Charles’ oak escapade is remembered

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by Heather Elvidge

In spite of those freakish hailstones, some cherry, pear and apple trees managed to hang on to their blossom. But it’s all fading now, as a new wave of white spreads over the countryside. Hawthorn is in bloom at last.

This is the tree so closely linked with the month that it was called mayflower, or simply “may”. The blossom is late, but worth the wait as this is a generous year. On hedges, bushes and small trees hawthorn branches are packed with creamy flowers right to the tips, their unique scent particularly heady on a sunny day.

While there are two types of hawthorn, common hawthorn is the one we usually see forming a stock-proof hedge around a field. It’s a 
native with many local names, including thornbush, for its lethal spines; quickset, because it grows fast; and whitethorn, for the colour of its wood.

Hawthorn is rich in folklore and superstition. It provided May Day garlands – thought to protect the wearer from sorcery – and flowering branches to hang over cottage doors. The tree was always a force for good, so long as it was kept outside.

May blossom was never brought indoors, because people believed that sickness would follow it over the threshold. Yet hawthorn leaves sprouted in church, from the mouths of Green Men carved in stone. And hawthorn was used in folk medicine: flowers and haws were taken as a heart tonic, while an infusion of leaves and flowers soothed sore throats.

The showy hawthorn does have some competition – other trees are looking their best now. Rowans are bearing posies of thick, clotted cream. Hollies are dotted all over with tiny, greenish-white flowers – it’s hard to remember a year when they flowered so freely.

Horse chestnuts in full bloom look stunning, dotted with tall waxy “candles” that will eventually produce spiny green conker cases. Sycamore trees could not be more different – their green flowers dangle from the branches in long-stemmed clusters.

Roadside verges are lined with drifts of cow parsley, each tall stem bearing a delicate, white parasol above the surrounding grass. Its old name was Queen Anne’s lace, and close inspection of the delicate flowers confirms that it was apt.

Royal Oak Day

In 1660, Charles II came back from exile. Years of civil war were ended and the day of his return, May 29, became a public holiday.

Oak sprigs bearing a gall or “apple” were pinned to hats, bosoms, and horses’ bridles, to remember how, nine years earlier, Charles had avoided capture by climbing an oak tree while unsuspecting Roundheads passed below.

This story so caught the public imagination that May 29 became known as Royal Oak Day – today it’s also known as Oak Apple Day.

In Derbyshire the king goes riding on May 29, disguised as a flowering shrub. The mound of leaves that is the famous Castleton Garland conceals him so well that only the royal legs are visible.

Charles and his Lady ride in procession accompanied by a silver band and girls carrying flowers. At the parish church the six-stone garland is hoisted up the tower, where it remains for a week, dispersing its petals on the wind.