by Heather Elvidge
Now the countryside is greening, our summer migrants are arriving. The first cuckoos have been heard in Sussex and Oxfordshire, perhaps blown in with the Saharan dust.
Those cuckoos were early, but then it has been rather warmer in the south. The first sand martins arrived in March, and with them came some solitary swallows. We should see the main influx of these summer birds this month.
Crows started repairing their nests in March, when they could be seen among the bare branches twisting off likely twigs. For most of our garden birds April is the main month for nest building, yet some have had an early start in spite of those chilly, grey days. Many of their nests now hold clutches of precious eggs.
Although we didn’t appreciate that easterly airflow the leaden clouds did have a silver lining:
“East wind in spring a good summer will bring,” promises the old weather lore.
The sixth Sunday in Lent is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. Christians remember how Jesus arrived in Jerusalem riding a humble ass, while the welcoming crowd threw palm leaves in His path.
The palm leaves were significant, because in Hebrew tradition they were the sign of a virtuous man. So was the ass; this beast of burden was the transport of the poor.
Donkeys are very patient animals, which is perhaps why they used to be thought stupid. On their back they carry two dark stripes in the shape of a cross. Folklore says this is a holy mark, given in recognition of the donkey’s role on Palm Sunday.
In Britain a lack of palm leaves wasn’t going to stop the celebrations – willow leaves, judged to be similar, were carried in church processions. The earliest record of this comes from eighth-century York, and by the Tudor period willow fronds were being blessed everywhere. Following the Reformation the custom became secular. The gathering of “palms”, and the making of little palm crosses, carried on in North Yorkshire until the 1840s.
In the 18th century, Palm Sunday gatherings took to the hills. There were hilltop fairs, with games played up and down the slopes. Some wells were said to change colour on the holy day, or acquire healing properties; visitors queued to make a sweet drink by mixing liquorice with the well water.
Palm Sunday was also known as Fig Sunday. People consumed great quantities of fig pies and fig puddings made with treacle and spices, even though these were notoriously rich. For those with an aversion to figs there was pond pudding, a steamed currant pud in a shell of suet pastry. The best explanation for this figgy business is found in Matthew’s gospel, which tells how Jesus wanted to eat some figs on the way to Jerusalem.
One of the plants linked with Palm Sunday is the Lent lily, or daffodil. The wild daffodils our forebears gathered are now protected; it’s illegal to pick them. But we can enjoy the sight of narcissus pseuodonarcissus beside the River Dove at Farndale. Now’s the time to visit the moors, and see these delicate daffs bringing spring to the Dale.