Oak Apples

Oak Apple

I found these decorative little apples on a walk last weekend, then returned later with my camera. Rarely have I seen them so beautifully coloured – just like the apples they are named after.

Oak apples and other galls have been used to make ink since at least Roman times, and it was the most commonly used ink from the 9th to the 20th century in Europe – it is still used for legal records in the UK such as birth, marriage and death certificates because it is both permanent and waterproof. Best used in a disposable quill pen rather than your best fountain pen!

To make it, first you need some galls that have been vacated by the wasp and are dry. Crush them to powder, then add warm water and iron in some form, eg rusty nails or filings, and cover. Keep in a warm place to ferment for a few days. Then drain off the ink, filtering out the solids if necessary, and store it in an airtight container. It has a fairly short shelf-life; oxidation reveals the ink and turns it darker on the page, but isn’t so helpful before it has been formed into writing! The ink is also quite acidic, being formed from tannic acid and iron – although apparently crushed egg shells can be used to neutralise it and prevent it from degrading the paper.

Oak Apple

Medicinally oak apples can be used like oak bark to stop internal bleeding. However while chewing bark is fine, I cannot recommend chewing an oak apple – they are about the most astringent of all vegetable compounds. Instead, use a decoction. They are also known for curing dysentery.

There is not a lot of folklore associated with the oak apple. However, it is said that if a “worm” (larva) is found inside the gall on Michaelmas Day (29th September) then the year will be pleasant and unexceptional, if a fly is found inside it will be a moderate season, but if a spider is found, then it will be a bad year with food shortages and ruined crops. If nothing is found however, then serious diseases will occur all that year.

Group of Oak Apples

The oak apples used to have a much greater significance in England, being used as decorations on Oak Apple Day, 29th May. The mid 1600s saw civil war in England, followed by a very Puritan Commonwealth rule. All sorts of traditional festivities and activities were banned, such as Maypole dancing, Christmas decorations or feasting, carol singing, theatres, inns, football or other sports, walking on a Sunday except to or from church, and even wearing colourful clothes or makeup etc. Even the various Medieval Saints’ Feast days were stopped, and instead Fast days were introduced once a month. It was on his birthday, 29th May, in 1660 that Charles II rode triumphantly into London to return as King. The day was declared a holiday and was entirely given over to dancing, feasting and merry-making – and the event was repeated every year. The story of how he hid in an oak tree to escape parliamentarian forces became widespread and led to the Oak tree becoming the symbol both for this day and of England. To show their loyalty and support for the monarchy and its restoration, doorways were decorated with oak boughs and people wore sprigs of oak in their clothing or on their hats – of which oak apples are the most decorative part at the end of May. They were liable to be punished with pinching or nettles if they failed to do so!

Oak Apple

While this holiday has become much less known since the Victorians removed it from the official calendar (a day given over to merry-making didn’t fit well in that period!) it is still celebrated in various villages and towns around the country – including Castleton in Derbyshire where they hold a garland parade every year on this day.

Lessons in Trust

I have wanted to do some form of both dancing and music for two or three years, but couldn’t find anything suitable in terms of my abilities (limited when it comes to dancing!) and time available – until late last year when I saw a ladies morris group out dancing. It was just one of those times when I knew instantly that that was what I wanted to do, and by January circumstances meant I was able to join the group and have my first evening out by myself since having M. Amazing, and utterly perfect for me! As a result I have been very busy over the past few months practising polka steps, learning the dances, and sewing the required costume – leaving less time for all the other things I would love to do, and even need to do, like housework and gardening. It has once again proved to me that I can manage whatever I want to provided I focus all my energies in that direction – but only just! Hence a few late blog posts recently, besides other things.

The difficulties I faced were frequently unexpected. To begin with, all went smoothly. Realising I was serious about joining the group, and that the only ‘spare’ skirt wouldn’t fit me (kit normally being returned when dancers leave), extra fabric was purchased and I was handed a bag and a roll of fabric, a greaseproof paper pattern for the skirt in size 20ish, and the spare skirt to copy. Purchasing ribbon to match was my responsibility – and at that point my problems started. Three shops later, I found a colour that was close although not exact and either too narrow or too wide. They were able to order some for me, for collection the following week. Sorting the pattern was another major challenge, since the skirt has 8 flared gussets to be fitted and a flat waist. I can’t even guarantee my waist will be the same size in three months time with all this dancing, so I have to find a way of making it adjustable…

So I get the skirt made – although not without having to take the sides apart and re-sew them smaller since it was already too generous. Next I try and buy plain cotton poplin for my shirt, so visit my favourite fabric shop. They don’t have enough. Something they normally keep in stock, so I try again. And again. And again! It turns out the owner is ill and hasn’t put the order in yet, and won’t let the three or four other people who work there do it either, so by this time fabric stocks are seriously run down – I buy elsewhere but it isn’t exactly what I wanted. Still, I shall probably need a second shirt by the summer…

Meanwhile I ask multiple times about a waistcoat pattern. A month later I am given a bag of coloured fabric scraps for the patchwork front, but still no waistcoat. I finally manage to borrow one from another dancer, but I only have it for three days as she is dancing out early in the season. (I knew I wouldn’t be ready for April dates!) So I make my own pattern from hers, guessing at size alterations needed, and then try and buy the extra bits I need. Calico lining takes two shops to find, different colour ribbons take three, and buttons take four shops before I find anything suitable. I am at this point going into Derby almost once a week with M, taking up valuable sewing time!

At the same time I must get a pair of clogs. This is not something I can make, nor buy off the shelf in my size, so I find a clogmaker online who will custom fit. I expected them to be ready early April, but I only get a message to say they are ready for fitting at the end of the month. So my first free day for nearly a month (thanks to pre-schoolers having school holidays) sees me driving nearly two hours, an hour fitting clogs, an hour having a walk and my sandwiches while the clogs are finished, and then driving for over two hours back again. I do have a contingency plan, but mainly I’m just trusting I will get back in time. Thanks to a roadworks traffic jam delaying me by twenty minutes when nearly back, I am able to collect M with 1 minute to spare and no stops en route. The dance is in three days but I’m too worn out to sew that evening.

I spend my free half days that week glueing the photocopies of music I have been given onto card, and then covering them with plastic so that I can use them outside. There are over twenty in total. The dances in the list for the weekend get practised on my recorder, the rest do not.

I finally finished sewing everything the morning of the day before my first dance, continuing to trust that if it was meant to be, then somehow it would work out. I still have to add some decoration on the back of my waistcoat, and sew some bell elastics for my shoes since the ‘spare’ pair of those were rather tight. Luckily my next dance is not until June as everyone else is having a long weekend away, so hopefully I can relax a bit now!

Blackwell Stone “Circle”

Blackwell Stone “Circle”
(Click to enlarge.)

Here is a Peak District novelty that I happened to spot on the way to somewhere else, and stopped to take some photographs on the return journey. Five large stones placed in an arc on a raised bank in the middle of a field, near the hamlet of Blackwell, clearly visible from the B6049. Grid ref: SK1267.7194 (last digits approximate – it is private land so I didn’t enter the field and pace out the exact position.) At first glance it might appear to be the remains of a stone circle.

However, as a circle, it doesn’t quite fit and I suspect it isn’t really trying to. The stones are limestone, whereas Derbyshire stone circles are all on gritstone – apart from the much older henges. Their size and shape also feel incorrect for a historical circle, since nearly all are ‘female’ in shape and are too close together proportionally. (Avebury alternates male and female for example, other circles are nearly all male.) Being approximately 3-4 feet high, this is also unusual for Derbyshire as most circle stones are either considerably smaller, or 6 feet plus. And the bank they sit on was probably created to support the stones and shaped around them, it does not continue to complete a circle but slopes off evenly in all directions before the ground rises again near the wall.

And yet… There is a totally unexpected power and majesty of these five stones erected carefully and precisely by human hands. They line up neatly in their arc with a precision many circles lack, and they are substantial lumps of rock. Even if it can’t be called a circle, it is an intriguing rock sculpture and deserves praise for that alone.

I was unable to meditate with the stones, given they are on private land, but I did return to them in a mediation journey later.

My first impression was a surprise of how strong energy links there were between the stones. They had come from the same place and were all strongly connected to each other, and that was replicated in their alignment. It made me see how other stone circles could easily build up such a strong energy field around the circle. However I then tried to feel beyond the stones, even within the arc, and there was nothing. If I had ever been in any doubt that this was never part of a circle, this would have confirmed it, as there was absolutely nothing across the empty space. Not even a path where people might have walked from the nearby farmhouse to the stones. I have found that it is usually possible to feel the energy of where stones were and feel the circle even when it is not visible, but that wasn’t the case here. Possibly this is an opportunity missed – there are other circles around with only 4 or 5 large stones, eg see photos on my blog about Duddo Stones, Northumberland, and also elsewhere in Derbyshire that I haven’t written about yet. But more likely whoever erected the stones just wanted them to feel like part of something bigger, and maybe one day there will be more.

The other discovery of interest from my meditation was that the stones were each already quite weathered and shaped, and I could see how this would increase over time making them each into sculptures in their own rights. Some would hold water, others would develop fissures and other interesting shapes, but all seemed to have somewhere smooth you could run a hand over.

Apple Blossom

Apple Cordons in full blossom

Following on from the Blackthorn blossom a couple of weeks ago, I am now seeing the best display of apple blossom ever in my garden! I had always believed apples needed sufficient cold to set flower buds, but clearly that isn’t the case. Having had warm winters two years in a row, and small crops for the last two years as well, I think the trees have gathered their energies into production. It is of course possible that my pruning has improved and had some effect, but I’m not aware of it. I think it is just a good year for fruit blossom around here.

Blossom from ‘Bountiful’ opening from dark pink to white.

I really enjoy the different colours from different plants, and the change as the petals open.

Anyway as apples are such a great Pagan fruit, I just wanted to share it this week. Pagan because they make a five-pointed star inside, and because anything regarded as totally sinful and at the same time the fount of all wisdom must be good… They are pretty good for promoting harmony and love as well!

Arthur Turner Blossom

Crabapple ‘Laura’ Blossom. The fruit is dark red all the way through.

Walking with an Angel

Last weekend I had an unusual opportunity to have a longer walk than normal, by myself. Nowhere particularly exciting – I could choose a drop-off point somewhere along the route the rest of my family were going to be driving, and then I could walk home from there, but this had the advantage that some of the walk would be on unfamiliar footpaths. Total distance around 6-7 miles, with about 3 hours before I needed to be home.

Ducks and Tree Roots

The first part of the walk was through a country estate (lots of those still in Derbyshire!) with a lake that turned out to be a popular place to feed the ducks. I had hoped to stop somewhere around here and meditate, but it didn’t feel like the right place to stop, and there was a very cold wind blowing. I just took a few photographs instead.

The walk continued to be pleasant through the park with various non-native 200 year old trees dotted about, and then into farmland. A brief visit to a small village and out again along a very pretty stream. Still nowhere to stop, and various chatty dog-walkers about.

After that I took a ‘wrong’ turn, not following my original plan. I realised my mistake almost immediately, but it looked inviting so I decided to continue across an old railway line that is now a footpath although not shown on my map. It seemed to mark a boundary, as from that point on I met no other walkers all the way home. I had sadly left the prettiest bit of the walk behind me, but also the populated areas and the people. I found a sunny, sheltered patch of grass next to a farm track to sit on and have a bite to eat, and then continued walking as it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to linger.

Finally I realised I wasn’t going to find my perfect meditation spot anywhere. I was still 3-4 miles from home, knew most of the paths, and they didn’t go through any woodland or watery places or pretty spots or drama; it was just fields with the occasional bit of road to cross. I wondered if I could do my meditation while walking. I let myself go into Alpha state, dulling the sensations of the world around me and opening to my inner world. My question was simple: having been reading about guardian angels, and the fact that angels are spirit so can take different appearances as needed, were the other spirit friends I meet with regularly simply my angel choosing that form to help me, or was an angel different?

First I met with one of my dragon spirit friends. Then he helped me meet my guardian angel. I could feel the energy as completely different. There was no way I could ever confuse the two. I thanked dragon, and then talked with my angel for the first time. Staying in alpha, we walked together, and I felt my angel’s loving presence, knew it would be there for me no matter what. Other guides are just that – guides, or teachers, or advisors, but I understood how the angel was a guardian, just there for me, whether I asked it to be or not, and would always be there. Most of the time we just walked in silence together. Finally as I entered my village and was almost home, I said thank you and left alpha state. My inner world closed, and the physical reality around me was once again my reality. But I was somehow changed. Filled with love, with light, a feeling of lightness, and connectedness. I had a sense of who I was, as Spirit but with an extra dimension to previous spiritual experiences.

***

I didn’t post this last weekend as I wanted more time to process what I had experienced, and also because new questions arose in my mind and I wanted to see what would happen next.

A few days later I was again walking by myself, this time just a short distance late in the evening as it was getting dark. So I tried contacting my angel again, this time by myself. I knew it was there, but I was not on the right wavelength to have any meaningful conversation. I returned to the spirits I knew, and felt immediately among friends. I then understood them to be octaves apart in terms of vibration, and I was clearly more comfortable at one level than the other. It may also be that the first time I asked for help with a particular issue in which a higher level of love and trust was needed to dissolve a fear, so the angel was best placed to help me with this. I didn’t have this same need the second time, and the playful company of dragons was perfect. It is now my understanding that Angels will always give help when asked, and unconditional love, but they are not beings for ‘just hanging out with’ as I often do with other spirit friends. (Dragons or other animals.) Anyway I decided I would share this in case it interests others and helps anyone else on their own path.

Blackthorn Weatherforecasting

Blackthorn Blossom

For the past two weeks, almost since the March equinox, the Blackthorn has been increasingly floriforous around here. It is a ghostly presence in the hedges, with its white flowers growing along the smaller branches and tops of Prunus spinosa trees, leaving their black trunks bare underneath – almost like the child dressing up at Samhain with black leggings and a white sheet over their heads. Yet the hawthorn which makes up the bulk of the hedges around here is now glowing green with fresh young leaves, creating a patchwork effect.

The old saying for this time of year was “Beware the Blackthorn Winter.” With high pressure dominating and the weather having turned beautifully sunny and warm for much of the country, I have felt that Spring has finally sprung – yes there is the occasional nightly frost, but nothing particularly long lasting since most days it has gone within an hour of sunrise. So I have been puzzled as to why Blackthorn blossom should suggest a return to winter, and decided to investigate further.

Patchwork of white Blackthorn and green Hawthorn

It turns out that normally the blackthorn flowers at the middle to end of April – when there is very often an unexpected cold period. This year winter has been mild, and the weather seems to be continuing that way, so I am thinking this has caused the blackthorn to be particularly early. It is not alone; bluebells have been flowering since the beginning of April around here, 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. But the result of this is that the Blackthorn is not coinciding with a cold spell as it usually does; MET office forecasts are currently predicting ‘rain or showers, turning wintery’ ie snow for next weekend…

I now await confirmation from another tree for my planting out, using that other favourite saying “Ne’er cast a clout ’till May be out.” It refers to the hawthorn blossom, which is usually in flower in mid-May around here – and has generally proved a reliable guide to the last frosts (provided I wait for my own hedge to flower rather than those in more sheltered locations). It already has flower buds, but as I have seen before, the tree is happy to keep its flowers in bud if necessary until the cold weather is over. Wise old trees!

Tadpole update

Mass of emerged tadpoles

I thought anyone who follows my blog might like to know that the tadpoles are all wriggling about the pond…

The first ones ‘hatched’ after 2 weeks, with more emerging each day over the next week and creating a very dark mass of wrigglers in the centre of the two clumps of frogspawn. Finally they seem to have eaten the remains of their ‘egg sacks’ and the first ones broke free to pastures new, being seen around the plants and nibbling algae of rocks – particularly later in the day as the sun warms them. I may have a cleaner, clearer pond very soon!

Tadpole off exploring

Happy Equinox

This year I have been asked to write a series of articles about the various Pagan festivals for a non-pagan audience, so I have been looking at the ‘basics’ of what is common to each festival rather than just relying on my own personal eclectic practices. Needless to say my online searches have turned up many short introductory articles, most of which repeat the same information, most of which is totally familiar. But just a few give me something that I didn’t know before, and in the case of the Spring Equinox, some of what I thought I ‘knew’ has proved to be just a little different.

1. I always had the impression that this festival and its September equivalent were less celebrated and therefore less important than the other sabbats.
However, several stone circles including Stonehenge and various circles in Derbyshire where I am getting to know them have alignments to the sunrise or sunset on this day. They wouldn’t have bothered if they weren’t interested!
I also suspect that the majority of celebrations were related to the farming year – it is always the time when I start my seed sowing, and it always feels entirely appropriate to start it with a ceremony.

2. It comes in the middle of the Pagan year.
Well it does if the year starts at the Autumn Equinox or at Samhain, but actually the spring equinox comes at the start of the modern Persian year, the old European year (on March 25th), the astrological year… The Romans also celebrated new year in March before they created January and February. Of those who didn’t, the Greeks celebrated at the winter solstice, and the Egyptians and Phoenicians started their year at the Autumn Equinox.

3. The name Ostara is used for this festival, the German equivalent of Eostre.
First there is the confusing claim that Eostre was only mentioned by Bede and nowhere else so he probably made her up… Given that Bede was pretty good on his knowledge on every other subject, I don’t see why he shouldn’t have known about the local Goddess where he lived! Evidence on many Celtic and Anglo-Saxon deities is pretty scanty at times, but there are always clues for those that wish to see them.
But, and this is a big but for me, I then read that Eostre’s day was the first full moon after the equinox, not the equinox itself. Given that Eostre is concerned with hares and eggs, this makes perfect sense that the full moon would be relevant, and also explains why Easter is the first Sunday after Eostre’s day. The only trouble is I shall no longer feel right celebrating eggs at the equinox, I will want to wait for the full moon. And it also means that Eostre (and if they are equivalent Goddesses, Ostara) had nothing to do with the Equinox – giving me a whole new set of challenges, and hopefully journeys of discovery, for next year.
Just to confuse things further, there are also those who claim Easter was named for Ishtar who, while still being a Spring Goddess, has a whole different mythology associated with her…

4. Egg hunts are just a fun thing for children to do.
Eggs have been apparently been decorated on every continent, the oldest yet discovered being South African and 60,000 years old. The ancient Egyptians decorated eggs. Almost every European country as well as several Asian and American ones have their own special egg traditions. Eggs can be cooked or blown, scratched, carved, coloured in many different ways, and then displayed in some form (often hung in a tree or by a well) or offered to another. They are not restricted to a particular day either; any time from early spring to the summer solstice seems to have been recognised in this way. But in Britain, eggs were apparently buried by Celtic Druids after being dyed red in order to encourage the life force to return to the Earth for new planting. More sinisterly if true, during difficult times in Europe eggs were hidden to avoid it being known that offerings were being made to the Goddess and children were apparently paid on finding and reporting these eggs. Hiding eggs so that they may be hunted for ‘fun’ seems to have started in England by the 1800s.

Oddly I found an egg buried nearly a foot deep in my garden a month or so ago when planting a small tree. Probably a duck egg, white and quite large, and heavy as if there was an egg inside it. Having absolutely no idea where it came from or what to do with it (we have lived here for 19 years and have never kept ducks) I just left it on the surface of the soil to see what would happen. A week later it was still there, but after another week I saw its broken shell, and it was now definitely empty. Who or what ate it, and what condition or age it was, I have no idea.

Frog Spawn

Frog spawn apparently ‘appears’ between January and February or March, in any pond where there are frogs. I have had various people asking if we had any over the past few weeks, but had to keep saying no, the pond was less than a year old and I didn’t know if we would this first year.

Frogspawn

First Frogspawn, a few hours old. (Click to enlarge.)

And then to our great excitement a large clump of spawn appeared last Sunday.

Given it was full moon that day, I spent some time in the garden in the evening and for the first time in my life had the joy of listening to the gentle sound of frogs croaking. After about 20 minutes there was a splash, then silence. A second clump of frogspawn had appeared – so close to the first I almost missed it in the dark.

Two clumps of frogspawn. (Click to enlarge.)

So now I am keeping an eye for changes, and making sure nothing damages the spawn. However, I was fascinated one morning to discover just how well it looks after itself. Some beech leaves had blown in from the nearby hedge, which I remove most days at this time of year, and one had landed on the spawn. I was surprised to find it was slightly stuck to the spawn and then worried about damaging them as I pulled it off – until I realised that it had a series of circular holes and arcs cut into it. (Afterwards I wished I had kept hold of the leaf, as I couldn’t find it again later to take a photograph.) I can only assume that the coating on the spawn had dissolved the leaf wherever it touched, so that it was no longer blocking the light. This seems to me some feat to achieve in less than a day on a crispy tough beech leaf!

Frogspawn photographed from underwater

Meanwhile my photography took a new turn as I began writing this post, as I managed to find the waterproof case we used to use with our old camera when canoeing. I have a lot to learn still about lighting and focal distances underwater – I obviously cannot see what is in the viewfinder, nor can I check the resulting images very well while they are in the waterproof case, and it needs to dry before I can open it giving little chance for a repeat attempt.

7 day old frogspawn, photographed from underwater.


Surprisingly for a camera that is rubbish at macro, it was the closest pictures that came out most in focus, just showing the start of tails developing. Hopefully with this knowledge and a bit more time to experiment, I will improve before the tadpoles emerge!

Spring Weeding

The sun come out, the soil warms up, and every year I am surprised by how the weeds always seem to launch into growth ahead of my preferred flowering plants…

I have spent the past three weeks weeding, whenever I have half an hour or an hour and it isn’t actually raining. Mainly just four perennial plants (it being too cold for the annuals to get going) – grass, dandelions, American willowherb and avens. Avens I unfortunately allowed to seed itself thinking it might be geum, and which now infiltrates from its base in the hawthorn hedge to wherever it can hide. The geums meanwhile seem to have given up the ghost; there were none last summer. Creeping buttercup used to be a problem, but I have only found a couple of areas this year that it has tried to cover pretending to be hardy geraniums. I am growing wise to the subtle differences there too.

I think only one plant was inadvertently weeded out this year, a phlox paniculata just emerging that looked like a Rosebay willowherb. (Had I realised immediately it could have been replanted, but unfortunately it had to wait for me to flick through a plant catalogue that arrived a week later.) I have never managed to grow tall phloxes, them being rather prone to mildew and other fungi, but like everything, try occasionally when I find a cheap plant that looks pretty in the hopes it will do better this time. Clearly it is partly my own fault I don’t have phlox!

But now I am left wondering what plants resemble grass that I need to be careful of? Dierama seedlings? Crocosmia? Hemerocallis? Luckily I don’t think the dandelions are in danger of confusion with anything else so at least I know I am safe weeding them out before they flower! However, dandelions are one plant I might just allow to grow – were it not for the fact there is usually a field full of them just over my back wall where they look stunning both in flower and later with their silvery seed clocks.

So I now have the near impossible task of filling the gaps (before they fill themselves) with other native wildflowers. Near impossible, because while I think plants such as Helleborus foetidus or Geranium robertianum or Silene dioica should be easy to obtain, they are generally eschewed at the garden centres in favour of new introductions that pay plant breeders rights and will ideally live for only a season or two, ensuring the purchaser returns to buy more plants next year. I’m sure the cottage gardeners of yesterday would have simply dug a bit up and transferred plants to their garden, or hedgewitches would simply have known where to find them locally when they were wanted. Today I must create my own garden, and that may even include importing the ‘weeds’ I want!