At first light, early on Oak Apple Day, a small number of die-hard villagers trek up the steeply wooded hill above their village on the River Wye in Herefordshire. They are in search of an oak bough. But not just any old bough. They will have been on a recce in the days leading up, identifying THE one, which are grown especially for the walk. Once chosen, the group buckles down and gets to work, steadily sawing off the all-important parade’s frontispiece, which will be decorated in red, white and blue ribbons. As the dawn chorus squawks to life round them, they emerge from the cover of the trees, triumphant. Celebrations now can begin for the Fownhope Heart of Oak Society (FHOS) annual flower walk.
Fownhope Heart of Oak Society (FHOS) can trace its roots back to the early 1800s. At that time, there were many Heart of Oak Societies in Britain, based predominantly in rural areas, with agricultural workers forming the majority of the membership. While some Oak Apple celebrations persist (it is said some Oxford and Cambridge colleges still toast the day and in the Cornish village of St Neot, festivities for this fruit of the woods continues), they are a diminishing number. All the more reason why the remaining numbers at the Fownhope event place even more importance on a day they fear may be facing its demise as its core supporters grow older.
Yet it has demonstrated it can change with the times. Where once the membership was exclusively male, women are now able to take part in the walk, and stride through the village alongside their male counterparts. While once the woman’s role was concealed, she did play a central role in collecting flowers to decorate the all-important ‘stick’. Ah, the stick. It is central to the day. The art of decorating a floral stick for the FHOS Club Walk has been passed from generation to generation and some are very old indeed. The stick itself is normally a softwood stick and in the past members would carve their stick with a finial of a carved acorn on the top and would burn or carve their names or initials into the wood.
It’s an oddly gorgeous spectacle, of the ‘stick parade’, as grizzled, sun-scarred farm workers, in some cases, accountants in others, proudly parading through the village with verdant and fragrant floral displays, held aloft for all to see. Where this part of the event comes from no one seems to know, but it is a fiercely competitive element to the day. The art of decorating a floral stick for the FHOS Club Walk is passed down from generation to generation and flowers used to decorate the sticks grow wild or in the gardens at the end of May. Anecdotally, villagers complain of some going out at first light and snipping stems from village gardens for their stick display.
At mid-morning, the procession follows the oak bough, carried by the Club Chairman, through the village, accompanied to the tunes of a silver band, and sweep their way to the church for a service and hymns. Afterwards, the parade tours the village, stopping of at various stopping points for refreshments of beer and cider, and where the judging of sticks takes place. It is serious business.
In its time, the FHOS acted as a Friendly Society, providing a form of insurance to their members. Members paid a regular subscription and in return, the society trustees paid the member or his family and dependants a small amount of money if they fell upon hard times. This could occur if the member became ill or was unable to work and provide income for his family. In addition, the trustees of the society could make a payment to the widow and dependants upon death of a member. This self-help arrangement was of course very important during times when there was no social security and health service. Of course, that isn’t the case today, where we enjoy a reasonable level of health and wealth.
It was an event the late photographer Derek Evans returned to again and again, captivated by the visual cavalcade. His photos of the walk from the 1950s and 1960s features in a new film examining aspects of Herefordshire life, Carousel. Thanks to his photos, recently unearthed in a new HLF project HLTAL, the walk is experiencing a resurgence of interest. And that is just what the participants want!
So why does this increasingly archaic-looking celebration continue? Is it, to coin a term from the late great Eric Hobsbawn, another example of an invented tradition? There was nothing mocking in his tone in his examination, rather highlighting the importance of at least the perception of continuity with the past. While the Fownhope Heart of Oak Society’s foundations lie very much in the pragmatic sphere, it manages to continue as a point of community and cohesion, and a community’s search for meaning. Long may it continue.
By Marsha O'Mahony