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Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Signs of change surround us as seasons tumble onwards

PUBLISHED: 12:33 09 August 2014




Past Lammas now and, whether we like it or not, the summer’s running down. Lammas or “Loaf mass” (August 1) as Brewer’s Dictionary will tell you, was the day when the first loaf of the harvest was given to the priests. People who hand-paint their own kitchen rolls and give their children names such as Moonflower call Lammas by its old Celtic name of Lughnasadh. This is a time for dancing in the fields, until either the temperature drops or until your keyworker arrives with two burly paramedics.

By now, if the weather’s gone well for the farmers, the Essex grainfields, having already been shorn will take on a handsome buckskin hue. Out on the sea walls, meanwhile, by afternoon there’ll be a heat haze on the marshes. It’s now that Essex, with so many people away on holiday, seems to belong to itself once again. It has the cheerful feel, to paraphrase Keith Waterhouse, of a county which has been bailed on its own recognisance until a date in early September. In the newspaper world, we call this period the ‘silly season’; a time when unreliable sightings of say, a lion near Great Bentley or a nude cyclist in Elmstead Market, are guaranteed to make the front pages.

But there’s something else about August, too. The weather can be capricious, either so dry that the fields crack like a bad jigsaws, or else suddenly sodden, as the rain lashes in on the back of a northwesterly, ruining barbecues and regattas alike.

I confess here that I harbour what might be regarded as eccentric ideas about the seasons. I think of them as being governed more by light than by temperature. This concurs roughly with old farming calendars, whose salient dates are now marked only by church festivals. August 1 once signified, if not the beginning of autumn, then at least the end of summer. I noticed when working as a gardener, that it was the time when the long wild grasses yellowed and my hayfever eased up. Most garden jobs in August involve the cutting back and tidying up of that which has grown, fruited or has bolted. The summer may seem in stasis but look closer and the signs of change are all there.

Another major seasonal change which passes by us nowadays almost un-noticed, occurs around February 2: known to the church as Candlemass and as ‘Imbolc’ to people who plan their gardening year around the phases of the moon. Candlemass was once regarded as the first day of spring. Strange as this may sound, if you go walking in the woods round about this time, you’ll often see the first green shoots of the arum lily and cowparsley risking their slender necks in the frosty air. When I kept ducks and chickens, I noticed too, that they sometimes came back on-lay within a few days of this date.

The old first day of summer, believe it or not, was May 1. There’s another important light change round about here too. It may be wet, it may even be cold but nonetheless it’s the period when nature really flings itself into overdrive. This is also the time when more right-wing horticulturists find that they must dash out between the showers, every five or six days in order to keep the lawn under control.

While the Church and DIY stores still observe Easter, a moveable feast, the really big spring celebration for people who like to stand on hilltops at dawn wearing cloaks fastened with homemade brooches, is Beltane or Walpurgisnacht (April 30). May 1 is also a festival which retains much resonance. The cheering sight of villagers dancing round the maypole sadly, is less common nowadays, however. Its disappearance is attributed by less charitable souls to a combination of more prudent licensing hours and better psychiatric outworking services. I, however, would welcome the return of the custom and have been lobbying Essex County Council for some time for better municipal maypole facilities. Perhaps we could convert those currently unused street lamps?

On Mayday, even atheists and old marxists in the suburbs seem to instinctively know that this is a special time of year: often participating in Mayday marches before adjourning, traditionally to pub gardens, in order to complain about their ever-diminishing civil liberties under whichever government is currently incumbent.

The last of the quartet of old dates connected to seasonal light changes is October 31. This date, is known to most people as Hallowe’en, to Christians as All Saints’ Eve and to dogged traditionalists who still dye their cardigans with woad, using sheep urine as a fixative, as Samhain. Hallowe’en once marked the beginning of winter, rather than a time to put up posters advertising an Autumn Fayre to be held in late November only days before the Christmas Craft Fayre. Hallowe’en also denotes that we’re exactly halfway through Fireworks Fortnight, which is customarily celebrated by teenagers every night during this period.

In the prevailing heat of an opiate August, it’s strange to think that we’re only about 12 weeks away from all of that, isn’t it? But one night soon, you may step outside your door to put the rubbish out or to allow your partner back in and you’ll notice that the night air has changed.

Under the starriest skies of the year, it will now seem cooler, damper, with a whiff of slight decay. Because we’re past Lammas now.

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