born, now a museum: ‘Flowers were worked into small squares of turf known as “midsummer cushions” and placed prominently on window ledges, as a celebration of nature.’

The cushions as currently prepared by the schoolchildren consist of pieces of turf with flowers stuck into them, placed in uniform, dark green, plastic containers.  It is said that in 2019, when the event was held on 12 July, a record 131 cushions were prepared.  According to the villagetribune, a magazine produced for villages in the area: ‘the pretty and colourful Midsummer Cushions, which the children lay on John Clare’s grave providing a beautiful centrepiece for the weekend’s activities’.

The children then enter the church where the results of a poetry competition are announced, poems written by the children having been previously judged by members of the John Clare Society.  In 2019 the theme was birds.  Prizes  are awarded in various age categories, and the winning poems read aloud.

Other events planned in 2019 for the weekend included an evening of folk music in The Bluebell, a local pub on Friday, ‘a lovely concert’ in St Botoph’s church on Saturday evening, and a talk ‘A Beginner’s Guide to John Clare’ on Sunday morning.

Queen Elizabeth’s Accession Oak

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It is said that Queen Elizabeth I was sitting under an oak (Quercus) in the park of Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, when she was informed that she had succeeded to the throne, following the death of her half-sister, Queen Mary.  Since this took place on 17 November 1558,  perhaps this seems improbable.  It is not known when the original tree disappeared, but on 22 July 1985 Queen Elizabeth II planted a replacement tree on its supposed site.

Photograph taken July 2019.

Funeral greenery

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Arrangement of greenery in St Ethelreda’s chuch, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, where such arrangements were placed on the nave windowsills on 4 July 2019, in preparation for a funeral on the following day.  Apparently this is usually done when there are funerals in the church.

Plant-lore Archive: June 2019

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11 items of information were received from nine contributors during the month, bringing the totals to 7987 items from 2430 contributors.

7,207 searches were made of the website, far fewer the number made in the previous month and in June 2018.

REMINDER: Wonderful Weeds, 3 July 2019

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On Wednesday 3 July Roy Vickery will be talking on Wonderful Weeds: their Uses and Folklore to the Sunray Women’s Club, Surbiton, Surrey, starting at 8 p.m.  For further details see the Events page on this website.

Report:  An audience of about 14 apparently enjoyed an talk on the folklore of common plants, lasting for about an hour.  A donation of £40 was made to the South London Botanical Institute, thank you!

How ancient are British yew trees?

Date of the post: Posted on by royvickery |

Some 20 years ago the television botanist David Bellamy of the Conservation Foundation made extravagant claims regarding the age of Britain’s older yew (Taxus baccata) trees.  According to a report in The Times of 3 October 1998:

‘We … know that ever since people arrived upon these shores they have been in the habit of planting yew trees in acts of sanctification, close to where they eventually hoped to be laid to rest.’

This assertion was questioned by Jeremy Harte and Roy Vickery in The Times letter page on 6 October, stimulating a response from Bellamy on 13 October:

‘My article … talked in terms of “guestimates” using all the evidence to hand, which includes the girths of trees whose planting dates are a matter of historical record.  We have raised an hypothesis concerning the potential age of larger specimens. Surely this is a scientific procedure? … I could close my mind to myths but I find it more exciting to use a little bit of imagination.  Perhaps the yews are more than two thousand years old.  With open minds we are trying to find out.’

According to the original Times article the Fortingall yew, ‘could be more than 8,000 years old, making it the oldest tree in the world’.

The Conservation Foundation issued certificates providing ‘guestimates’ of the ages of ancient yews.  The Llangernyw yew, in Conwy, north Wales, was thought to be 4,000-5,000 years old.  But according to recent research, published in the Quarterly Journal of Forestry, and reported in The Times of 27 June 2019, estimates the Llangernyw yew to be 1,600 years old, and the Fortingall yew to be about 2,000 years old.  Similarly the Ankerwycke yew, at Runnymeade, Surrey, is thought to be 900, rather than 2,500, years old.

Image: yew tree in St Michael and All Angels churchyard, Bampton, Devon, March 2014.  The wall around the trunk is said to have been built to prevent sheep from eating its bark.  At one time the wall incorporated a seat running around it, but when it was rebuilt the cost of replacing the seat was considered to be too great.

REMINDER: Healing Hedgerows

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Healing Hedgerows: Medicinal Uses of Wild Plants, a walk led by Roy Vickery, as part of the Woodfield Pavilion Launch – see  –   Streatham, London, at 3 p.m.

Report:  The Launch was very well attended, and about 8-10 people chose to spend an hour or so wandering around the rough area behind the Pavilion and discussing the mostly medicinal uses of the common plants found there:  hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), bramble (Rubus fruticosus), the inevitable elder (Sambucus nigra) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), and others.

Sorolla’s rose

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A current exhibition, Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light, at the National Gallery London, until 7 July, includes a painting ‘A rose bush at Sorolla’s house’, painted in 1918-19.  This shows a yellow rose on the facade of the artist’s house in Madrid.  The label notes that:

‘According to Sorolla’s children when their father [1863-1923] died the rose bush became ill, and, after Clotide [Sorolla’s wife, 1864-1929] passed away, it withered entirely.’

REMINDER: Herbal Heritage

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Roy Vickery will be talking on Herbal Heritage – Folklore & Uses of Native Plants to the Surrey Organic Gardening Group, meeting in Carshalton, Surrey, on Friday 28 July, starting at 7.30 p.m.  For further details see the Events page on this website.

Report:  Despite it being a beautiful summer evening about 35 people turned up to spend an hour hearing about the folklore of common plants, including some which members of the audience brought along.  A generous donation of £40 was made to the South London Botanical Institute in lieu of a speaker’s fee.

Corpus Christi carpet, London, 2019 – 2

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Corpus Christi carpet laid at St Mary’s Bourne Street, Belgravia, in preparation for their 6 p.m. ‘Solemn Evensong, Procession and Benediction of the Most Holy Sacrament’, Sunday 23 June 2019.

The carpet consists of small pieces of a variety of shrubs and trees, clipped from the gardens of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, with a lot of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and occasional rose petals, said to have come from the gardens of members of the congregation.

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