Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Honey, heather and common land - part 1

Rough grazing land on the mynydd at Llanllwni.

I grew up in Southampton, on the edge of the town - we were only about 5 minutes' walk from "proper" countryside. One of my abiding memories was the rough common land "over the back". There had been an old brickworks there for many years and at one time in the past (WWII?) there had been some allotments. There were still soft fruit bushes which we feasted on in high summer. Here the Sweet Gale grew, and heather, and down by the mucky stream, spires of Purple Loosestrife. It was rough old land, probably a remnant of much larger areas of former common land, like the bit we walked on behind Thornhill. It never occurred to us that a couple of hundred years earlier this would have provided grazing for sheep or cattle; that the Sweet Gale might have been picked to flavour beer; or that bee skeps were put amongst the heather to flavour the honey.

Honey was very important as a sweetener, as sugar was only available as an import from the colonies, and beyond the means of humble cottagers, as it was more than 20 times the price of honey at some points in history. Honey was also applied to cuts and burns, so part of the cottage cure-alls. Of course, it was an essential ingredient for Mead and Metheglin; when mixed with apple juice it became Cyser; mixed with Mulberries, it was Murat. Melomel was mead made with fruit such as strawberries, blackcurrants or rose-hips. (Made with grape juice, it is pyment, but I doubt the cottagers made it!) Wikipedia, as ever, has a very interesting article on Mead: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mead

The wicker bee skeps were often made from brambles, which always grow abundantly on any rough ground. The brambles were deprived of their thorns by drawing through a small wooden stripper or through stout leather gloves - once either way. The skeps were then cloomed with a mixture of mud, lime, and cow dung - like the mixture used for building a cob wall on a cottage.

Any wild fruits growing on the common land were gathered in the autumn - blackberries, bilberries, sloes, crab apples, and were sometimes packed into home-made baskets made from strips of birch bark (which also grew abundantly on heathland, and provided the twigs for besom brooms). In Romsey, Hampshire, as late as the Second World War and beyond, the Forest gypsies would pick fruit on the Forest and take it to sell to the Jam Factory. Apparently, even Sundew (the insectiverous plant which grows in damp places and which we used to tease with stalks of grass) was used to concoct a bitter liqueur . . .

Heather had a multitude of uses. It was used to feed animals, as a short-lived thatch, for stuffing matresses and of course for making brooms. The Picts made Heather Ale (and the modern counterpart is very good!) It was - still is - also a dyestuff, yielding a yellow-brown dye. When oak galls were added it became more olive in colour. Medicinally, the young shoots of heather were boiled up and used as a cleansing lotion or to bathe wounds, and also has value for kidney and "waterworks" problems.

I shall continue this later in the week. Many thanks to the excellent National Trust book on "Heathland" by James Parry.


MammyT said...

A very fun post, Jennie. I love hearing about the flora of the area.

Pixiedust said...

Lovely, all on my doorstep too.