Worlidge ‘s Systema Agriculturae 1697 says this is the time to destroy snails (quoted in Charles Knightly’s Perpetual Almanac). He suggests that, at Michaelmas, you create a a shelter for snails against a wall using bricks or boards. In Early December the plantsman can get his revenge on the little blighters, unsuspected and snuggled up in their cosy den.
The RHS has some more modern advice, but generally takes a negative opinion of snails. The Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust take a much more positive view of snails and slugs and proposes their contribution to nature should be rewarded by learning to love and live with the little critters.
Improving the cider before Christmas
If your cider is a bit off add half a peck of wheat to restart the fermentation to make it more mild and gentle. Use Mustard or two or three rotten apples to clear the cider.
Although it’s all a little Thomas Hardy, Cider expert Gabe Cook provides instruction in how to make cider from your own cider tree without investing in a huge fruit press.
First Published on December 5th 2022, revised and republished on December 5th 2023
In Lia Leendertz’ lovely ‘The Almanac – A Seasonal Guide to 2022’ she lists the following as in season for foraging:
Crab Apples and sweet chestnuts Roots: Dandelion, horseradish, Jerusalem Artichokes, and wild garlic Wild Greens: chickweed, dandelion, and wintercress Game: Hare, rabbit, pheasant, and venison
Sweet Chestnuts were introduced by the Romans and have long been a feature of Christmas. They can be ‘baked, roasted, boiled or microwaved’. You need to prepare them by scoring a cross in them; otherwise they will explode when cooked. They are often sold by street vendors (there is often a seller on the Millennium Bridge on the way to Tate Modern in London) and, in my family, are always a part of the stuffing for the Turkey. They can also be candied, puréed or stored in syrup. (The Woodland Trust Foraging in November and December).
John Evelyn, the 17th Century Diarist and author of a book on trees (Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber) wrote that the nuts were:
‘delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks, and able to make women well-complexioned’
He complained that in England they are chiefly given to pigs to eat.
Chestnut meal was also used for whitening linen and for making starch. Marones, imported from Italy, France, Switzerland, and S. Germany contain 15% sugar and so were used to make a thick syrup and a ‘very usable’ sugar, from which Marons Glacés are made.
The wood of the chestnut is very useful and is/was used for building, pit props, furniture, poles for hops etc. but is nowhere near as long-lasting as oak.
Medically, they were used for treating convulsive coughs such as whooping-cough, where the leaves were infused in a pint of boiling water. (A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve)
First Published on 3rd December 2022, Revised and republished in December 2023
Winter, meteorologically speaking is described in the Northern Hemisphere as being December, January, and February, which is, of course, a convention rather than a fact. Astronomically, winter starts with the Winter Solstice when the sun is at its lowest and so stretches from around December 21st to the Equinox around March 21st.
Logically, the solstice should be a midpoint of winter rather than the beginning of it, with 6 weeks of winter on either side of it. This is roughly what the Celtic year does, it starts at dusk on 31st October (Halloween/Samhain) and continues to the evening of 31st January (Candlemas/Imbolc). So a Celtic Winter is November, December and January.
As far as the Sun goes this is really correct, but, in fact, because of the presence of the oceans (and to a lesser extent) the earth, the coldest time is not the Solstice when the Sun is at its weakest, but a few weeks later in January. The oceans (and the landmass) retain heat, and so the coldest (and the warmest) periods are offset, so January 13th is probably the coldest day not December 21st.
December comes from the Latin for ten – meaning the tenth month. Of course it is the twelfth month because the Romans added a couple of extra months especially to confuse us. For a discussion on this look at an early blog post which explains the Roman Calendar.
In Anglo-Saxon it is ærra gēola which means the month before Yule. In Gaelic it is An Dùbhlachd – the Dark Days which is part of An Geamhrachd, meaning the winter, and the word comes from an early Celtic term for cold, from an ‘ancient linguistic source for ‘stiff and rigid’’, which describes the hard frosty earth. (see here for a description of the Gaelic Year).
My personal calendar suggests that winter begins on November 5th, because this is the day I generally notice how cold it has suddenly got. This year, my smart meter tells me that winter began in the last week of November.
December was originally the 10th Month of the unreformed Roman Calendar, now the 12th. For the Christian Church, it’s the period preparing for the arrival of the Messiah into the World. For the Anglo-Saxons it is the month of Yule, the midwinter festival. In Welsh, Rhafgyr, the month of preparation (for the shortest day). In Gaelic, An Mios (or Dudlach or an Dubhlachd) – the Darkness.
For a closer look at the month, I’m turning to the 15th Century Kalendar of Shepherds. Its illustration (see above) for December shows an indoor scene, and is full of warmth as the bakers bake pies and cakes for Christmas. Firewood has been collected, and the Goodwife is bringing something in from the Garden. The stars signs are Sagittarius and Capricorn.
The Venerable Bede has an interesting story (reported in ‘Winters in the World’ by Eleanor Parker) in which a Pagan, contemplating converting to Christianity, talks about a sparrow flying into a warm, convivial Great Hall, from the bitter cold winter landscape. The sparrow enjoys this warmth, but flies straight out, back into the cold Darkness. Human life is like this brief period in the light, warm hall, preceded and followed by cold, unknown darkness. If Christianity, can offer some certainty as to what happens in this darkness, then it’s worth considering.
This contrast between the warm inside and the cold exterior is mirrored in Neve’s Almanack of 1633 who sums up December thus:
This month, keep thy body and head from cold: let thy kitchen be thine Apothecary; warm clothing thy nurse; merry company thy keepers, and good hospitality, thine Exercise.
Quoted in ‘the Perpetual Almanack of Folklore’ by Charles Kightly
The Kaledar of Shepherds text below gives a vivid description of December weather and then elaborates on the last six years of a man’s life, with hair going white, body ‘crooked and feeble’. The conceit here is that there are twelve months of the year, and a man’s lot of ‘Six score years and ten’ is allocated six years to each month. So December is not just about the 12th Month of the Year but also the last six years of a person’s allotted span. The piece allows the option of living beyond 72, ‘and if he lives any more, it is by his good guiding and dieting in his youth.’ Good advice, as we now know. But living to 100 is open to but few.
The longer description of December (shown below) by Breton in 1626 gives a detailed look at the excesses of Christmas, who is on holiday, and who working particularly hard. But it concludes it is a costly month.
The Kalendar was printed in 1493 in Paris and provided ‘Devices for the 12 Months.’ I’m using a modern (1908) reconstruction of it using wood cuts from the original 15th Century version and adding various text from 16th and 17th Century sources. (Couplets by Tusser ‘Five Hundred Parts of Good Husbandrie 1599, and text descriptions of the month from Nicholas Breton’s ‘Fantasticks of 1626. This provides an interesting view of what was going on in the countryside every month.
Gervase Markham in his ‘The English Husbandman’ of 1635 provides instructions on how:
To take Eels in Winter, Make a long bottle or tube of Hay, wrapped about Willow boughs, and having guts or garbage in the middles. Which being soaked in the deep water by the river side, after two or three days the eels will be in it and you may tread them out with your feet.
Eels have been eaten for thousands of years, but no one knew where they came from or how they reproduced. Aristotle thought they spontaneously emerged from the mud. Sigmund Freud dissected hundreds of Eels, hoping to find male sex organs. It was only last year, on 19th October 2022 that an article in the science journal Nature entitled ‘First direct evidence of adult European eels migrating to their breeding place in the Sargasso Sea’ was published, proving beyond doubt that the theory that Eels go to the sea near Bermuda to spawn was, incredibly, true.
Eel Pie Island
Eel Pie Island . Ordnance Survey In 1871 to 1882 map series (OS, 1st series at 1:10560: Surrey (Wikipedia)
Eel Pie island is on the Thames, near Twickenham, famous for its Eels, was home to an iconic music venue that hosted most of the great English Bands of the 50s. 60s, and 70s. The roll call of bands here is awesome. The Stones, Cream, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, you name it, they were here:
David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Champion Jack Dupree, Buddy Guy, Geno Washington, Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Ten Years After, Chicken Shack, and one of my all-time favourite bands. the Savoy Brown Blues Band. The Nice, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Joe Cocker, and the Who. And many more!
Jellied Eels have been a staple of East End diets since the 18th Century. They were to be found in many stalls dotted around the East End, from vendors venturing into pubs and in Pie and Mash shops. Tubby Isaacs is perhaps, the most famous and jellied eels are still sold in a diminishing number of places in the East End.
My mum loved them. It took me until I was over 60 before I could bring myself to try them and have not wanted to repeat, what for me, was a revolting experience. On the River Lee Navigation is another piece of Eel history which is the excellent Fish and Eel Pub at Dobbs Weir.
This was first published as part of another post in 2022, and revised and republished on 28th November 2023
Thanksgiving is a festival given over to celebrating God’s Bounty. There are unanswerable debates about which was the ‘First’ Thanksgiving but the date of the 4th Thursday in November was set by Abraham Lincoln. It is basically a harvest festival, but was adopted by Lincoln as one method to unite a divided nation during the Civil War.
Thanksgiving today is mostly roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, with many other variants and additions such as a first course of soup, and vegetables like brussel sprouts and broccoli. Very like an English Christmas dinner, but replacing the Christmas Pudding with pumpkin pie.
As to what the first Pilgrims would have eaten is not known, but their chronicler Edward Winslow noted:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week.”
So the birds shot by 4 marksmen would have been wild turkey but also other birds such as ducks, geese, and swans. Seafood; Mussels, lobster, and eel were also available.
As to ‘gathering the fruits of our labors’. This might have included onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, and peas. Stuffing might be seasoned with sage, thyme, parsley, marjoram, fennel, anise or dill, The Pilgrims had plenty of Corn from their first harvest which would have been turned into cornmeal, and eaten as a mush if savoury or sweetened with molasses as a porridge, or made into cornbread, or for stuffing.
Indigenous Wampanoag Americans might have been present, but only to investigate the shooting of canons in celebration by the Pilgrims. Relationships were tense between the natives and the immigrants. Some Indigenous Americans consider it a day of mourning; others use it as a day of gathering for the family, but generally, consider images of the Pilgrims and Indigenous Americans sitting down peacefully celebrating together to be ‘a lie’. (Native Americans and the First Thanksgiving.)
First Published on 24th November 2022, Republished on 23rd November 2023
This was the period of the year for ‘Night-fowling’ Gervase Markham wrote a whole book about it in the 17th Century. It was called Hungers Prevention: or, the Whole Art of Fowling by Water and Land. (Printed London: for Francis Grove, 1655).
In it, he tells the reader to go to a stubble field in November when the air is mild and the moon not shining. There take a dolorous low bell, and net. Spread the net over the stubble where there may be fowl, ring the bell, light fires of dry straw, and the fowl will fly and become entangled in the net.
November 19th is also World Toilet Day, which is a significant development target for the world as it impacts badly on women in those areas where decent hygiene cannot be guaranteed.
First published Nov 19th 2022. Republished Nov 19th 2023
A late warm patch is now often called an ‘Indian Summer’. This term was first used in the United States in the 19th Century and may refer to a warm period in which Indigenous Americans could continue hunting.
Previously, in England, a warm patch in the Autumn was called a ‘St Martin Summer’ or ‘a Halloween Summer.’ St Martin’s Day is the 11th November, and is, in a normal year, the day around when the weather turns to feel wintry.
A warm spell is, in fact beneficial to many plants. The problem comes if it is followed by a quick cold spell. Plants need time to harden off to prepare to face cold weather. A warm winter will also allow a lot of insects to survive and so in the summer plants will be adversely affected by a plague of pests.
The 9th Month of the Roman Calendar 9 being ‘novem’. Now it’s the 11th because of reorganisation of the Roman Calender.
In Welsh it is ‘Tachwedd’ which means the month of slaughtering. Blōtmōnaþ (Blotmonath) in Anglo -saxon – the month of blood. These reference the fact that this is the month when the surplus animals are slaughtered or as the historian, Venerable Bede has it, ‘the month of immolations’.
The image shows some of the aspects of November – star signs Scorpio and Sagittarius, Pigs are fattening up on the acorns in the forest and then being fattened, slaughtered, smoked or dried to preserve them through the hard winter. The text of the Kalendar gives a good summary of what early modern life in November was like. In summary, the day when the ‘poore die through want of Charitie’.
On my way to Stratford-upon-Avon Railway station, I saw this sign, but had no idea what on earth a Mop was.
So I put it to the back of my mind as I took the train to Henley-in-Arden. My interest in the town began, as Shakespeare was born in Henley St in Stratford, and his mother was called Mary of Arden. So, naturally, I wanted to find out about Henley-in-Arden. To turn curiosity to action it took our Tour Coach Driver telling me he lived there and that it was a pretty but small town.
With a free afternoon from my duties as Course Director on the ‘Best of England’ Road Scholar trip, I found myself on the very slow train to Henley-in-Arden. One of the first stops was Wilmcote, where Mary Arden’s House is. I visited last year, when I was astonished to find it was a different building to the one I had visited in the 1990s. In 2000, they discovered they had been showing the wrong building to visitors for years! Mary Arden’s House was, in fact, her neighbour Adam Palmer’s. And her house was Glebe Farm. On that visit, I walked from Anne Hathaway’s Cottage to Mary Arden’s House and back to Stratford along the Stratford Canal – a lovely walk if you are ever in the area.
The train route to Henley was through what remains of the ancient forest of Arden. The forest features in, or inspired, the woody Arcadian idylls which feature in several of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly the Comedies. ‘As You Like It’, for example, is explicitly set in the Forest of Arden, as this quotation from AYL I.i.107 makes clear:
Oliver: Where will the old Duke live?
CHARLES: They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England: they say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.
Henley-in-Arden turns out to be a quintessentially English little town full of beautiful timber framed buildings and a perfect Guildhall.
Further down the road is a lovely Heritage Centre full of old-fashioned and DIY Information panels. And that is not a criticism, it provided a very enjoyable visit full of interesting stuff and which gave me a couple of snippets of information I have not seen anywhere else.
So, to get back to the signpost for the Mop, I was delighted to find a panel dedicated to the Henley Mop. A mop turns out to be a hiring fair. Think of Gabriel Oak in Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. His attempt to become an independent farmer destroyed when his sheepdog runs amok and sends his sheep over a cliff to their doom. So he takes his shepherd’s crock to the hiring fair or Mop as they are known in the Midlands. There, potential employers can size up possible employees and strike mutually agreed terms and conditions. And Gabriel becomes the shepherd for the delightful and wilful Bathsheba Everdene.
So, a shepherd would take his staff, or a loop of wool; a cleaner her mop (hence the name of the fair), a waggoner a piece of whipcord, a shearer their shears etc. Similarly, in the Woodlanders, the cider-maker, Giles Winterborne, brings an apple tree in a tub to Sherborne, to advertise his wares.
The retainers thus employed would be given an advance and would be engaged, normally, for the year. So there was quite a widespread moving around of working people to new jobs and often new housing. Not quite how we imagine the past?
The perceptive among you will have noted the bottom of the sign in Stratford which advertised the ‘Runaway Mop’. This was held later in the year, so that employers could replace those who ran away from their contracts, and where those who ran away could find a better, kinder or more generous boss.
Also of interest to me was the panel about Court Leets and Barons. These were the ancient courts which dealt with, respectively, crime and disorder, and property and neighbourhood disputes. Henley still has its ancient manorial systems in use, at least ceremonially. The Centre shows a video of a cigar-smoking Stetson-wearing large rich American arriving at the Guildhall to take over duties as lord of the manor after purchasing the title.
There was another panel of great interest to me as it told the history of Johnson’s Coach Company which was taking my group around England. And it was a delight to discover that it has a history that can be traced back to 1909 in Henley. I conveyed this information to our group on the following day as we toured the Cotswolds. Curtis, our driver, was able to update the panel and told us that the family were still involved with the firm, which is still operating from the area. He said the two brothers who run the company come in every working day and do everything they require of their drivers to do; i.e. they drive coaches, clean coaches, sweep the floors and generally treat their staff like part of a big family. I should have asked him whether he got his job at the Mop, while holding a steering wheel in his hands!