AS usual, I am compiling these notes two weeks before publication and note that April 19 has passed into history yet again.
It was in fact the anniversary of the death of Benjamin Disraeli, a former prime minister who died on that date in 1881, an occasion seldom remembered in modern times.
It is said that Queen Victoria sent a wreath of primroses to be placed on his grave and from that time, the date became known as Primrose Day. That celebration seems have fallen into disuse and the reason may be that primroses were not Disraeli’s favourite flower, as many supposed.
Nonetheless, the custom of giving primroses on April 19 became established as Primrose Day and I believe it was practised in the Yorkshire Dales in fairly recent times, although I have no records to support this.
I must admit I have never come across this date in the rural calendar but there were some interesting old beliefs about primroses. One was that if you planted cowslip seeds upside down, they would emerge as primroses, but perhaps the most common belief surrounding these pretty spring flowers is that it is unlucky to bring less than a handful into the house at any one time. In other words, always pick a good bunch, not a single bloom.
Another belief was that primroses were harmful to poultry, especially young birds. In some areas, primroses were eradicated from areas where poultry huts were located to avoid harm to the nests and eggs.
I am not sure of the problem, unless the birds ate the petals.
For some strange reason, it was thought a bunch of primroses was not harmful and so the first bunch picked for the household had to contain at least 13 blooms. It was thought the geese and hens would lay only as many eggs as there were blooms in that first picked bunch of primroses.
A single primrose carried indoors or given to anyone meant the birds would hatch only one egg out of a clutch. It also heralded death to someone in the house, while winter-blooming primroses were considered an ill omen.
In spite of this, the pretty little flower was once thought to ward off witches and evil spirits, so small bunches would be laid on the doorsteps of houses and cattle byres on May Day to keep the occupants safe.
There is no doubt it is one of our most popular flowers, growing as it does in both wild places like woodlands, grass vergers beside hedgerows as well as cultivated areas like gardens and parks
It is one of the earliest flowers of our springtime, sometimes appearing as early as March and it is instantly recognised by most of us. With its yellow flowers and rosette of wrinkled leaves it is rarely mistaken for anything else, although sometimes cowslips are thought to be bunches of wild primroses.
Due to its popularity, it is not surprising that it was formerly used for medicinal purposes because a concoction made from these flowers was thought able to cure rheumatism and gout as well as headaches.
Primroses were also regarded as love tokens but there is an old wives’ tale that birds would attack and perhaps eat the petals of primroses unless the flowers were growing near a hedge of lavender. That’s a note for gardeners – if it is true!
As May is regarded as the month of blossom, it is perhaps not surprising that other flowers are celebrated during this month. May 1, for example, is variously known as Birch Twig Day and Dock Pudding Day,
May 2 is Rowan Tree Day whilst May 15 is Buttercup Day. Oak Apple Day follows on May 29 which is also Nettle Day as well as Garland Day when garlands of flowers were carried.
Perhaps the best known of all these titles was Oak Apple Day and within my own memory, there were nationwide celebrations. Sprigs of oak were worn and there were special church services, all being forms of celebration of the Restoration of the Monarchy. This occurred when Charles II entered London after England had been a republic under Oliver Cromwell.
May 29 was also the birthday of Charles II and furthermore, it celebrated the famous incident when Charles concealed himself in the branches of an oak tree at Biscobel in Shropshire after his defeat at Worcester. The tree became known as The Royal Oak, a name since given to many English inns.
Across this region there were celebrations, one of which was when schoolchildren had to wear sprigs of oak bearing oak apples, and they were also given the day off school after locking their teacher inside.
Another curious custom was for boys to pick stinging nettles and chase all children who had forgotten to wear oak leaves and sting them on their bare legs. This was known as Nettle Day and appears to have been carried out in various places including Richmond, Northallerton, Thirsk, Boroughbridge and villages around the North York Moors.
YEARS ago when I was a lad, there was an old character in our moorland village who persisted in referring to house martins as house builders. If he remembered, or perhaps if he was reminded that it was their wrong name, he would describe them as house swallows. I never heard him call a house martin by its real name.
I was reminded of this when I came across a small flock of house martins collecting mud from the edges of puddles along our back lane. As most of us know, they mix it with plant fibre and saliva, and use it to construct their amazing nests that cling to the walls of houses or outbuildings. They hang below the eaves as if threatening to fall at any moment. Indeed, some do fall – that’s due to defective materials, the owners would say. Or sloppy workmanship!
As I compile these notes, I have seen both swallows and house martins around our house and garden. Many people fail to distinguish one from the other. In simple terms, swallows build nests on ledges and beams, while house martins construct amazing nests of mud that cling to our house walls beneath the eaves.
Swallows are sometimes known as bluebirds due to their dark blue colouring with white underparts and red chins. And they have long tail streamers. House martins are distinctly black above with white underparts, and short forked tails. Swifts are larger, noisier in flight with large, swept-back sickle-shaped wings, and are a very dark brown that looks black from a distance.