From time to time I collaborate with my friends, artist Hannah Willow and storyteller, Phillip Holmes, to produce workshops celebrating British folklore and legends . Alas, much of this year’s program has been cancelled but previous workshops, held at Avebury and Tintern in Wales, have focused on lore related to corvids and the element of ‘air’. Both included birds as messengers and portents and migratory birds were especially significant, suddenly arriving and leaving later as the year rolls towards winter or summer. Thankfully, many people still watch for these wonders – the ‘first’ swallow, the ‘first housemartins’. ‘They’re back!’ it’s excitedly announced, ‘the swifts have arrived!’. For us at Moon Brook, we listen first for the chiffchaff, her call heralding that spring is really here. And, of course, each year we listen for that most pastoral of sounds, the call of the cuckoo.
When I lived in London, over thirty years ago, I can remember as clear as it was yesterday the day when I suddenly realised I hadn’t heard a cuckoo for years. (I was getting into a car outside my home in West London, I even remember the hat I was wearing!). It felt wrong, something was missing. Over time I moved out to the suburbs and eventually back into the countryside but it was many years before I heard the cuckoo again and then it’s call was brief and distant, like a half memory.
According to the British Trust for Ornithology, the cuckoo, or cuculus canorus, has declined rapidly in the UK by 65% since the 1980’s, and is on the red list. Reasons for it’s decline are not straight forward but include loss of habitat, persecution from shooters along it’s migratory path, and climate change is affecting breeding patterns. The cuckoo is a lovely bird but hard to spot. It’s about the size of a pigeon, similar to a sparrowhawk in flight. They often move around when calling, so with a sharp eye, it can be possible to spot one if you follow the call.
This year we are lucky to have a couple of cuckoos around Moon Brook Cottage, hearing them several times a day and occasionally catching a glimpse as they fly into an old oak. Their presence has provoked forays into cuckoo lore and tradition and memories. For example, during my Warwickshire childhood I was taught this rhyme by my dad and grandma, I am sure many of you were taught similar ones…
The cuckoo comes in April
He sings a song in May
He plays a tune in the middle of June
And then he flies away
In this part of West Shropshire the rhyme goes
The cuckoo sings in April
The cuckoo sings in May
The cuckoo sings at Midsummer
But not upon the day
Mrs Dudley, who lived down the road from here in the early nineteenth-century and a purveyor of local folklore, told the folklorist Charlotte Burne, a local Shropshire saying, ‘if the cuckoo does not cease singing at Midsummer, corn will be dear’. This is, perhaps, an example of weather lore, learnt after many years of observation and a way of measuring time passing and crops growing. Over the border, Wales has similar sayings. Both rhymes note that the cuckoo has concluded it’s business and leaves around midsummer.
Shakespeare correctly gave the hedge sparrow (dunnock) as one of the cuckoo’s main hosts in King Lear:
The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo long,
That it had its head bit off by its youngKing Lear, Act 1. Scene 4.
And the change in the song of the cuckoo during mid summer was noted by playwright, Ben Jonson:
From a fiddle out of tune
As the cuckow is in JuneThe Gypsies Metamorphose 1621
There are so many associations with cuckoos: it’s habit of laying eggs in the nests of other birds gave rise to it’s cry as mocking ‘cuckold husbands’ who would have to bring up other men’s children. In folk songs, a ‘cuckoo’s nest’ sometimes is used to refer to a woman’s genitals! In the sixteenth-century that the cuckoo was referred to as the ‘Welch Ambassador’, maybe after Welsh labourers who came across the Marches in spring time looking for employment.
The cuckoo’s spring arrival sparked a ‘cuckoo day’ in some parts and fairs were held. Traditionally there was a friendly rivalry regarding who first hears the cuckoo, an auspicious moment! One tradition states that whatever you are doing on that first hearing determines what you will do for the rest of the year. And if you are standing on grass, that is good but not so if standing on stones or rocks…. If you have no money in your pocket that’s not good either as you will be poor all year. But, if you do have money in your pocket you should turn it over. My husband Chris, a Shropshire ‘mon’, remembers his grandmother doing this when he was little. How many calls you hear determines how many years before you die, or marry! Some workmen would stop on hearing the first cuckoo and go off for a pint to welcome her; ‘Wetting the Cuckoo’ it was called. The nineteenth century folklorist, Charlotte Burne, wrote that the Shropshire colliers said that the cuckoo ‘must pay his foot-ale’ and would pool together sending out for ale they would drink on the ‘pit bank’ rather than working down it! Imagine…maybe that tradition could be reintroduced into the new post lock down enlightenment era……..?
My favorite tale about the cuckoo is one about how the inhabitants of a town or village build a wall to prevent the cuckoo from leaving in the belief that summer would never end if they could keep her with them! Examples may be found in Cumbria, Shropshire and Leicestershire but it is the Gotham tale from Nottinghamshire that is most interesting:
It is told that the Wise Men of Gotham, a village in Nottinghamshire, built a fence to keep in a cuckoo so that summer would never end. They also tried to drown an eel, burn down a house to get rid of a wasp’s nest and roll their cheeses down a hill to find their own way to market! This type of story comes from a widespread international motif regarding ‘tales of fools’. In folklore it has led to certain villages being ridiculed for being foolish. Very much like the ‘Moonrakers’ story down in Wiltshire. But, perhaps not so because there is an older version that suggests the villagers were more cunning than that:
King John once visited Gotham back in the thirteenth-century but the villagers refused his entourage access over their meadows. He was furious but when his servants went to meter out punishment they found the locals engrossed in the above activities, building a fence to keep the cuckoo from flying, burning a house to get rid of a wasp’s nest, drowning an eel in a tub of water, and condemned Gotham as a ‘village of fools’ and so left them alone. Much like the Wiltshire Moonrakers who escaped the Excise men when they were caught trying to retrieve contraband (barrels of brandy) from a pond by saying they were raking for bits of cheese (the moon reflected in the water) and so escaped persecution. Not so foolish!
So the cuckoo. That most English of birds, tied up with our history and folklore for hundreds of years and continuing to make it’s extraordinary journey to and from Africa, over savanna, desert, mountain and sea, to set up a temporary home amongst the ash, oak and thorn of the British countryside, contributing to a richness in song and story that continues today….long may they continue to do so against the odds…
Sumer is icumen in
Loude sing cuckou
roweth seed and bloweth meed
And springeth the wode now
Sing cuckowMid 13th century
Cuckoo song, Middle English.