A train journey into Bradford last week brought back childhood memories. The track passes between fields where I used to play and – just as I remembered them – there were the hawthorn trees, remnants of an old hedge but now grown tall – and they were thick with creamy blossom. For me, the smell of may blossom in the sun is one of the most evocative scents there is. In the 1940’s the blossom was everywhere – in the overgrown hedges lining the ancient Menston Old Lane but, more impressively, on these bushes – now trees – that overarched and surrounded you with perfume. We knew of one place where the blossom was rich red but I preferred – and still do – the original white, the very spirit of May.
Hawthorn is ecologically important, supporting over150 insect species as well as offering food and refuge for countless birds and small mammals. It has many names: “whitethorn”, presumably to differentiate it from blackthorn, that earlier flowering relative of the damson that flowers on bare twigs when the rest of Nature seems dead; “quickthorn”, for its usefulness as a living stock-barrier, planted bare-rooted and often made even more impenetrable by laying, a skill that is almost lost now; and “bread-and-cheese tree”. The young leaves were served as salads and, indeed, were sometimes pickled to keep as a relish. I can remember nibbling these– rather a bitter taste – but no doubt welcome if you’d had a winter of turnips and elderly bacon.
There’s a lot of folklore associated with hawthorns. I was always puzzled by two examples: one is the saying – “cast not a clout till May be out” which I now understand to refer to the blossom rather than the month and, given the variable temperature this Spring, it’s not bad advice. The second was the ancient practice of bringing in the may on May Day, the first of the month. Seems to me you’d often be hard put to find may blossom then. However, I was reminded that pre-1752 when the Gregorian calendar was adopted, May Day would have occurred later in the season so the practice, no doubt originally a fertility rite, is quite practicable.
I had a friend, born and raised in northern Scotland who still held to the ancient superstitions associated with the Hawthorn. It was bad luck to disturb this, the fairy tree. And the fairies in question wouldn’t be the tiny Tinkerbell variety but the much more dangerous folk of ancient ballads.