A black poplar tree stands beside a little stream in the Shropshire village of Aston-on-Clun. Amongst its boughs bright flags are fluttering in the breeze. Today is Arbor Day, an old tree-dressing tradition when the flags are renewed and the community celebrates their tree. How this tradition came about and for how long is open to question and one I wanted to find out more about.
May 29 is also Oak Apple Day, the day in 1660 when Charles II made his victorious return back to London marking the end of his exile. It also marked the end of the English Republic created by the Civil War. Parliament ordered that this day be commemorated by bell ringing, church services, and bonfires. People wore oak leaves in homage to Charles hiding in the Boscobel oak tree after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Sprigs were worn in hats, horses harnesses and all manner of buildings were decorated with boughs of oak. Failure to wear a sprig of oak leaves could result in being flayed with nettles, pelted with eggs or being pinched on the bum!
In 2018 the Shropshire Star wrote that Aston-on-Clun had another reason to celebrate Oak Apple Day: during the Civil War the local vicar had been arrested and released to the village a couple of months after Charles’ return to the throne.
In 1786 the local squire, John Marston, got married on the 29th May, the day of the tree-dressing. The story goes they removed the from the bridal carriage at the parish boundary and replaced them with a group of men to pull the carriage home ( I would love to know the origin of that tradition, anyone?). The wedding party came across the Arbor Tree dressed in colourful flags and the bride, Mary Carter, was so enchanted she gave money to ensure it’s annual repetition in perpetuity. And so it continued until her estate was sold in 1951 after which Hopesay council took over the funding.1 There are few references to the Arbor tree after that though Augustus Hare does mention the Arbor Tree in his 1889 book about Shropshire. He wrote about Aston-on-Clun
Here, where five roads meet, stands a poplar, decorated on the 29th May with flags, which remain till the following year. This is to commemorate a bequest to the poor of the parish from a lady who resided at Aston House.2
In the 1950s local brides were given each a cutting from the tree to plant. By now Arbor Day was quite an occasion; there was a village fete, a pageant and a tree blessing by the vicar. The media began to report on the ‘heathen origins’ of the ceremony when ‘enthusiasts’ linked it to early pagan ritual. As a result people started to distance themselves from it and the tree cuttings stopped. One local woman told the writer George Haines she had felt something was missing from her wedding when she did not receive a cutting.
The belief in a pagan origin for the ceremony seems to have persisted. Haines wrote in his 1970 book on Shropshire villages that the tree was called ‘Brides Tree’ and was a relic of ‘Celtic’ tree dressing. It is more likely that the name referred to Mary Carter, the bride who paid for the continuation of the tree dressing.
Thankfully there was a revival in the fortunes of Arbor Day and the village fete picked up again with morris teams, the pageant and maypole dancing making a happy return to the village on the 29th May. In later times children dressed in period dress in commemoration of the Marston’s on their wedding day. A ‘bride and groom’ was chosen and processioned to the Arbor Tree where the ‘Arbor Tree song’ was sung by everyone under the boughs of the tree.
In September 1995, after five hundred years of gracing the ever running stream, the old tree collapsed. Thankfully it was replaced by one of its saplings and has rapidly grown into a very fine tree. The tradition continues as the only remaining tress dressing ceremony left in England.
This year there was no procession of children, no bride nor groom and no Arbor Tree song sung under the chattering boughs of the poplar by the stream. Much has changed in the 21st century. We live in a rapidly changing society which often looks elsewhere for entertainment; TV and social media are instrumental in how many of us relate and communicate with the world and each other. Covid 19 and subsequent lockdowns impacted dramatically upon individuals and communities that have yet to recover.
Yet under the Arbor Tree all was not forgotten. The small crowd was handsomely entertained by Bygonz, two period musicians wearing vibrant sprigs of oaks reminding us of past times who set cold feet tapping to old tunes under the green leaves by the little stream in Aston-on-Clun.
The tender and heartfelt blessing of the Arbor Tree by the new vicar earlier in the day resonated in empathy with beliefs, old and new. She stressed the importance to care for each other and all trees before the straggle of supporters made their way to the playing fields in the cool Marches wind to make valiant efforts in supporting the fete with its very fine steam organ, a coconut shie, Victoria sponges and a ukulele band.
For me the highlight was meeting an elderly man who had been born in the village 74 years ago. He was disappointed not to hear the Arbor Tree song but sang it anyway for me, standing under the tree next to the little stream near the main road to Clun. He gave me a cheery wave later from his picnic chair on the grass as the steam organ belted out the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ theme tune. It seems to me every there is hope that the Arbor Tree will once again have its full day of celebration.
1 In Palmer, The Folklore of Shropshire p. 46. The estate was sold in 1949.
2. Augustus Hare, Shropshire, 1898. p. 60. Hare is not always known for his accuracy and I think the story about the Marstons wanting to preserve the tradition is more likely.