Saturday, 16 February 2008

Facts you never knew about Gorse . . .

There's an old saying, "When gorse is in blossom, kissing's in season". I hardly need to explain to you this means all year round! Scientifically explained, it is because the gorse thickets you see are a mixture of several sub-species of gorse, which have different flowering times, but we won't bother with that. It has several dialect names too - Furze, Fuzz, Vuzzen, Whin, Whinny luck. The one I recognise most is Furze. For the following information I have leaned extremely heavily upon Richard Mabey's superb book 'Flora Britannica' of which unaccountably I have two copies - the Concise and the Bloddy Big!

It grows on rough land, moorland, wherever there is rough open commonland. In the past, when nothing was left unexploited by poor folk scraping a living, the new growth was useful as a winter feed for animals. In parts of Wales they had gorse mills, which crushed the sharp spikes and made it a palatable feed for cattle and horses. In some places, it was deliberately grown as a crop for this very reason, whole fields being laid down to it. Faggots of gorse wood were used as fuel (especially in bakers' ovens), and indeed when you are camping and want dry wood for a fire, a dead gorse bush still "on its feet" is perfect. Country folk used to drape their washing across it, the flowers make wonderful wine (I have made this and can assure you it is tough on your hands picking the flowers!) and in the past, the flowers also produced a yellow dye for colouring Easter eggs (which were just boiled hens' eggs, home-decorated).

In Whitby, North Yorkshire, "Gorse and heather were bound together to make besom brooms, which were then tied with the same jute string used for binding straw bales". It was also chopped and sprinkled over germinating or emerging peas to keep mice and pigeons away. In the wide expanses of mud across Morecombe Bay in Lancashire, safe passage at low tide was traditionally marked by branches of gorse and other shrubs called "brobs".

On commonland there were usually rules in place as to how much gorse could be cut for fuel - perhaps as much as one man could carry on his back. It was much-prized for fuelling the fierce heat needed for bread ovens. On Harpenden Common in Hertfordshire, one "ol' boy" recalled: "We gathered it carefully, not haphazardly, remembering there was a tomorrow." There was a special (blacksmith-made) tool called a Hack, which was used to cut it. In Western Britain it was planted atop of turf-stone banks (known locally as kests). In the New Forest, folks were more cunning: "A family with a very small smallholding had a gorse hedge around it. Their ruse was to prune back the inside of the hedge and let the outside grow, gradually increasing their acreage."

It was also involved in local superstitions. It was common for old leggy patches of gorse to be burned and thus rejuvenated by new growth. One custom, on the eve of Beltane (May-eve), believed that by setting fire to the bushes, you would drive out witches. In West Torrington, North Devon, there was a traditional match-making dance (revived in 1994) which involved the gorse flowers. 'The Vuz Dance of Flowers' was focused on "an elaborate display made by the male dancer, or 'talesman'. It consisted of a tight faggot of gorse branches, supporting a hazel branch (called a 'nit-al') which was topped with another 'bush' of gorse tied with coloured ribbons." The following is an account given by a villager whose great-grandfather had passed it down to him:

'A man would put his trade object (loaf of bread, horseshoe, nails, etc) in under cover on the top of a faggot, which he had made. There would be one dancer at least for one stand, i.e. more stands than dancers. The dance would be done with whistle pipe and drum, tune unknown. Dancers would dance singly in the fashion of "in and out of the windows". When the band stopped, the girl would go to the nearest stand and pick out the talesman from the men who were standing on the side. If he liked the look of the girl who had picked him, this talesman would go forward and stand by the girl. When all of this had been done they would go to the dance together. On leaving the square, the men would take the faggots home with them, and if marriage resulted, they would use the faggot to cook their first loaf of bread.'

Gorse blossom has the most wonderful scent - like that of coconut, and one of my most abiding childhood memories was wandering a particular valley in the New Forest, and descending the hillside towards the peat-coloured stream, with the heady scent of the gorse blossom, the pistol-crack of the broom and gorse seed-pods and sun-dappled ponies seeking shade beneath the holly trees, where the Fallow deer hid in the heat of the day.

I will leave you with a few lines from a poem I was unaware of until reading Richard Mabey's pages on gorse this morning. They are taken from "Juggling Jerry" by George Meredith, which of course, I shall have to go off and Google now . . .

Yonder came smell of the gorse, so nutty,
Gold-like and warm: it's the prime of May
Better than mortar, brick and putty,
Is God's house on a blowing day.
Lean me more up on the mound; now I feel it;
All the old heath-smells! Ain't it strange?
There's the world laughing, as if to conceal it,
But he's by us, juggling the change.


MammyT said...

Awesome, wonderful post, Jennie. I'm off to find out more about Juggling Jerry. That is beautiful. Always wondered about 'furze'. I wonder too, do we have as many different names for one thing as you?

aj&pm said...

jennie thats lovely, very informative, we have a lot of gorse bushes here on the banks, always smells divine in the spring/summer months, probably why i love walking there.
thankyou for sharing this.
nita x

Kelli said...

I always learn something new when I visit you! Hearing about gorse and the moorland reminds me of my favorite book, The Secret Garden. :0)


Bovey Belle said...

I can remember reading that when I was young Kelli - a lovely book.

Nita - great to see you here too - I love gorse blossom.

Nancy - I thoroughly enjoyed researching this and just regret what I had to leave out!