Make Hay While the Sun Shines

First published in Local Reach
Although the end of harvest has been celebrated for a very long time, you may be interested to know that the Victorian tradition of Harvest Home celebrations here in Somerset began in East Brent on the 3rd September 1857, inaugurated by archdeacon George Denison, who apparently decided that the end of harvest should be celebrated and recognised as an official holiday.  In 1861 the Church of England recognised Harvest Home as a fixture in the Church calendar and the idea soon spread to other villages.  It is still an occasion for a knees up in many villages in Somerset although there aren’t so many farmers present as when it started.

Getting the harvest in does, of course, depend on good weather and the expression “make hay while the sun shines” arose as a reminder that the “Dog Days” were coming.  The term traditionally refers to the period of hot and humid weather that occurs at the end of July and the beginning of August in the Northern Hemisphere, the Dog referring to Sirius the Dog Star which rises at this time of year.  In ancient Greece and Rome, the Dog Days were believed to be a time of drought, bad luck, and unrest, when dogs and men alike would be driven mad by the extreme heat. Today, the phrase doesn’t conjure up such bad imagery but The Old Farmers Almanac (1817) says that “when Sirius takes charge of the weather, he is such an unsteady crazy dog, there is no dependence on him”.  

Rainfall at this time was considered in the past to be a bad omen as this verse says

Dog Days bright and clear
Indicate a happy year;
But when accompanied by rain,
For better times, our hopes are vain.

So:  Let’s hope for some sunny Dog Days!

Where could you go in 1886?

First published in Local Reach
With the possibility of Covid 19 restrictions being eased, it’s interesting to know how people entertained themselves in the 19th century.  Several factors contributed to the rise in leisure activities in Victorian times.  The opening up of the railways meant that people could travel further and quicker, and when Axbridge station was opened in 1869 the line went from Yatton (with stops at Congresbury, Sandford, Winscombe, Axbridge,) to Cheddar, and was then extended in 1870 to go to Wells.  In 1876 the Bristol and Exeter line was taken over by the Great Western and in 1878 the line was connected to the East Somerset line at Wells, providing trains through to Shepton Mallet and on to Frome on the GWR main line.  

Changes in working practices with industrialisation such as set annual holidays and half day working on Saturday plus the introduction of statutory bank holidays in 1871 also boosted the tourist trade and the demand for cheap rail tickets.  A look at the Weston Mercury of 5 June 1886 shows a wide array of adverts for excursion train tickets to London, as well as ones for day trips to Bristol and to Chepstow and Tintern.  

The highlight for some was to be the availability of cheap excursion tickets from various stations so that they could attend the Sheep Shearing Match at Axbridge.

Travel by sea was also popular.  There were adverts for special excursions to Cardiff from Weston aboard the fast Saloon Steamer “Lady Margaret” and for a steamer from Portishead to Lynmouth and Ilfracombe.  

Other entertainments advertised were the Wrington Vale and Mendip Sheep Shearing Society annual dinner (with first class band), a performance by The Original Pepper’s Ghost and Spectral Opera company at Weston-super-Mare and more fun was promised at the Conservative Fete at Mendip Lodge where there would be “rural games and sports”, and dancing on the green.  At dusk the grounds was to be illuminated by Chinese Lanterns with a firework display also promised.

The leisure and entertainment industry continued to thrive.  People flocked to the Cheddar Caves which the Gough family opened to the public in the 1890’s, Weston-super Mare football team began in 1887 and so on.  

Whatever you are doing or wherever you are going when restrictions end  – enjoy!

The Game of Fives

First published in Local Reach

Fives was, as the name suggests a game for 5 people, originally using hands and later bats or racquets.  Much like squash it involved hitting a ball against a wall.

Originally the game was played against church walls but during the eighteenth century there were attempts by the church authorities to prevent this, not least because of the damage it caused to the fabric of the buildings and the cost of replacing windows! Various methods were used including erecting railings or fences to prevent access, digging up the area and in this 1763 example at Ashwick, the churchyard cross was moved “to the Vifes place… to prevent the Young People from spending so much idle time in that sort of exercise”.

So successful were the church authorities in preventing the playing of fives that a number of secular fives walls were built, often in the grounds of inns.  The remains of several of these in Somerset are still extant.  

This illustration above is an 1808 copy of a painting of 1757 by Alfred Bennett showing a fives court in Axbridge where yellow clay appears to have been used to make a solid floor upon which to play.  The court is next to “Mrs Gallop’s cottage,” which is thought to have been used as a school.  Mr Gallop, seen here with a telescope, was said to have been fond of spying on his neighbours.  Sadly, both the cottage and the fives walls have long since disappeared.

Easter Eggs

Image result for victorian easter cards
First published in Local Reach
Many people today celebrate Easter by indulging in a lot of chocolate rather than commemorating the resurrection of Christ.  Chocolate eggs are, of course, a relatively new invention but the Easter egg, as a symbol of re-birth and fertility goes back a long way.

Before Christianity eggs were painted with bright colours to celebrate Spring and it was a popular custom in the Middle Ages.  In the household accounts of Edward I there was an entry in 1307 which recorded a cost of 18 pence for “450 eggs to be boiled and dyed and covered with gold leaf and distributed to the Royal household.”  

In the 18th century people could buy papier-maché eggs which were then decorated and filled with a small gift.  

It was not until the 19th century that a method of making chocolate eggs was devised, initially by the French and Germans and then copied by British manufacturers including John Cadbury who made the first Cadbury Easter egg in 1875.    The first decorated eggs were plain shells decorated with marzipan flowers and chocolate piping.

But it was not all about chocolate.

Image courtesy of the Faberge Collection

In Russia, during the early years of the 20th century, the jeweller Carl Fabergé made highly decorated eggs for both Czar Alexander III and Czar Nicholas II.  The very first was a gift from Czar Alexander to his wife.   It was made of gold and white enamel with a golden yolk, inside which was a golden hen with a ruby pendant inside.  This was so impressive that the Czar ordered Fabergé to make one for the Czarina every Easter and 10 were produced for her between 1885 and 1893.   Alexander’s son, Nicholas, carried on the tradition ordering two to be made every year for his mother and wife. Although the design was left up to Fabergé, each egg had to have a surprise in it. One amazing egg celebrated the opening of the Trans-Siberian railway. It was made of solid silver, with a map of the train route on it. The stations were marked with precious Jewels, and inside was a gold clockwork train! 

Whilst few, if any, of us can afford a Faberge egg at least we can have a chocolate one!

Archaeology at National Grid Hinkley Connection Project

First published in Local Reach
As is normal with such major works, archaeologists have been involved with the project since the beginning.  The settlement sits in a wealthy Roman landscape not far from the ancient lead mines at Charterhouse-on-Mendip and the Roman Villa at Wint Hill.

They have made some very interesting finds including the remains of a Roman roadside settlement stretching from the Wint Hill to the north down to Loxley Yeo river to southThe buildings are situated either side of the Roman road which follows the modern Max Mill Lane and which has probably been built and re-built several times over the period.  

Roman coin

Although there is no evidence of industrial activity, the discovery of a commercial sized oven in an antechamber and other finds, suggest that the site might have been a sort of staging post. The site is of national significance and unique in the South West and Britain because of the high level of preservation of the site and the artefacts and its 2000 years of uninterrupted occupation.  The artefacts and types of structures found indicate a higher level of wealth in the settlement than the experts would deem typical for this rural landscape.

Knife handles in the shape of a foot

Among the items discovered are brooches, pottery and coins from 2nd century AD through to 4th century AD. A further significant discovery under the floor of one of the buildings is a Roman baby burial – a typical burial method for ancient Roman people.  

The site is still being excavated and is not accessible to the general public but they expect to complete the archaeology surveys in the Summer and will publish further information about the finds when the work is finished. They also plan to hold an Open Day when the artefacts will be on display.

What to do on Valentines Day

First published in Local Reach

Antique Valentines from the late 1800s to the early 1900s

We associate St Valentines Day now with the exchange of cards and other messages of love.  In the past it seems that it could be a little more complicated for women to ensure that they got the man of their dreams.  William Hone in his “Every Day Book” (vol. 1, p,225, published 1825) recounts what one young girl did:  “The night before Valentines’s day I got five bay leaves and pinned four of them to the four corners of my pillow and the fifth to the middle and then, if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said we should be married before the year was out.  But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk, and filled it with salt; and when I went to bed, ate it, shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it.  We also wrote our lovers names upon bits of paper, and rolled them in clay, and put them into water. And the first name that rose up was to be our valentine.  Would you think it, Mr Blossom was my man.  I lay a-bed all morning and shut my eyes till he came to our house; for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world.”

In Somerset it seems there was one seemingly less romantic custom for men.  According to Hone, young men in the West Country “used to go out together before daylight on St Valentine’s day with a clap-net to catch on old owl and two sparrows in a barn.  If they brought them to the hostess of the inn before the ladies of the house had risen they were rewarded by her with three pots of purl in honour of St Valentine, and enjoyed a similar boon at any other house in the neighbourhood.”  

Hopefully Mr Blossom was not amongst them!

Note:  purl was basically a mulled ale infused with spices (though originally wormwood)

Celebrating New Year and another Christmas.

Published in Local Reach January 2021
Celebrating New Year and another Christmas.

Extracts from the Taunton Courier (7 Jan 1920), suggest that New Years day was celebrated in Somerset with an exchange of gifts although “this custom is not so closely observed as in the past”.  The edition also mentions some curious customs associated with Somerset and New Years Day.   Apparently, you should “Never wash anything: if you do wash one of the family away” was an old saying and “trimming the nails is as much to be avoided on New Years day as it is of a Sunday of which the rhyme is often quoted “Cut ‘em on Sunday you cut ‘em for evil.  For the rest of the week you’ll be ruled by the Devil”.

Several rhymes about the weather were also quoted and apparently “The natives of Somerset always taught that the weather of the first three days of January ruled the coming three months.”  “In January should sun appear, March and April will pay full dear.”

One of the best-known customs associated with New Year is, of course, that of first footing in which “The first person that crosses the threshold on New Years day, if he be a dark man, brings luck.”  Although better known in the northern part of Britain it was apparently also a Somerset tradition.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many people in Somerset actually celebrated Christmas on January 6th.   “Old Christmas” as it was called originated because, in 1752, legislation decreed that the calendar was changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and, as a result, 11 days from 3 to 13 September disappeared and Christmas Day moved back from January 6th to 25th December.   In many, particularly rural areas, people protested at this “theft” of these eleven days and demanded that the government “Give us back our 11 days”.  It is strange to think that nothing whatsoever happened in British history for 11 days!

It was, apparently, “considered wicked by some Somerset folk to work on Old Christmas Day.!”   That said, they were not averse to having fun since wassailing traditionally took place on this day and the paper reports that “The custom of wassailing the apple trees is, perhaps, one of the best advertised Somerset and West of England customs — the whole world knows something about placing toast in the forks of apple trees and pouring some of the best cider about the roots to propitiate the fates and thus lead to a good apple bearing season.  Of course, there is singing …. and as the Wassail bowl circled around, the good old folk sang one or other of the wassail songs lustily enough to bring luck to both the trees, the owner and his wife and children [and] in some places guns were fired to ward off the evil spirits.”  The reason that many people now wassail on 17 January is, of course, because that was the Old Twelfth Night.

Whether you celebrate New Year or Old Christmas, I hope 2021 will be a good one.

Christmas for the poor and the rich

published in Contact magazine December 202o
Christmas for the poor and the rich

Who would have appreciated their dinner the most

Christmas Day at the Union Workhouse:  On Christmas Day the inmates of the workhouse received a substantial remembrance of the great Christmas festival.  Beef with vegetables and one pound of plum pudding, were distributed to each inmate.  The old women had also half-an-ounce of snuff each, and the children were regaled with sweets and fruit.  The workhouse pudding consisted of 280 lbs of flour, 125 lbs of raisins, 83 lbs of currants, 100 lbs of suet, 84 lbs of sugar, with other ingredients.

From the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette 31 December 1857
Christmas festivities at Windsor Castle:  The Christmas holidays were observed at court with princely festivity.  The royal table on Christmas night was laden with a magnificent display of viands, set out with taste and splendour.  The baron beef was there in all its glory, as well as the boar’s head, crested with bays and rosemary; and the sideboards were surmounted with stately Christmas trees, glittering with pendant bon bons.
From the Bristol Mercury 01 Jan 1848

In 1860 The Times reported that a favourite dish was a raised pie featuring a woodcock stuffed inside a pheasant inside a chicken inside a turkey and then baked in stuffing ad pastry.  So many mincemeat pies are to be baked the Castle cellars send up 24 bottles of brandy.  For the Christmas meal fifty turkeys are prepared.

Wells Journal
One of the prettiest of Christmas customs is the Norwegian practice of giving on Charismas day, a dinner for the birds.  On that morning, every gable, gateway or barn door is decorated with a sheaf of corn fixed on the top of a tall pole, where-from it is intended that the birds shall make their Christmas dinner.  Even peasants will contrive to have a handful set by for this purpose and what the birds do not eat on Christmas -day remains for them to finish at their leisure through the winter

Christmas Day in the Axbridge Union Workhouse

published in Local Reach December

Deck the Halls with Boughs and Holly

Christmas Day in the Axbridge Union Workhouse.

Whilst conditions in the workhouse were less than ideal those in charge do seem to have done their best to provide some Christmas cheer for the inmates.

Nineteenth century newspaper accounts such as this from 1883, describe the wards as being “draped in greenery, and festoons of evergreens, with various devices in holly, gave a cheery and seasonable look to each apartment.  The entrance hall was suitable embellished and taken altogether the decorations may be pronounced successful and effective.”

More importantly for the inmates, I suspect, was the fact that their normal meagre and basic diet was replaced with a Christmas dinner. The Weston Mercury and Somerset Herald December 29th 1883 reports:  “Christmas-day …  at Axbridge Union Workhouse, was, in every respect, a signal success, and “the powers that be” may take unto themselves much praise for the admirable arrangement which undoubtedly made it so.  In the first place, the meat was of such excellent quality, and so thoroughly well cooked by that extremely useful officer, who assumes the double role (no pun intended) of baker and chef-de-cuisine, that a gourmand to say nothing of an epicure, might have been satisfied with the result; and what has been written about the meat is applicable to the vegetables; potatoes and parsnips being done, we can hardly say, to a turn, so let us write to a bubble.  The dining-hall was .. decorated in an attractive and cheerful manner; whilst garlands of flowers, and festoons of green leaves, interspersed with many brightly coloured flowerets, gave a finish to the seasonable “fit up” that was highly effective.  Of the number of inmates who partook of, and who thoroughly enjoyed the repast provided, there were men,74; women, 50; and children, 31; making a total of 155 ….. As for the plum puddings, they were in every respect capital, and the full justice that was done to them proved, without a doubt, that quality and quantity were duly appreciated by the partakers thereof; everyone was loud in his or her praise of the good and ample fare provided for the occasion.”

Here’s hoping your Christmas meal is equally enjoyable.

Elizabeth Friend, Axbridge Archaeological and Local History Society  www.aalhs.co.uk

 

Caerphilly cheese – made in Somerset and sold in Caerphilly!

Article written for Local Reach November 2020

Caerphilly cheese – made in Somerset and sold in Caerphilly!
According to newspaper reports farmhouse cheese had been made in Caerphilly since the 16th century.  This was made by traditional methods and eaten by the family and farm hands with any surplus being sold at market.  At some stage this production seems to have largely died out possibly because, with industrialisation, and particularly the development of the coal mines, many people left the land.   It is certainly true that by the late 19th century, a considerable amount of Caerphilly cheese was being produced in Somerset, Gloucester and even Glamorgan, much to the annoyance of Caerphilly residents.  It was quick to mature and was, therefore, a good cheese for people to make in their villages and it was clearly in great demand and therefore fetched a good price in south Wales.  It is said that it became a staple food for miners who used to take it down the mines wrapped in a cabbage leaf, and it was thought that it was a good source, not only of protein, but also helped to replace the salt and other minerals that they lost during their times underground.

Shepton Mallet Journal 1913

Highbridge cheese market 1930’s

Despite the concern about Caerphilly cheese being produced outside of the town, it was certainly still being produced until the second world war in various Somerset villages such as Allerton, Wedmore, Mark and Cheddar, sold at Highbridge market and then taken to be sold in South Wales. Recalling her life in Chapel Allerton, the late Mrs Sully said that “in summer cheese and butter were made every day up to the end of September. If we made Caerphilly it would go to Highbridge market.  In 1928, 9p per pound was a good price for the cheese.”

When the Milk Marketing Board was set up in 1933 much of this local cheese production stopped and in 1941 when cheese rationing was introduced, Caerphilly was one of the cheeses that were no longer made, apparently, causing outrage amongst the Welsh miners who were clearly a discerning lot.  In 1949 it was said that “there is a consistent demand for Caerphilly cheese.  The Welsh miner was not that disposed to processed cheese in his sandwiches.” (Western Daily Mail 30 Sept. 1949)