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Fight over fish was just a Mere tiff
A RECENT research trip took me to the village of Halsham in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It is located almost on Spurn Point where the River Humber flows into the North Sea. It is a flat agricultural area where the spires of countless charming and historic churches rise above the rather featureless landscape known as Holderness.
A brief lunch break in Hornsea reminded me of its famous Mere which is larger than Semerwater, Malham Tarn or Gormire.
It is said to be the largest natural freshwater lake in the whole of Yorkshire, the term “natural” discounting several competing reservoirs.
It is to the west of Hornsea, a small seaside town which lies between the Mere and the shoreline. The Mere extends to some 467 acres; it is two miles long (3.2km), three quarters of a mile broad at its widest point and with a depth of 12 feet (3.7m) at its deepest.
Generally, it is regarded as a shallow lake, being rich with water-borne plants and small islands, whilst some of its shoreline is wooded. Not surprisingly it is a haven for wildlife, particularly water fowl and freshwater fish.
The water fowl have become accustomed to the presence of humans due to fishing and boating which are popular past-times on the Mere. Some of the ducks and geese snooze on the shore and refuse to move to allow people to pass.
Due to its shallowness and range of swamp and fen plants, the Mere has been designated a Special Protection Area but it is also host to a large variety of migratory birds. For these reasons it is a nature reserve although fishing, sailing and water sports are allowed.
One of my reference books provides a wonderful 17th century description of Hornsea Mere. It is dated 1693 and is part of a letter by a man called W. Lambert.
This is what he wrote (sic): “The marr is a mile and a half in length, and in one place near a mile in breadth; it is fed by waters than run into it off the adjoining higher grounds from the north, south and west.
Eastward it runs into the sea in a ditch called the stream dike when the clow is opened. There are many springs in it also. The soyl is, in some places, gravelly, in others a perfect weedy morass. The water is always fresh. It is well replenished with the best pykes, peirches, eles and other fish, the three named being the best and largest that ever I saw or tasted. I have taken pykes a yard long and peirches sixteen inches...”
It was the Mere’s fish that led to an unseemly dispute between the abbots of two monasteries, probably in 1260. One was Meaux near Beverley and the other St Mary’s at York. Each Abbot claimed the fishing rights for a certain part of the Mere with William, the Abbot of Meaux claiming the southern half of the lake from his York colleague. It was then known as Haraney, which meant Hare Island. Because the Abbots could not agree, they decided to settle the matter by combat.
Each Abbot selected his own champion and the battle would be fought on the shores of the Mere. The winner would determine which of the Abbots had the exclusive fishing rights to the disputed southern half. On the appointed day of the battle, the Abbots and their champions met on the shore. To avoid any confusion about which part of the lake was in dispute, a horse was made to swim across the lake along the boundary line in question, following which wooden stakes were hammered into the ground as visible reminders. Then battle commenced.
The battle began at dawn and continued late into the night with neither being able to claim victory. But they were ordered to fight until there was a clear winner and as time wore on it became clear that the Meaux champion was weakening.
In fact, he capitulated and handed victory to the York knight. At this point, the reports vary. Some say the Abbot of St Mary's at York claimed victory and the disputed rights to fish in the Mere, whilst other accounts say that a compromise was reached. It seems, however, that although the Abbot of St Mary’s won the contest, he allowed the brothers from Meaux to continue fishing in the Mere. The remains of St Mary's Abbey can be seen in York, but of Meaux Abbey there is very little trace.
Arecent walk in the hills above my home village revealed a surprisingly good crop of hazel nuts. This does not happen every year. From time to time, there seem to be very few hazel nuts in particular years – 1969 was a bad year, for example – and in any case hazel bushes will not produce fruit until they are at least seven years old.
They must also be first allowed to produce flowers and catkins, something that can be difficult due to modern hedge-trimmed techniques, whilst severe winters can also hamper their productivity.
The indications are that this year seems to be a good hazel nut year despite the harsh winter, but the ones I saw were not yet ripe. As these notes are compiled two weeks in advance, however, those nuts may now be showing signs of advancing maturity although it may be as late as the final weeks of September or even into October before they are fully ripe.
Even when they are not ripe, however, hazel nuts appeal to many types of wild life and so I doubt whether the majority of them will remain on the bush until maturity.
Squirrels and mice love them and the nuts also appeal to birds such as pheasants, pigeons and jays although I do not know how birds cope with the shells.
Squirrels and mice can gnaw holes in the nuts to reach the kernels and they will do so before the nuts are fully ripe. It is possible too, that large birds can cope with the shells which are fairly soft before they harden with ripeness.
If hazel nuts are taken from the tree before they are ripe, however, the kernels will shrivel – but if you wait until they are fully ripe, you might find they have dropped out of their husks to be lost on the ground.
Deciding upon the right time to harvest hazel nuts is therefore a debateable science.
Certainly, some people believe the final days of August will be rewarded by a good harvest although there is the risk they will not be right. Indeed, the feast day of St Philibert (August 20) was once considered a good time to harvest hazel nuts even if they were not fully ripe.
Philibert, of course, gave his name to a type of nut, but the general practice seems to be to harvest them in late September; if you wait until they are fully ripe in October, our furry and feathered friends might get there first!
Finally, I should remind readers about the odd rhyme that goes “Here we go gathering nuts in May.”
We actually gather knots of May, or bunches of May flowers.
Wednesday was St Bartholomew's Day and in former times, it was said to be the first day of autumn.
Folk would say “St Bartholomew brings the dew” whilst others would add “As is St Bartholomew's Day, so is the entire autumn.”
By tradition it was claimed that if it rained on St Swithin's Day (July 15), the rain that followed for forty days would end on the feast of St Bartholomew – “All the tears that St Swithin can cry, St Bartholomew's mantle can wipe dry."”