History of The Month of September
It’s a beautiful sunny day down here at Bluestone today, but even so, there’s a slight nip in the air that seems to be telling us summer is almost over. Indeed, September is just a matter of hours away. But the new month is not without its benefits – the first of which is that it’s time for our resident historian and storyteller Terry John to step up the blog plate once again. Today, he looks at the historic customs and traditions associated with this time of the year, and even rustles up a recipe.
September was traditionally the month in which the last of the harvest was gathered in. The fields where Bluestone now stands would have been busy with workers loading the corn onto wagons for transport into the nearby barns and storage sheds. Just after sunrise on the final day of the harvest, the bells of Newton North church would have rung as they had done every morning since the corn was first cut, summoning everyone to the fields. Then, with the hard work almost over, an air of excitement prevailed, for there was the harvest feast to look forward to in the evening – a splendid spread of roast goose, chicken, pies and the specially baked harvest cake. (If you want to try it, the recipe is given below.)
Even when the corn was safely stored in the barn, the work in the fields did not stop. Groups of women and children known as gleaners began clearing all the corn stalks and heads left behind. They sometimes elected a Gleaning Queen to supervise the work and ensure a fair share for all. Whatever was gathered in could be kept and a careful worker might easily collect enough corn for porridge or to make a few loaves of bread.
After gleaning the geese were let loose in the fields to graze the stubble and the fallen grain. Any green growth that had emerged amongst the stubble was eaten by the cows and sheep. Nothing was wasted, because our ancestors, especially those who worked the land, recycled everything they could.
September was the time in which a harvest of another kind took place. The lanes and hedgerows were carefully combed through for hazelnuts and blackberries, which supplemented a fairly basic diet.
Hazelnuts were valued as much more than a food source. It was well known that a hazelnut carried in the pocket warded off rheumatism, whilst a double nut prevented toothache. Anyone unlucky enough to be bitten by an adder would place a cross made of hazel wood over the wound to draw out the poison.
The hazel tree itself was a regarded as a magical thing, a symbol of knowledge and wisdom and a protection against evil.
In the same way, bramble was not thought to be the nuisance that it is today and it was eagerly sought out, not only for the delicious blackberries that it produced, but for its many healing properties. Because bramble’s long shoots can bend over and root at the tip, forming an arch, it was used in the treatment of hernias, boils and rheumatism. The patient was passed through the arch formed by the shoot, symbolising a new beginning.
In Wales it was believed that a child suffering from rickets, or who was slow to walk, should crawl under a bramble bush three times a week to cure their condition.
An old story related that Jesus had used a bramble switch to encourage the donkey on which He rode into Jerusalem. Because of this it, people placed bramble over the doors and windows of their houses to keep witches out.
Traditionally, blackberries were never gathered or eaten after Michaelmas Day, 29 September, because the Devil, on being expelled from heaven, fell into a bramble bush and angrily spat on the fruit.
A blackberry summer is a spell of fine weather at the end of September and the beginning of October. Cats, horses and chickens were all thought to be in poor health at blackberry time and kittens born in September were known as blackberry kittens and were regarded as small, weak, difficult to rear and were particularly mischevious when grown.
Michaelmas Day was an important date in the calendar. It was one of the four Quarter Days that divided the year and was the day on which tenants of the Slebech estate, which included the Bluestone site, paid their quarterly rent to their landlord, Baron de Rutzen.
It was also the day when Hiring Fairs began. Farm labourers, estate workers, craftsmen, dairy maids and housemaids would gather at a nominated place, carrying the tools of their trade, the members of each trade grouped together, in the hope that they would find employment. Although no formal document might be signed, everyone knew that a hiring contract lasted for six months and a servant who absconded before the time was up could be brought back to their master. A repeat offender faced prison.
The first full moon after 21 September is called a Harvest Moon and couples who longed for a child would sleep out under its fertile light.
Another important date, particularly in Pembrokeshire, was 11 September, St Deiniol’s Day. Deiniol (or Daniel) lived in the early 6th century and is thought to have come originally from north Wales. Desiring to love a religious life as a hermit, he founded a cell on the hill that overlooks the modern town of Pembroke. He is supposed to have made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, returning to his home with a container of water taken from the River Jordan. This he poured over his staff, which he had thrust into the soil. Immediately a spring of sweet water flowed out of the ground. In later centuries, this became famous as a healing well. It was visited by people seeking cures and at least two miracles are recorded as having taken place at the well. Unfortunately, St Deiniol’s Well was destroyed in 1592.
St Deiniol’s Church was built on the spot some years after the saint’s death and its spire is still visible from Pembroke. According to tradition, the church may be even older than the town of Pembroke, as an old rhyme related:
St Daniel’s could ring a bell
When Pembroke was a furzy dell.
One more story about St Deiniol. Two thieves sneaked up one night to his dwelling and stole his oxen. The saint was awoken by the lowing of the animals and rushed out shouting, ‘Wait, wait a little, in the name of the Lord’. The thieves began to run and Deiniol made the sign of the cross after them and they were instantly turned into two large stones. One at least of these is still there in a field to the south of the church. It is visible from the road that runs past the church, but if you stop to look at it, be wary of passing traffic.
1 pound and a half (675g) plain flour
Half table spoon salt
2 teaspoons mixed spice
6oz (175g) lard
Half an ounce (15g) fresh yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
Three-quarters pint (450ml) water
6oz (175g) currants
Using a little of the sugar and some warm water make a cream of the yeast. Sieve the flour, salt and mixed spice into a bowl and rub in the lard. Add the yeast and stir in the remaining water. Mix into a smooth pliable dough. Knead and leave to rise. Knead in the currants and put into a loaf tin. Leave until fully risen and bake in a hot oven. (400F/200C) for about 45 minutes.