If I’m honest, I’ve always thought of this period of the year as a kind of winter gap, and our enforced absence from the allotment due to almost continuous wet weather echoes the historical pattern of farming. These days, with massive and heavy farm machinery the idea of ploughing and sowing in wet soil at the turn of the year is a non-starter. I’ve seen it suggested that seed can be sown in frost hardened ground, but for most farmers if it’s not sown during the last good weeks of autumn it’ll have to wait until February or March at the latest. That’s where the much lighter horse drawn plough gained valuable extra time notwithstanding its limitations. A horse drawn plough can cover one acre a day whereas a modern tractor can plough 24 acres – and do quite a bit of damage in the process. Mercifully, the trend is towards no-till methods which is a step (just one step) in the right direction.
Historically there was little work done on the land around Christmas but there was always hedge laying, which was one of my favourite jobs when I was a groundsman. So with a pause, let’s say, between the solstice and Epiphany on January 6th, work in the fields could resume. We used to celebrate Plough Monday in one of my parishes – always the first Monday after 6th January, and the Young Farmers would carry an old Ransomes plough into the church, along with some hand tools and lanterns and I would bless it before it was returned once again to a gloomy corner in someone’s barn. The plough was slightly too long to manoeuvre down the aisle of the church so the handles were reduced in size and welded back on again, probably making it the shortest Ransomes plough in the country.
Given that I was vicar in a cider making area, the other great pagan festival was the Wassail where we blessed the orchard, drove away the evil spirits with a great deal of noise accompanied by volleys of empty 12 bore black powder cartridges, fired into the sky with an exciting amount of smoke and flame. I should say that a good deal of Littleton Lifesaver cider was also drunk, along with folk singing, a mummers play and the election of a king and queen for the night who, after their elevation, would be borne past the huge bonfire and into the orchard on a chariot made by welding two bicycle wheels and an axle on to a more or less lethal platform. Sometimes, over the years, my efforts have been rewarded with a terrible crop – like 2018 for instance when the ‘Beast from the East’ just about killed all the blossom. Last year. on the other hand, was a bumper crop and my invitation to take part again arrived two days ago so I appear to be forgiven. It’s a cause of great satisfaction that Madame provided the budwood for the orchard when it was first planted about 45 years ago. The less said about the cider the better except to note that if Admiral Nelson had been returned home in a barrel of Lifesaver rather than brandy he’d have dissolved before he arrived.
I think my successor in the parish has reservations about the outrageous and completely open paganism, but it’s never troubled me in the least and so – with his permission – it’s the one service I still perform, and if I weren’t performing I’d still be there just to meet up with all my old friends. The great advantage of Littleton was that hardly anyone went to church – they never bore me the least ill will, and were happy as long as I confined my attention to weddings, funerals, harvest, Christmas carols, wassailing and and fetes and met them all in the pub regularly. Madame also ran a life-drawing class there and the the day when her (male) model turned up sporting a Prince Albert piercing is still spoken about by the village ladies!
So that’s a date then, 7.30 at the White Hart, Littleton on Severn, on January 17th. There are some photos of the event on my posting for Jan 1st Last year, and coincidentally we went for a New Years Day walk along the canal (where else?) and as we walked back through Widcombe we caught up with the finish of the Widcombe Mummers performance. Earlier I’d spotted the first hazel catkin of the new season, along with a groundsel plant in full flower. Cow parsley and cleavers are also gathering strength as they push out their early leaves. I couldn’t be more pleased to see these signs of the new season amidst the gloom of the last weeks. Today we walked in a fine mizzle of rain among dozens of walkers and cyclists taking the chance of a bank holiday break.