Hawthorn or May

Hawthorn is excellent hedging; it grows thick and its sharp thorns deter live-stock escaping and prevents predators getting into fields. It shares these properties with Blackthorn, which is also a common hedge shrub and both plants festoon the hedgerows with white foliage. Blackthorn flowers early in February, while Hawthorn waits until late April or May, so now is a good time to see the beautiful May blossom, (May is the common alternative name for Hawthorn), flamboyantly colouring waysides. Hawthorns have been part of the English landscape for hundreds of years and may date back to neolithic times. The name itself derives from the old English haga, meaning hedge, whilst thorn was an extant word which became linked to it, probably in the twelfth century. Middle English records the word hawethorn. This etymology points to the antiquity of some of our hedges. They are great habitats, particularly for nesting birds, their thick impenetrable nature offering considerable protection. In fact, it is difficult for even the keenest eyed naturalist to identify parent birds, as one usually just gets a quick glimpse before the bird disappears into the darkness where a well-hidden nest has been built.

I was lucky the other day, walking along the fine hawthorn hedge that borders the fields near Lukyns Farm, to hear a Whitethroat singing, the song, identified by an ornithologist friend, was unique, not as melodious as other of its warbler kin, and described in my bird book as, ‘a hard tacc, tacc’ and ‘a scolding tchurrr…A jumble of unmusical phrases.’ Not altogether flattering, although the book adds it can be more musical at the beginning of the breeding season. I am captivated by migrant birds. This little bird, about the size of a Great Tit, makes the remarkable journey from Africa, arriving here in April and returns home late summer, taking in the Iberian Peninsula en route. The pale throat and breast which give it its name and pale brown upper feathers are good camouflage in the hedge and unfortunately, despite hearing it clearly for some time, it eluded us.

The gnarled appearance and knotted bark of Hawthorn, together with its great age, can give the appearance of a bent old man or woman, especially when it grows as a tree. One can imagine eldritch faces staring out of the tree’s ancient trunk. A wealth of folk-lore has come to be associated with the tree. In Ireland they are recognised as gathering points for the faery folk. Superstition forbids bringing the flowers into the house and I recall my mother being rebuked by my grandmother when she made her a posey containing May flowers. It is said to bring bad luck on the house but there may be an interesting scientific explanation for this belief. It has been remarked that the pungent smell of May, that is not a sweet smelling flower, reminded medieval people of plague-ridden bodies, with which they were unfortunately familiar and therefore the scent was felt to be a premonition of death. This is where the science comes in; botanists have found that the chemical trimethylamine is present in Hawthorn blossom and this is one of the first chemicals formed by decaying animal tissue. Often, if you delve deep enough, there is a rational background to old myths.

The other tree that deserves mention in May is the Horse Chestnut. It is not a native, likely to have been introduced from the Balkans in the sixteenth century. A majestic ornamental tree, it is a winner for children and adults alike: the sticky buds of spring delighting the young and allowing them to experience nature in a tangible way that they will remember all their lives; then the candelabra of white flowers which have a pink base making one of the most impressive displays in the year; avenues of the chestnuts, their large verdant green leaves offering shade, seem to beckon us into the summer. Lastly, perhaps the biggest surprise of all are the fruits, the conker, collected by generations of schoolchildren for autumn games. When I was a boy a good conker was prized and I still can’t resist collecting them but, sadly, it is no longer a game played by the young.

Horse Chestnuts have become naturalised and can be found in local woods; there are several in the Badger Wood near Bramblehurst Farm. They seem to prefer the edge of the woodland, probably needing more light than other trees and in places they stand alone in fields or meadows. The Chestnut is not associated with English folk tradition, but it is interesting that George Orwell’s novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ ends with its hero Winston Smith meeting his lover Julia at The Chestnut Tree cafe, where he wiles away his fruitless time after interrogation by the Thought Police. Torture in the story leads to betrayal:

‘ “I betrayed you,” she said baldly.
“I betrayed you,” he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.’
Winston hears a voice singing in a ‘cracked and jeering’ note:
‘Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me-‘

George Orwell

To Orwell the tree symbolises treachery and loss of love. Is there something deeply melancholy hidden in its sap?

The season turns as the swallows arrive, our best loved migrant. I saw one skimming the pond at Lower Breache Farm today. I always feel that the Swifts, House Martens and Swallows signal that summer has arrived and I always look up to see the swifts high in the evening skies, their high pitched screee bringing a sense of joy and promise of fine weather. This is the time to sing the anonymous thirteenth century words that celebrate summer arrival:

Somer is i-comen in,
Loude syng cuckoo!
Groweth seed and bloweth meed
And spryngeth the wode now.
Sing cuckow!
Ewe bleteth after lamb,
Loweth after calve cow;
Bullock sterteth, bukke farteth,-
Myrie syng cuckow!
Cuckow! Cuckow!
Wel syngest thou cuckow:
Ne swik thou nevere now.
Syng cuckow, now, syng cuckow!
Syng cuckow, sing cuckoo, now!

Today, at last, I saw a Cuckoo; the elusive bird broke cover from woodland and flew across a field near Yard Farm. For the rest of the day we have heard them calling from deep in the woods and I wonder if they are joining us cheering for all the devoted care workers.

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