THE GLASTONBURY HOLYTHORN

 

Hawthorn and blackthorn are two of our most welcome and useful plants. Hawthorn is the chief element in most of our hedges and can be made a impenetrable as razor wire. Blackthorn, too, only more so. Hawthorn has the advantage that it can grow into a fine tree, and frequently does. Then, if in a field with cattle, the animals will rub against it until the bole glows with a dim red. Wood from a tree like this is unbeatable for the fire or stove, if well matured after cutting.

Both have odd mystical qualities attributed to them. The lone thorn tree in the middle of a field will be carefully ploughed around. Many decades ago Estyn Evans noted that "the cult is at least as strong in the Protestant north east as in other part of the country". He was writing this in Queen's University, Belfast; under the window stood a "venerable thorn, pink flowering and casting its shadow into the Senate Room of the University. But no one will remove it or even lop its branches and the story goes that when the buildings were being erected the plans had to be changed in order that the thorn should not be interfered with. If a lone tree surrounded by half a dozen scientific departments has claimed such respect, it can be imagined in what awe country thorns are held!"

Never mind the country thorns. About forty years ago Trinity College, Dublin, felled a series of noble pink hawthorns to make a tennis court. A cruel loss. Thorn trees often stood over a holy well. There is, then, the famous Christmas flowering thorn of Glastonbury in Somerset, which flowers at Christmas as well as in the Spring. You will have heard various stories about it. How Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain with eleven disciples between AD 30 and 63, travelled to Glastonbury and thrust his staff into the ground, where it took root and became the original Christmas flowering thorn.

And a variant of the story, according to Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica, is that the tree sprang from a fragment of Christ's Crown of Thorns, brought there by the same Joseph. The official designation of the tree is crataegus monogyna Biflora, a sport or abnormal derivation of the ordinary hawthorn. The Puritans hacked the original one down, but cuttings had already been taken and grew in various parts of England.

After our 1973 entry to what was EEC, hedges were ripped out and bonfires sent up huge pillars of smoke. Here and there, wire and stake fences are creep ing back, and thornquicks cost £45 per hundred.