Worlidge ‘s ‘Systema Agriculturae’ 1697 says this is the time to destroy snails. He suggests that, at Michaelmas, you create 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. (First spotted in Charles Knightly’s Perpetual Almanac)
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
Below, I give links to the Late November and early December Posts I have revised and republished. But, first, I would like to tell you about a great lecture I heard at the British Museum, this evening. It was given by Dr Emma Southon on her book about women in the Roman Empire. Her viewpoint was that a study of women in the Roman Empire gives a radically different insight into the Roman world than the traditional. One full of humanity rather than normal evidence which is, generally, about wars, and Empires and bravery and horrific cruelty and ambition and honour. She started with the story of Turia, whose extraordinary epitaph on her tombstone miraculous survived and gave her husband’s view of his extraordinary wife, and his utter sorrow at his loss on her death. Below, is a review of the book and a link to a podcast with the Author.
So, here are the December posts. December 1st and 2nd give an overview of December and the meaning of Winter. December 3rd is about Advent and the fact that you were not allowed to marry during Advent. December 4 gives a Shakespearean view of a cold winter’s day, and a composition by Vaughan Williams.
And late November posts, November 28th tells some interesting tales, both ancient and modern, about Eels, Pies, Rock ‘n’ Roll and my horror of Jellied Eels. November 29th, tells you how to make a ‘dish of snow’ and introduces Ice Houses. November 30th is about Scotland and St Andrews. Like them if you like them! And share them if you want to share them.
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
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.
Tomorrow there is a 10% chance of snow, in London and 95% in Glenn Shee, Scotland, according to the Snow Risk Forecast. So you might like to try this medieval recipe:
To make a dish of Snowe
Take a potte of sweete thicke creme and the white of eight egges and beate them altogether with a spoone then putte them into your creame with a dish full of Rose Water and a dishfull of Sugar withall then take a sticke and make it cleane and then cutt it in the ende fowre square and therewith beate all the aforesayd thinges together and ever as it ariseth take it of and putte it into a Cullander thys done take a platter and set an aple in the middest of it and sticke a thicke bush of Rosemarye in the apple then cast your snowe upon the rosemarye and fill your platter therewith and if you have wafers cast some withall and thus serve them forth
Before fridges, snow gave the chance for ice cream and other cold desserts. The problem was keeping it for longer than the cold spell. So many Stately Homes had ice-houses. The V&A had an ice-house just outside their glorious, Henry Cole commissioned restaurant. There is an ice house preserved at the Canal Museum, in Kings Cross. It was set up by Carlo Gatti in 1857 to store ice shipped in from Norway. Another one, in Holland Park, dates from 1770 and served the infamous Fox family (PM Charles James Fox etc).
The first ice house was in Mesopotamian, but in the UK they were introduced by James 1 at his palaces in, first, Greenwich Park, and then Hampton Court. An ice house generally consists of a pit in the ground, brick lined, which tapered to a point. Above was a circular, often domed building. The ice was protected by insulation such as straw, and this structure would allow ice to be available all through the summer.
My great-grandmother hung a basket outside the window in winter to keep things cold. On my fridge-less narrow boat, I have been known to keep milk and butter outside the door, and to suspend and submerge wine in a plastic bag in the canal in high summer.
For more on Icehouses and the history of ice cream, see my post from August.
Written November 28th 2022, revised and republished 2023
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
Thomas Parr was said to be 152 years old when he died in 1635 on a visit to London to visit King Charles 1st. If we are to believe his story, he was born in 1483 and was married when he was 80, producing two children and married for a second time at 120 years old. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
There are, or were, at least 3 London Pubs named Old Parr’s Head or Parr’s Head in Camden, Islington, and West Kensington.
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.
It was a holiday in Germany, France, Holland, England and in Central Europe. People first went to Mass and observed the rest of the day with games, dances, parades, and a festive dinner, the main feature of the meal being the traditional roast goose (Martin’s goose). With the goose dinner, they drank “Saint Martin’s wine,” which was the first lot of wine made from the grapes of the recent harvest. Martinmas was the festival commemorating filled barns and stocked larders.
It was celebrated with Bonfires in Germany, and with St Martins Beef and Mumming plays in England, but, following the Reformation, its place in the Calendar has been taken by Bonfire Day and Halloween.
St. Martin of Tours (died AD397) was a soldier in the Roman Army who would not fight because of his Christian beliefs. When he met a beggar, he cut his cloak in half and shared his cloak. He rose in the hierarchy of the Gallic Church and became Bishop of Tours. He is one of the few early saints not to be martyred and is the saint of soldiers, beggars and the oppressed. Furthermore, he stands for holding beliefs steadfastly s and helping those in need. According to legend, his barge on the River Loire was accompanied by flowers and birds.
There are two famous Churches dedicated to St Martin in Central London with possible early origins. St Martin’s in the Fields, near Trafalgar Square, has been the site of excavations where finds show a very early settlement there, with early sarcophagi. It is the one place where a convincing case can be made for continuity between the Roman and the Anglo-Saxon period. It is possible, that the Church was founded soon after St Martin’s death (397AD). A settlement grew up near it, and this expanded to become Lundenwic, the successor settlement to Londinium.
The other St Martins is St Martins Within, just inside the Roman Gate at Ludgate. Many early churches are found at or indeed above Gates and this one also has legendary links to burial places for King Lud, and for King Cadwallo, or Cadwallon ap Cadfan, one of the last British Kings to have any chance of recovering Britain from the Anglo-Saxons. Geoffrey of Monmouth says that Cadwallo was buried here in a statue of a Bronze Horseman, and thereby to protect London as a ‘Palladium’ (see for more about Palladiums of London. It has been suggested by John Clark, Emeritus Curator at the Museum of London, that Geoffrey of Monmouth might have used the discovery of a Roman Equestrian Statue as an inspiration for the story.
St Martin was also the saint of Travellers, and this might explain the location of the Church near the gate. Although there is nothing but legendary ‘evidence’, it would make sense for an early church to be built near Ludgate, which is the Gate that leads to St Pauls which was founded in 604AD. Although the City might have been mostly empty, the presence of St Pauls means that Ludgate was most likely still in use or at least restored around this period. It also leads, via Fleet Street and Whitehall, almost directly to the other St Martin.
St Martin’s Day was also the time of year when lime plaster was renewed because lime needs to be kept moist when renewed. It takes three to four days to form the calcite crystals that make it waterproof.
(Originally, posted 11 Nov 2021, revised, Nov 2022, and 10 Nov 2023)
I haven’t seen children asking for ‘a penny for the Guy’ for a while. But it was part of my childhood. We would create a ‘Guy’ out of old clothes and take it into the streets to raise money. The Guy is named after Guy Fawkes, who was discovered on 5th November 1605 in a cellar under Parliament by a pile of barrels of gunpowder. He had a slow match and the plan was to blow up King and Parliament, on the occasion of the Opening of Parliament on the 5th of November. Once the plot had been broken and the plotters hanged, drawn and quartered, the King ordered that November 5th should be commemorated throughout the Country. Bonfires were a part of the seasonal celebrations at the time, used at Halloween, but this aspect was transferred to November 5th and continues as a major British event every year.
The money we raised, we spent exclusively on ‘bangers’ not pretty fountains and Roman candles nor rockets. The bangers just made a horrendously loud bang. One stunt we experimented with was to cycle through the streets and to put a lit banger into the handle bars, which would act as a rocket launcher! Don’t try this at home.
Meanwhile, we would collect wood for the village bonfire:
A stick and a stake For King George’s sake Will you please to give us a faggot If you won’t give us one, we’ll steal you two The better for we and the worse for you.
November 4th is dedicated to hunting gods such as Herne, the Horned God, Cernunnos and Pan.
Herne the Hunter first appears in Shakespeare:
There is an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter (sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest) Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns; And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle, And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain In a most hideous and dreadful manner. You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know The superstitious idle-headed eld Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.
William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 4, scene 4
But he is linked to the Forest God, the Horned One, the Green Man and the Celtic God Cernunnos. This name Cernunnos comes from karnon which means “horn” or “antler”, and may be the source of the name ‘Cerne’. (note that the Cerne Abbas Giant has just been redated from the Celtic to 17th Century.)
Ginger cake is the traditional accompaniment to a cold night watching the Fireworks. There is a good recipe in Markham’s The English Housewife of 1683. But I’m suggesting you use this recipe from the Guardian for Parkin Cake. Traditional in Yorkshire.