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Stepping back in time for Christmas – Burning the Ashen Faggot

Midwinter fire ceremonies were once very popular in the UK, especially in rural communities.  People gathered around the hearth in a noisy, joyous celebration, with the fire bringing light into the darkness of winter.  These ceremonies probably have a pagan origin and one which used to be widespread in the UK was Burning the Yule Log.  Less well known but quite common in Devon and neighbouring parts of Dorset and Somerset in the west of the UK was Burning the Ashen Faggot.   Although it has now largely disappeared as a household custom, it is still celebrated in a handful of local pubs to the accompaniment of hearty singing and copious drinking.

photo courtesy of Nigel Daniel

The ashen faggot was a large bundle of ash sticks or an ash log surrounded by smaller sticks, all bound together by thin bands of willow or hazel (withies).  The ashen faggot was cut and constructed on Christmas Eve and placed on a fire kindled with remnants of last year’s faggot.  Ash burns well, even when green and as the fire caught and each of the withies broke, tradition demanded that a new jug of cider be brought out to quench the thirst of the assembled company.

The scene around the hearth as the Faggot burned is vividly brought to life in this extract from Festivities and Superstitions of Devonshire in Bentley’s Miscellany 1847:

“On Christmas Eve it is the custom in all the farm houses of this neighbourhood to “burn the ashen faggot”. All the labourers and servants are invited, and a huge fire is heaped up on the wide hearth.  We all sat round the hearth in a circle; the firelight deepening the shadows on the hard-featured mahogany countenances around, and setting off the peculiarities of each form. The ashen faggot which lay on the hearth consists of a long immense log of ash, surrounded with smaller branches bound to it with many withies, forming one large bundle; it filled the whole hearth and as it burned the roaring in the large chimney was tremendous.  As the fire slowly catches and consumes the withies, the sticks fly off and kindle into a sudden blaze and as each one after the other gives way, all present stand up and shout with might and main; the “loving cup” of cider is handed round and each drinks his fill.  They then resume their seats, sing songs, crack jokes until the bursting of another band and the kindling of a fresh blaze demands renewed shouts and another pull at the cider flagon. The merriment is allowed to go on till nearly midnight, before which hour the worthy giver of the feast likes to have her house clear, that the “Holy Day” may begin in peace.  This custom is kept up religiously in all the farmhouses around, and is one of the principal festivals of the year.”

Burning the Ashen Faggot was a very popular west country custom and Amery, writing in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association (1879), reported that in the Ashburton postal district alone 32 farms and cottages burnt the Ashen Faggot on Christmas Eve 1878.  There were various superstitions and beliefs associated with the event and an old man present at one of the 1878 ceremonies told how the custom “commemorated the first dressing of our Saviour in swaddling clothes, because Joseph cut a faggot of ash, which is well known to burn green and lighted a fire by which the child was first dressed”.  The custom was also widespread in 19th and early 20th century Somerset where it was often combined with apple tree wassailing and held on old Christmas Eve (January 5th ).  There is one 19th century record of burning the Ashen Faggot in East Devon for Christmas Eve 1839 at Bindon Farm about 4 miles from the Devon/Dorset Border.

In the 19th century, the Ashen Faggot was a household custom bringing working people together at Christmas. Servants and farm labourers and their families were all invited to the farmhouse with its huge hearth and the celebration was provided by the farmer and his wife in thanks for the year’s work. For one evening at least, people put aside divisions and squabbles.  The custom began to die out as work patterns changed, as the railways enabled people to move about and as artificial light banished winter darkness.

Building the Ashen Faggot in Axmouth, December 24th 2018, photo courtesy of Tiffany Hyde

It seems likely that the custom would have disappeared altogether had it not been taken on by local pubs where it still survives despite recent closures and more stringent insurance requirements.   One pub where it flourishes is the 800-year-old Harbour Inn at Axmouth in East Devon and I spoke to one of the villagers, Nigel Daniel, who helps organise the annual ceremony.    He told me that on Christmas Eve morning a group of villagers cut the ash and make the faggot which measures about six feet in length and five feet in circumference, filling the expanse of the old inglenook fireplace.  Seven bindings each made from hazel are used to secure the faggot which is traditionally taken to the Harbour Inn at lunchtime where a few early Christmas drinks are enjoyed.

Beginning the reading at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth, photo courtesy of Kristy

The ceremony itself starts late Christmas Eve with the reading of the following lines taken from Christmas by RJ Thorn 1795:

Thy welcome eve, loved Christmas now arrived,

The parish bells, their tuneful peals resound,

And mirth and gladness every breast pervade,

The ponderous Ashen Faggot, from the yard,

The jolly farmer to his crowded hall conveys with speed;

 where, on the rising flames, it blazes soon.

Seven bandages it bears,

and as they each disjoin, a mighty jug of sparkling cider’s brought

with brandy mixed to elevate the guests!

The Ashen Faggot is placed upon the open hearth where it soon lights with its distinctive orange and purple flames.  As each binding “disjoins” revellers are urged to recharge their glasses accompanied with seasonal toasts.  Local singers Ian Hunt and Phil Gamble perform three Seasonal songs:  The King, Christmas Song (from the Copper family) and Stormy Winds.  Communal carol singing follows continuing well into the night.

Communal carol singing at the Harbour Inn Axmouth as the Faggot burns upon the hearth, photo courtesy of Kristy.

The ceremony at the Harbour Inn was revived more than 70 years ago by the landlord Ludovic Grant who used to present a roasted boar’s head as part of the celebrations.  The BBC showed interest in the ceremony in the 1950s, broadcasting it on radio and television, but when Ludovic Grant retired in the late 1950s it sadly lapsed.   Fortunately, Axmouth thatcher, David Trezise and local gardener, Ned Spiller got together in the early 1970s to restart the ceremony and, led for many years by David Trezise, and with the enthusiastic support of subsequent landlords the event has flourished at the Harbour Inn offering a truly traditional start to a modern Christmas.

The ceremony will be held again this Christmas Eve at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth, but you can also step back in time and participate in this ancient west country custom at the Luttrell Arms in Dunster on December 24th and at the Squirrel Inn at Laymore near Chard and the Digby Tap in Sherborne on January 6th, but please check the timing.

I should like to thank Nigel Daniel for generous help in preparing this article and for providing  photographs, also Kristy of the Harbour Inn and Tiffany Hyde for generously providing photos.

The Ashen Faggot at the Harbour Inn in 1950 showing Vice-Admiral Sir Francis Pridham, Fred Larcombe and Albert Soper (kindly supplied by Nigel Daniel)

 

Building the Ashen Faggot, Axmouth, December 24th 2017, photo courtesy of Tiffany Hyde

 

This article appeared in the December 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the head of this post shows the Ashen Faggot burning on the hearth at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth on Christmas Eve while carols are sung, courtesy of Kristy of the Harbour Inn.

Goat Island and the Great Chasm – the day the earth moved

Nearly 180 years ago, about three miles west of Lyme Regis (in the south west of the UK), a huge chunk of the East Devon coast split off to form a plateau separated from the mainland by a deep, dry ravine.  This was the largest movement of land ever experienced in this part of the country; it remodelled the coast and created a unique new environment.  The plateau, now called Goat Island, and the ravine are still unique and when I walked there in late June, pink and purple orchids flowered across the grassy surface of the plateau whereas the ravine was populated by a tangled jungle of trees and other vegetation. 

Goat Island
The grassy surface of Goat Island with the sea in the background

 

In the early 19th century, the land behind the cliffs in this part of East Devon was dominated by farming.  Between the cliffs and the sea there was an area of land, the undercliff, formed by subsidence that supported fertile market gardens and orchards with some pasture for animals.   Cottages had also been built here for farm labourers who walked up and down the steep cliff path to the farmhouse a short distance inland.  The latter part of 1839 had seen unprecedented rain and as Christmas approached, there had been ominous signs of instability in the cliffs with deep fissures opening on the cliff tops and settlement cracks appearing in cottages built on the undercliff.

One of the farm labourers who lived in the cottages with his family was William Critchard.   At about 1am on Christmas Day 1839, Critchard and his wife returned to their cottage having been generously entertained along with other labourers’ families by their master at his farmhouse.  Their Christmas Eve gathering had included the West Country custom of burning the ashen faggot (a large ash log) accompanied by the drinking of copious amounts of cider.  On their way back to the cottage, the couple noticed that part of the cliff path had dropped about a foot since the morning and new cracks had appeared in the cottage walls.  Still merry after their evening’s entertainment they retired to bed unconcerned.  At 4 am, however, they were awoken by a “wonderful crack” and by 5am they rose to find deep fissures appearing in the garden.  They realised that something major was happening and set off up the cliff path, now almost impassable owing to subsidence, to spread the alarm.

Movement in the cliffs continued over the next 24 hours and as the day dawned on December 26th it revealed a landscape changed almost beyond recognition.  Contemporary drawings show that a massive section of cliffs, about three quarters of a mile long and estimated as 8 million tons of rock, had moved seawards by several hundred feet creating a dry ravine, the Great Chasm, in its wake. The plateau of land that had moved was bounded by cliffs 150 feet high and came to be called Goat Island. The ravine held a gothic landscape of lumps and bumps, peaks and troughs, vividly expressing the power of the convulsion that had occurred. (See here for some contemporary illustrations of the landslip)

The cliffs in this part of Dorset and Devon are notoriously mobile, but the events of Christmas 1839 represented the greatest ever movement of land in the area.  At the time there was much speculation as to the cause of the landslip: might it have been the result of an earthquake or a volcano, was it the work of rabbits, or could it have been a punishment from God? By chance, two of the most eminent geologists of the time, William Buckland and William Conybeare, were staying nearby and could interpret the events; Buckland’s wife Mary made invaluable drawings of the changed landscape.  Buckland and Conybeare concluded that the excessive rain had saturated the permeable layers of chalk and greensand that constituted the upper part of the cliffs.  Beneath these layers was an impermeable layer of clay and the chalk/greensand, saturated and very heavy, moved forward on the impermeable clay leading to the landslip.

The new landscape became a tourist attraction.  Queen Victoria arrived on the Royal Yacht to view the scene and others took to paddle steamers to gaze in wonder while specially composed music, the Landslip Quadrille, was played.   Bizarrely, fields of corn and turnips growing on cliff top land had moved intact with Goat Island and were ceremonially harvested the following August by local village maidens dressed as attendants of Ceres, the Roman Goddess of the Harvest.

But what of Goat Island nowadays?  It’s only accessible on foot but the walk along the coast path is worth the effort.  I set off from Axmouth on a misty but mild morning in late June to make the steep climb across the golf course and on to the cliff top.  I followed narrow lanes with high banks and skirted cornfield edges to reach the coast path.  Cliff edge scrub obscured the sea most of the time but occasional breaks revealed Beer Head lurking mysteriously in the mist.

About two miles into the walk, with my attention captured by the many flowers lining the path, I was jolted from my reverie as the path twisted and dropped down steeply into dense vegetation.  It continued to descend with the occasional squirm to the right or left before bottoming out.  About me now was a disorienting, tangled jungle of trees, shrubs and ferns with brambles and creepers dangling downwards to catch the unwary.  Dampness hung in the air and only brief vestiges of light filtered through the canopy.  This is the undercliff near the edge of the Great Chasm, no longer an open ravine but taken over by nature in the intervening 180 years.

Quite soon the track reared upwards again climbing steeply towards the light past a cushiony chalk hillside with a scattering of wild flowers.  In time, the path levelled out to a long, lush grassy meadow sloping gently towards sheer cliffs above the undercliff and the sea; this is Goat Island.  Woven within the grass were the frilly flowers of eyebright, many yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear, patches of yellow rattle and wild thyme and two blue spikes of viper’s bugloss. It was, however, the orchids that surprised me with their number and variety: pyramidal orchids with their intensely pink, three-lobed petals overlapping like ornate roof tiles and common spotted orchids with their cylinders of lilac pink flowers carrying magenta hieroglyphics.  I searched for bee orchids and found only two spikes, each bearing several flowers.  With their mauve propeller-like sepals and their large central petal complete with furry edges and yellow horseshoe patterns on a maroon background, these flowers are one of nature’s marvellous mimics said to resemble bumblebees.  Butterflies, especially marbled whites completed the scene.  Goat Island nowadays is a beautiful, unusual place, an oasis of calm where noise means bird song.  It is also a managed landscape, a cooperation between nature and humans, as every year the grass is mown to encourage flowers and to prevent scrub taking back the land.

Goat Island is also a place of history and I stood there for some time, trying to imagine the scene 180 years ago when the land beneath my feet moved and the lives of the people living there were changed forever.

The picture at the head of this post shows common spotted orchids and catsear on Goat Island.

This article appeared in the August 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Down into the undercliff near the ravine

 

Bee orchid and pyramidal orchid on Goat Island
bee orchid and pyramidal orchid

 

pyramidal orchid
pyramidal orchid

 

Vipers bugloss on Goat Island
Vipers bugloss

 

wild thyme with bumblebee
bumblebee on wild thyme on Goat Island

 

Marbled white butterfly
marbled white butterfly

 

Meadow brown butterfly on wild marjoram
meadow brown butterfly on wild marjoram