Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Damson Day

Saturday April 17th was Damson Day at Low Farm in the Lyth Valley near Kendal. The main point of Damson Day is to see the damson orchards in bloom but this year we were doomed to disappointment as the blossom is running two weeks later than normal and there was no sign of it at all. I looked on the internet for images of damson orchards and I hope the member of Keswick Rambling Club who took the above photograph last year will forgive me for using it:) Clicking here will take you to their site where there are some lovely photographs of the Lyth Valley. As ever, if you click on the photos in this post you can enlarge them and see them more clearly.

Damsons were originally grown in the area around Damascus in Syria and were brought to England by the Crusaders so they have been growing here for a very long time. There have been damson orchards in the Lyth Valley since the 1800s and the fruit was not only used in cooking but the skins were used to produce a purple dye.
They have a very tart flavour so aren't really suitable to eat uncooked but are perfect for the beginner at jam making as they are stuffed full of natural pectin and the jam sets easily. Damsons can be used in all kinds of pies and puddings, to make damson cheese, chutneys and wine and damson gin is just as good as sloe gin!
Unfortunately their popularity waned after WW2 and the orchards became neglected until a group of people decided to try and do something about it and formed The Westmorland Damson Association 1996. (The Lake District was in in the old county of Westmorland before the stupid politicians changed the old county boundaries and many of the old county names in 1974 - I have never forgiven them for that!)

The first Damson Day was held in 1998 and it is now a very popular annual event - more popular than we expected in fact! We arrived early and got a good parking spot at the top of the field quite near the entrance but by early afternoon there were hundreds of cars on this field. Mr B Baggins was with us of course and was looking as miserable as he always does on long car rides but when we opened the door and he jumped out I think he was under the impression that he'd suddenly arrived in paradise. The field smelled of sheep - in the world of Bilbo Baggins this qualifies as a 5 star environment! He cheered up immediately and things kept getting better.

As soon as we got through the entrance gate he met these alpacas and thought they were wonderful, his tail wagged furiously and he wanted to get an even closer look. These young males were all for sale and he suggested that we might like to get him a couple:)

He was even more impressed with the ferrets and kept wanting to go back to the enclosure where they were being displayed. It was made clear that he feels I should keep several of them. I wouldn't take much persuading actually, I've always liked ferrets.

There was plenty for two legged visitors to enjoy as well, the craftspeople here were real craftspeople like this young man using a pole lathe.

The high spot of the day for me was meeting Owen Jones who makes oak swill baskets, he appeared in an episode of The Victorian Farm series on BBC and I've wanted one of his baskets ever since. Until very recently he was the last remaining oak swill basket maker but he has now started teaching his craft to other people so hopefully it will be no longer be in danger of becoming another of our lost skills. I spent quite a while talking to him and he was very pleasant and informative. DH had disappeared temporarily and I wanted to look at the baskets more closely so Owen suggested that I loop B Baggins' lead round the leg of his bench so that my hands would be free. He settled down as though he'd known Owen all his life! And I never even thought to take a photo!!

This is the basket that finally came home with me. These are traditional Lake District baskets made by weaving thin strips of coppiced oak around a hazel rim. They had a wide range of uses from industrial to domestic but I like the association with farming where they were used for broadcast sowing, harvesting root crops and for feeding animals. Mine will be used as a weeding basket.

As you can imagine the damson featured heavily on various stalls and you could buy everything damson that you can think of from jam to gin to ice cream and you could buy your own little damson tree to take home if you wanted. I bought this recipe book which 60 pages of things you can make with damsons! In late September I shall go back and buy a good quantity of fruit and try some of the recipes out.

Dry stone walls are a feature of the Lakeland countryside as they are in Derbyshire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. It's another of the old rural skills that was in danger of being lost but is now enjoying a resurgence.

The domestic crafts were well represented, on this small stand you could watch this lady making a rag rug and there were others demonstrating spinning, knitting and traditional English patchwork made using paper templates. This reminded me that I have a half made doll's patchwork quilt begun when my daughter was a little girl - perhaps it's about time I finished it while my granddaughters are still young enough to appreciate it!

Another hit with B Baggins - I'm not sure of the breed but I do know that Jacob sheep often have two sets of horns so that may be what this handsome chap is.

There was plenty of entertainment to be had as well, this is an excellent folk group called Stooshie.

Morris Dancing is traditional English folk dancing that goes back to at least the 1400s. By the end of the 19th century it had all but died out except for a few 'sides' which survived here and there. At Christmas 1899 a music teacher called Cecil Sharp happened to see a Morris group performing in the Oxfordshire village of Headington, he was interested enough to write down the tunes and he began to travel the country collecting and recording the various dances and the tunes that went with them. He founded the English Folk Dance Society in 1911 and Morris Dancing gradually grew in popularity again. There was a long period after WW2 when most people regarded it as a bit of a joke but in recent years it has become popular once more and Morris Dancers can now be seen performing in towns and villages all over England during the Spring and Summer.

The Lakeland Fiddlers provided yet more music, all good traditional stuff and just right for the rural surroundings.

A little memento of a great day out, this little sheep was handmade using a black pipecleaner as a base to stitch the shape on. The lady who makes them has both skill and patience! Bilbo Baggins had a wonderful day and has asked if we can go again next year!


Elizabeth Rhiannon said...

What a wonderful day! I can see why you fell in love with the swill baskets, they're beautiful in their simplicity. I also love the fact that these craftsmen (and women!) are passing down their skills and keeping the old ways alive! Thank goodness for Cecil Sharp...and the ferret was pretty cute, too ;) Thanks for taking me along! Oh, and can't wait to see what Damson treats you create with that book :)

Thimbleanna said...

Awwww, poor little Mr B Baggins -- his mum wouldn't buy him an alpaca for a playmate! It looks like you had a fabulous day out -- thanks for sharing it and all the information with us!

Mac n' Janet said...

What a wonderful day you had! I envy you the basket! Hopefully the skill to make them will live on.

MurmuringWheel said...

The sheep looks like a Hebridean to me, the sheep shearer in the family agrees.

I notice you are keeping very quiet about your spinning skills, little do you know that I have photographs!

Rowan said...

Ah, I was hoping that someone would actually know what breed that ram is!
As for the spinning - skill isn't the first word that springs to mind when I think of my attempts at it:)

Lynda (Granny K) said...

We nearly went but decided it was a bit too chilly for us (and the damson blossom)!

We went 2 years ago (I think) and have a small damson tree that I bought there. She is doing well, but has yet to have a flower on!

I too have one of Owen's swill baskets, because it is so beautiful! It holds patchwork fabric. I bought it at the Holker Hall Garden Festival, which is held around Whitsuntide. It's fascinating to watch him work isn't it?

PAT said...

This is something J and I would have enjoyed. I have several oak split baskets, handmade in the Ozarks. I also have a couple of them that are over 100 years old and still very sturdy. Someone told me to give them a bath periodically..supposedly it's good for them and tightens the weave when it is loosened.

J's favorite Jam is Damson. Damsons are hard to find here, these days. We've found the jam at roadside stands, at times. That always makes J very happy!

Hollace said...

I'm so happy to hear about Bilbo Baggins again. It's been a while since I've heard his tales. I imagine he is as glad as the rest of us that Spring has arrived. I can just smell the air at the festival and how it must have picked up his spirits!

I have never heard of damsons but they look like our plums.

I was wondering why they call them "Swill baskets"? Surely they didn't feed the animals out of them?
Thanks for the reports of new and old in your corner. Changing the county names--why do they do things like that?

SouthernHeart said...

Another wonderful day with more great pictures! Thank you! If I, no make that when I someday get to England I'd love to see some of these places in person. In the meantime, this is very nice. That looked like a very large ferret!

Diane said...

That sounds like my kind of day out!! I love the basket Rowan.

Bovey Belle said...

My sort of day out too! The swill basket is lovely and I'd love to learn how to make one. My poor Damson tree is a mass of blossom at present (most ever) but it is in the middle of the scaffolding, so I hope that it doesn't get too damaged/loose too many fruits when the scaffolding comes down.

There was lots going on there to see - hope the blossom is out for you next time you go.

Sandies' Patch said...

What a lovely day out, I would have loved to have had a go at making the basket.
I am fortunate to live on an old estate that was once the site of an old 'Industrial School'. It is planted up the the main drive from the village road with damsons,plums and a few cherry trees. You can imagine the rush to pick the cherries before the birds get them! There is also a lovely little yellow plum I think is called 'Mirabelle', it has the most deliscious taste and aroma of slight vanilla when cooked, makes a lovely puree or smooth jam that goes well with ice cream.
I have some damsons in the freezer from last year, I must cook them soon.

Sandie xx

Rosie said...

What a wonderful day out - I'd have loved it! Your basket is wonderful - I've heard that the Victorian Farm team are making an Edwardian farm series - I do hope so. Damsons are such a versatile fruit I'm glad they are celebrated in this way - another tale I've read somewhere is that their juice was used for dyeing uniforms for soldiers in WW1 - don't know if this is true - I must find out about it:)

Morning's Minion said...

So many of us rejoice that old crafts and skills are being revived. I have found my g-g grandparents listed in a small upstate NY hamlet in the 1850 census. They were "basketmakers" newly arrived from England. I wish I knew more about them.
I would have enjoyed the fiddlers and the Morris Dancers--wouldn't have wanted to get too near the ram and possibly antagonize him. Like Bilbo Bagggins I don't like long journies, but it seems that you had a grand day out.