No need to travel far if you are looking for something quirky in the best of British traditions this weekend. June 2nd (the closest Saturday to Oak Apple day) marks the annual Heart of Oak Society Club Walk in Fownhope. Prepare to see a parade (until recent years it was exclusively men) where participants have been up from dawn ‘dressing’ sticks! That’s right, grown-up decorated sticks with flowers and foilage, often handed down through the generations, in preparation for the attention-grabbing parade through the village. It’s a spectacle that’s dying out in other parts of the country, but continues to thrive in this riverside village. It appealed to the late photographer Derek Evans too and Catcher Media will be on hand over the weekend to record and re-imagine contemporary versions of his many club walk photos for their Herefordshire Life Through a Lens project.
This seemingly whimsical event is firmly rooted in a pragmatic movement, the Friendly Society. Not so common in this modern age, but once common throughout the country, they acted as much-needed associations for rural workers, often in agriculture. In return for a modest subscription, members would receive a return if they fell upon hard times. Before the merciful advent of the Welfare State, a ‘safety net’ offered by the Friendly Society was sorely needed and welcomed by these workers of the land.
Fownhope’s Heart of Oak Society dates back to the very early 1800s, though few similar groups survive today. It was common for the societies to have an annual celebration, providing a much-needed holiday for the group. In Fownhope on June 2ndat first light, no matter the weather, a band from the Society will venture out into local woods in the countryside surrounding the village, in search of a bough of oak. It is the same act every year, year in, year out, but all conducted with the same veneration.
Nearly two hundred years after its formation, members still carry sticks garlanded with flowers and greenery. They are a picture to behold. Some of the sticks are lovingly passed down through the generations, decorated with freshly-cut flowers on the morning of the walk. Stories of ‘plant war fare’ as members sneakily cut flowers from neighbours’ gardens remain, thus far, apocryphal. An amateur anthropologist might describe the ‘dressing of the stick’ as highly ritualised, with styles and methods being passed down through the years and through family lines, discussed in hushed whispers. It’s a serious business, and so it should be. Holding onto a micro-local tradition in the face of global homogeneity is a feat all in itself. We should be celebrating its longevity.
The walk begins at the village pub, The New Inn, and then it meanders, with the Society Banner at the head of the parade, to the Church with a thanksgiving service, all the time accompanied by a band. Refreshments are laid on at stopping-off points around the village and later there are prizes for the best decorated sticks. Following the walk, sports are organised and a hog roast.
The whole event is particularly photogenic. It’s easy to see why Derek Evans returned to it again and again to create his photographic record. As usual, he captures the colour and verdancy of the event, but it is the people, those amazing craggy expressions and the silken complexions of youth, that draw the eye.
If you are yet to experience this quintessentially British day out, then come along to Fownhope on June 2nd and meet at The New Inn at 10am. Bring your camera, or just sit back, observe and enjoy.