Friday 12 June 2009

In the woods

SOMEWHERE IN SUFFOLK live kind Mr and Mrs G. They share their 160 acres of beautiful wooded farmland with sheep and dogs and moorhens and geese and chickens and bees and for a short while, us too. They came across us at Weird and Wonderful Wood and were amongst the numerous generous folk to read our "park-up request sign" and respond with their contact details for if ever we passed by. And so we did.

Last Sunday was Strawberry Fair - the wildest yet of this summer's fairs, though only a day, so grittable-throughable for the mountains of pennies that we made! An estimated 30 thousand bodies pass through this annual event on Cambridge's Midsummer Common, and I think most of them were drunk. Our neighbour - a carnivorous plant seller - warned us that gaps between vehicles would become loos as the day wore on, and he was right. We packed up when the staggering got too much, and attempted to chase away many weeing men from the sides of our house, but gave up in fear of retributive smashed windows, wandered off into the strange sea of humanity and bought a hat, some incense and what I think is an antique Indian holy ash holder.

Whilst in Cambridge we were able to feast our eyes on the delights in the marvellous Fitzwilliam Museum (such as incredible Medieval Miniatures, Breughel's Village Festival (below) and Gwen John's The Convalescent); and accidentally stumbled past the Corpus Clock & Chronophage which I blogged about a while back. Sadly rain and time prevented us from visiting the Cambridge Folk Museum... but maybe on the way back past.

So from there we headed to this leafy Suffolk nest... and our wheeled house can now be found parked at the end of a pathway into young woodland, where a circular glade houses a beautiful copper beech tree at its centre, and a log bench cut by Mr G for Mrs G on their wedding anniversary. We keep marvelling at the kindness of people and how things have changed for us, once hanging on in the park and ride with endless engine trouble, or being checked up on by the council. It is amazing, as 'grubby travellers', to be welcomed so warmly to a grand estate! It proves again for me the importance of seeing people for the people they are, rather than by any label or received idea; and it is lovely to be seen that way too. I hope that folk invite us onto their spot of land because they get a sense that we'll be a delight to have!
I am very happy to say that we are meeting people who show us England's hospitality, warmth and intelligence, which is easy to forget when you're being shouted at in the street or clipboarded by council men.

This is a real haven of peace, and we have loved being in the woods. Though interestingly we've rather missed the view. Because this little glade is enclosed all around by trees, we feel sort of "muffled" and wonder what is beyond. We have walked, though, and enjoyed this land in its patchwork of light rains and sunshine-afters, which have soggied the ground and dappled nearly-warm sun into our morning doorway.

And all the while there have been woods in my drawings. Or rather I have been into the woods in my drawings. For a long time the old woman who lives in a hut in the woods in folk tales has fascinated and drawn me. So now I am drawing her! In three guises - Baba Yaga, Hansel and Gretel's Witch, and Red Riding Hood's Grandmother. These drawings I have made in charcoal and pencil and for the blackest of black forest, compressed carbon, which gets up your nose, and makes you look like a coal miner. The three drawings, along with a piece of (still to be finished) writing are for an edition of Marvels & Tales - A Journal of Fairytale Studies - to be published next year... so I will show you these progress snippets for now, and more when I can.

Making these drawings whilst reading the well-loved (and enormously recommended) Women Who Run With The Wolves by Jungian Analyst and Storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estes is very apt indeed, exploring as it does that inner yearning for wildness and following of true intuitive paths through the woods...

We're invited to tea this evening with Mr & Mrs G and then we're off again - this time to a wildlife and nature reserve open day at The Sinfield Trust near Woodbridge in Suffolk, where there'll be nature trails, wood crafts, traditional firelighting workshops, barn owl and wild herb walks, turf labyrinths, Swedish folk music, and us selling pictures!!

Monday 1 June 2009


Elder Mother by Arthur Rackham

"Old girl, give me some of thy wood
and I will give thee some of mine
when I grow into a tree."

AND SO, in various parts of England and Scandinavia, a woodsman who wished to cut the Elder would ask of it, lest misfortune befall him.
The Elder is a tree thought in many old tales to harbour a spirit. In Northern Europe she is the Hylde-Moer, a death and fertility goddess. And since days of yore and before, folk have alternately revered and reviled the Elder as a witches' tree, a tree of magic, which must be respected.

The tree's name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Æld meaning fire, because the hollow stems make excellent kindling, and indeed it also bears folk names such as "pipe-tree", since Elder twigs have long been used as blow-pipes by children.
Its negative associations come from a belief that Elder was the wood of the crucifix and/or the tree from which Judas hung himself. The Jew's Ear fungus which grows predominantly on the Elder is so named also because of the crucifixion associations (Judas' punishment was to forever hear folk whispering of his betrayal by having his ears grow on the tree of the cross).

The Elder appears in the conjurings of the Macbeth witches, and there abound tales of Elder Tree Witches trying to steal cow's milk or pinching black and blue a baby sleeping in a cradle made from Elder Wood...

"It were all along of my maister’s thick ‘ead. It were in this ‘ow't’ rocker comed off t'cradle, and he hadn’t no more gumption than to mak’ a new ‘un out on illerwood (elder wood) without axing the Old Lady’s leave, and in course she didn’t like that, and she came and pinched the wean that outrageous he were a’most black in t’ face; but I bashed un off, and putten an eshen on, and the wean is gallus as owt agin."

But above all the Elder is a tree to be used in cooking. Elderflower and Elderberry wine and cordial are probably the most well known and fragrent Elder-recipes, but alongside these, the plant has many many medicinal benefits and other more obscure culinary uses, one of which, since the Elder is just flowering, I decided to make today...


1. On a sunny day, pick a fair few flower heads, leaving long stalks.

2. Beat 1 egg in a bowl.

3. Add 250ml milk and stir.

4. Sift in 200g plain flour whilst stirring. Add a pinch of salt.

5. Dip flower heads into batter (after removing cobwebs and weevils).

6. Plunge battered flowers into a pan of smoking hot oil, a few inches deep, holding onto the stalks until the fritters have turned a golden brown.

7. Serve with a sprinkling of sugar, maple syrup or cinnamon.

For more information about Elder Lore, there's an excellent essay "By Standing Stone and Elden Tree" over at Hedgewychery.

There's more wild foodery and suchlike at Colour it Green where I found the fritter recipe.
And the fritters were delicious!